NESTLED in a wood outside the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing is a mansion used as an official residence in the 1930s and 1940s by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader who fled to Taiwan to escape Mao Zedong’s Communist army. After the civil war, Chiang’s name became synonymous with evil in China. No longer. The building (pictured) in what was then China’s capital has become a tourist hotspot. There is no hint that this was the home of Mao’s mortal enemy.
Over the past two decades the Gissimo-as his American allies once irreverently called the dictator, who died in 1975-has morphed in the minds of Communist officials from arch-villain to patriot. His glamorous wife, Soong Mei-ling (“Missimo”), has become something of an idol. The Communist Party is signalling that, for all its misgivings about Chiang, at least he resolutely believed that Taiwan was an integral part of China, even if not of a Communist-ruled one. It wants Taiwan’s current government, which bridles at such a notion, to take note (see Banyan).
When the Communists took over in 1949 they turned the three-storey edifice, with its roof of glazed green tiles and tip-tilted eaves, into a state guesthouse. Its eventual restoration was helped by the chance discovery in an old closet of an architectural plan of the original building. After months of repairs the villa was reopened on October 1st 2013, China’s national day, complete with replicas of the Chiangs’ furniture and a living room restored to Western-style elegance in Soong’s refined taste. Within a year, it had received half a million visitors. Several of Chiang’s former mansions in China have also become tourist sites after similar makeovers.
The residence in Nanjing is usually called Mei-ling’s Palace-a sign that the name of Chiang’s wife (who died in 2003) is fine to use for such purposes but his own is still somewhat sensitive. In the gift shop, however, a cartoon of the beaming couple holding ice lollies is cheerily captioned “The taste of old Nanjing.” On sale is a biography of Chiang which notes that he was one of the four main leaders of the Allied powers during the second world war. The book acknowledges that Chiang helped China become a founding member of the UN. “Until the time of his death, he cherished the sacred ideal that China could be reunified,” it says.
The Communists hope that by playing up this aspect of Chiang they can woo members of his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), who form Taiwan’s main opposition. Some of them, at least, still regard Chiang as a hero. But the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) does not. It blames Chiang for the deaths of thousands of people during the crushing of an anti-KMT uprising in Taiwan in 1947 and for his dictatorial rule thereafter.
When Taiwan began opening its own Chiang villas in the 1990s, the KMT had been ruling the island continuously since the civil war. Chiang remained in favour-the country’s main international airport was still named after him-but even the KMT was beginning to question his brutality. Tourists could tell from the villas’ underground tunnels and menacing sentry posts how worried Chiang had been about uprisings and attempts to assassinate him.
After the DPP came to power in 2000 it began dismantling the Chiang cult. Many statues of the generalissimo were removed; about 100 of them are now dotted round a park next to one of Chiang’s villas in Cihu district in northern Taiwan, where his body lies in a black marble sarcophagus. Several of the mansions have been turned into hotels and art galleries. The airport was renamed in 2006 as Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.
De-Chiangification was suspended during the KMT’s return to power between 2008 and 2016. Now Taiwan’s government is at it again. It says it wants to redesign the majestic Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in the centre of Taipei, the capital. It has not said what this will entail, nor whether it will agree to the demands of many DPP activists that its large bronze statue of a seated Chiang be removed. China would probably be upset were it to be hauled away. In his tomb, the Gissimo would not know which way to turn.