September 24, 2012, by China Policy Institute
Xikou, Zhejiang and Chiang Kai-shek
Over the summer, I had the good fortune to participate in a conference jointly organised by the History Department at Zhejiang University and the Historical Society for Twentieth Century China. The conference was held in Hangzhou, but for one day, it decanted to the nearby town of Xikou, the birthplace of Chiang Kai-shek. The logic for this was straightforward: many participants were presenting work related to Chiang, and many of China’s leading authorities on the late generalissimo were in attendance.
Xikou, and Zhejiang more generally, has made much of its connections with Chiang Kai-shek. Sites associated with Chiang have been opened to the public, for example, and Zhejiang University is home to the only academic centre in China specifically dedicated to the study of this leader. This reflects an overall trend in the PRC towards rehabilitation of Chiang in the public memory, and his gradual removal from the lists of counterrevolutionaries that were once a stock feature of textbooks.
Those of us who work on Chinese history are accustomed to thinking of Chiang as a ‘Chinese leader’. After all, much of Chiang’s political career – from the Northern Expedition to his years on Taiwan – was dedicated to the pursuit of a unified China. Conversely, Zhejiang does not occur as a major site in the standard narrative of Chiang’s public life, with the cities of Nanjing, Chongqing and Taipei looming far larger.
In Xikou today, however, the story is very different. In the countless restaurants that claim a ‘Chiang family’ provenance or at the museums associated with the Nationalist strongman, visitors are presented with a Chiang they may well not recognise. Here, Chiang is the son of a salt merchant or a leader in temporary repose, in both cases more comfortable speaking in Zhejiang-inflected Chinese rather than ‘standard Mandarin’. Indeed, Chiang seems to have been transformed into part of the Jiangnan cultural landscape, a figure who is far more domestic and genteel than even the makers of Chiang’s own personality cult would once have had us believe.
To be sure, much of what is happening in Xikou is inspired by the well-documented development of Mao-focused tourism in Shaoshan, and one could be forgiven for dismissing it all as rather ‘tacky’. However, I would suggest that there is something well worth considering in this ‘provincial’ approach. If one can see beyond the clichéd (though not completely inaccurate) image of Jiangnan – a land of silk, magnolias and learned gentlemen – that has emerged in Xikou, then one can also be reminded of the importance of provincial, ‘native place’ and kinship ties in the making of a leader such as Chiang, as well as the fact that the Republican past can be viewed from a variety of angles, the ‘national’ being only one of these.
To think about Chiang as a ‘Zhejiangren’, rather than simply a Chinese figure does not necessarily contradict the very public attempts to reinvent Chiang’s legacy. It does, however, muddy the waters. For instance, insofar as many (though by no means all) sites associated with ‘red tourism’, most noticeably Yan’an, tend to be located in the north of the country, the local Jiangnan celebration of Chiang appears, if anything, to be stressing a north-south cleavage that was once recognised as a major factor in the Chinese civil war (1945-9), but which has since been downplayed by both ‘sides’ in that conflict. And if, as seems to be the consensus in the PRC today, Chiang’s primary contribution to modern China was his prosecution of the war against Japan from Sichuan, then how does one work a region that was so thoroughly controlled by the Wang Jingwei collaborationist regime – more so than any other part of China during the war years – into such a narrative?
For the time being, however, Xikou remains an interesting exercise in mixing domestic tourism with both national and local histories – and in the questions it raises, it remains a site well worth visiting.
Jeremy Taylor is an Associate Professor in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham
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