Yang Tianshi on the Chiang Kai-Shek Diaries

Jonathan Benda reports on a talk by the historian Yang Tianshi on Chiang Kai-Shek’s diaries given at Tunghai university in Taiwan. Professor Yang is a very well published and respected historian, and I had a chance to meet him when he was the chairman of the Chinese delegation to the Third International Conference on Wartime China held in Hakone in November, 2006 that brought together Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and North American historians to discuss issues related to the Sino-Japanese war.

According to Benda’s notes on the talk, Professor Yang argues that Chiang’s diaries were primarily written for himself, rather than written with his future legacy in mind.

He said that two key pieces of evidence for this are how much CKS cursed (罵) people close to him, and how much private, even confessional, material is in the diaries. (CKS used to give himself demerits for looking lustily at women.) Prof. Yang argued that CKS would not have wanted this kind of material to be made public…One result of the private nature of Chiang’s diaries, according to Prof. Yang, is that we can learn a lot more about what was really going on in CKS’s head at certain important historical moments, such as the 1926 Zhongshan Warship Incident and the 1936 Xi’an Incident.

I find this quite interesting since I have seen the diaries used in quite a number of places and whenever I have heard them mentioned in presentations, it is usually accompanied by warnings about the care that needs to be taken when using the source.

The first thing thing this makes me wonder is why, if Chiang was concerned about the confessional material and other damaging contents ever becoming public, he did not take better care to destroy what must have amounted to a huge amount of material (if the diaries indeed covered the period 1915-1972)? Surely the great generalissimo must have suspected these diaries would get into the hands of someone following his death and get published? Were there secret orders for them all to be burned that were betrayed following his death? Sounds like there could be a great story here.

Second, given Chiang’s exposure to Christian, Western, and Japanese historical, military, and political traditions and heroes that are filled with the diaries, memoirs, etc. of great leaders – I really find it very difficult to believe that Chiang could have put pen to paper every time he made a diary entry and not ever have imagined his words were speaking to an audience larger than one. Although I haven’t come across it myself, I suspect there is a whole theoretical literature among historians and literary scholars on the topic of diaries, their authors, and their conscious or unconscious audience.

I would venture to suggest that it is really difficult for an author, writing something like a diary – or a weblog, for that matter, to maintain a consistent audience in mind across a large span of time. Let me give a few examples. I have a public personal weblog that mixes postings about my own life with my thoughts on more academic and political topics. When I write, I try to imagine that my own graduate advisor or a future hiring committee is reading every posting (I honestly hope they don’t and won’t). The idea is that this way I don’t write anything that would be inappropriate for the widest possible audience. This is the reverse of what Professor Yang is arguing. However, going back over my entries, I notice that over the past few years, I see numerous postings where I slip, where I can tell that I was writing a posting which had a much smaller audience in mind – and though not too embarrassing, is probably not the kind of thing I would written if I really was imagining that hiring committee or advisor reading it.

Isn’t the opposite quite common too? Maybe I’m on my own here, but I don’t think I have ever been able to write a diary entry in my life where the thought hasn’t occasionally crossed my mind: won’t someone else someday somewhere possibly see what I wrote? Are there really people out there, especially ambitious military and political leaders, who are so confident that they are the one eternal and only audience for their writing? I suspect that at the very least, CKS suffered from the kinds of “lapses” that I mentioned above – a kind of “audience” slippage in his writing.

Finally, as a historian, we must confront the issue of what it means to know what is “in someone’s head.” The issue of diary audience notwithstanding, the actions, intentions, and opinions of someone like CKS caught in the Xi’an Incident, for example, inevitably goes through a form of translation as he puts his thoughts to paper. Diaries are not written thoughts, they are narrated thoughts. While what is put on paper in this manner does not lose historical value – we might want to be careful in how to articulate what it is that we have found. I didn’t hear Professor Yang’s talk or how exactly he expressed these ideas but it sounds like it was a fascinating discussion of an important historical source. I’m curious what others have to say about some of these issues surrounding the diaries of leaders like CKS?

UPDATE: Jonathan records another interesting comment by Professor Yang: “One last thing that Prof. Yang mentioned–he said that Chiang’s status has risen in China from that of a devil (鬼) to a human (人), while in Taiwan, coincidentally, it seems his status has gone from god to human. (No one commented on the immediate political conditions that might be responsible for that coincidence.)” On this point, Sayaka over at Prison Notebooks has an interesting posting worth checking out.


  1. Thanks for this interesting response to my post! On “what was going on in Chiang’s head”: I’ll have to check my recording of Prof. Yang’s talk–I might be translating too loosely. I agree, however, that there’s a big difference between what’s going on in someone’s head and what they write–even for themselves. “Narrated thoughts” is a good way to put it.

    Prof. Yang also commented that when Chiang was asked about his experience of the Xi’an Incident, he replied something to the effect of “you’ll have to wait to read about it in my diary.” So…

    BTW, up to this point only the diaries before 1945 are currently available for reading, and only in the form of use copies. And, as the Hoover Institution’s website says,

    Given the uninhibited nature of many personal comments in the diaries, family members have chosen to keep some passages private and have thus redacted these from the use copies. Although in most cases the individuals named are deceased, family members wish to protect the feelings of living descendants or other relatives. Recognizing the historical significance of the diaries in their entirety, however, family members have authorized that the redacted passages be released in 2035.

  2. Just to clarify the “what was going on in Chiang’s head” part:

    Yang divided diaries of famous leaders into two types: one that was written for a wider audience to read (and, he argued, was therefore not very useful for historians), and another type, which was primarily intended for the writer’s use (he used the phrase “主要是給自己看”) and one in which historians would be able to glimpse the writer’s “內心世界”. Chiang’s was of the second type, according to Yang.

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