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Mao's archenemy Chiang Kai-shek part of mainstream

Monday - 8/18/2014, 12:10am  ET

In this July 31, 2014 photo, a spoon with a caricature of deposed Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek is placed near a special dish he used to eat, at Mr. Chiang’s Mainlander Restaurant” in Beijing. Twenty years ago Chiang was an enemy of the people on mainland China. Today, he has become part of mainstream culture, with a grudging acceptance of his role in China’s history and saluted as an anti-Japanese patriot. The spoon reads: "Mr. Chiang." (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) -- Photos of Mao's archenemy Chiang Kai-shek adorn the walls of a Beijing restaurant, and his face looks up at diners from the menu. Online, the deposed Chinese leader's image is used to sell the kinds of lamps and swords he might have used. A liquor brand has patterned its bottle on Chiang's memorial in Taipei.

Twenty years ago, Chiang was considered an enemy of the people on mainland China. Today, he has become part of mainstream culture -- sort of.

There has been a grudging acceptance of Chiang's historical role in fighting against Japan following its invasion in the lead-up to World War II. Chiang later lost to Mao Zedong's Communists in the Chinese civil war and fled in 1949 to Taiwan, where he ruled until his death in 1975.

His revival on the mainland points to how China's Communist Party uses history to make points about present-day politics. Chiang is doubly useful in that sense because China's relations with Taiwan have been warming, while those with Japan are in steep decline.

Chiang's rehabilitation has been "really remarkable to observe from the outside" and likely was undertaken initially as an attempt by China's leaders to tempt Taiwan into reunification by being "a bit more accommodating about their version of history," said Rana Mitter, author of the book "China's War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival."

"Now, of course, Chiang's role as someone who fiercely opposed the Japanese during the war is politically very useful," Mitter said.

Chiang came to power as head of the Chinese Nationalist government in 1928 and much of his rule was spent fighting the Japanese and Mao's Communists. For more than two decades after the Communists took over, many in the West still considered Chiang the face of China.

His shift on the mainland has been noticeable, if unstated. Over the past decade, Chiang's Nationalist soldiers, known as Kuomintang or KMT, have gone from being portrayed in TV dramas as little more than corrupt and greedy characters to evincing patriotism and even courage as they fight the Japanese.

In Mr. Chiang's Mainlander Restaurant in Beijing's central business district, renamed earlier this year, Chiang's face is drawn on the bright yellow cover of a menu and reprints of Chiang photos are pasted on the wall, including one of his wedding day. The 15 yuan ($2.40) specialty rice with stewed diced pork is made from a secret recipe that was shared with the restaurant by the offspring of friends of Chiang's family, said restaurant boss Ren Zuxiang.

Though the photos on the wall can make customers smile, Ren said, many people still don't feel at ease to give an honest assessment of Chiang the way they might about Sun Yat-sen, the founder in 1912 of a constitutional republic in China that put an end to more than 2,000 years of imperial rule.

"When talking about Sun Yat-sen it's no problem, but the political conditions here are not so relaxed as in Taiwan, so someone who didn't know you well wouldn't say they liked Chiang," said Ren. "Not many ordinary people dislike him, though."

The shift on Chiang has not been a complete rehabilitation and is unlikely to become one. It would be hard for the ruling Communist Party to allow public discussion of his fierce anti-communism, for example.

"We haven't seen any official documents carrying very positive comments on Chiang Kai-shek. The most is that Chiang had played some roles in resisting the Japanese aggression," said Chen Hongmin, director of the Center for Chiang Kai-shek and Modern Chinese Studies at Zhejiang University.

Chinese university students who study an introduction to modern Chinese history read a description of Chiang as the "representative of bourgeois or black forces" -- and that hasn't changed much in 60 years, Chen said.

But controls on research into Chiang and his period have loosened on the mainland, Chen said. This, as well as the opening of Chiang archives in Taipei in the late 1990s, has allowed academics to refute the common belief on the mainland that Chiang failed to fully resist the Japanese, Chen said.

"In the past, we used to say that the Communist Party forces dominated the resistance in the occupied areas, but the documents show that Chiang also attached great importance" to this effort, devoting many soldiers to it and ordering the generals on the front line by telegram to fight until death, he said.

Academics have concluded that Chiang's anti-Japanese resistance and his economic development of Taiwan were positive aspects and "it seems that the government doesn't object to those," Chen said, though he warned that changes in Beijing-Taipei relations could affect future academic work on Chiang.

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