Ritual humiliation (review of ‘Chiang Kai-shek’s Politics of Shame’ for Taipei Times)

The following book review appeared in today’s Taipei Times: 

Few historical revisionists can have been as audacious as Grace C. Huang in comparing Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) to Mahatma Gandhi. Yet, not only does Huang attempt the parallel, she makes rather a good case for it.

Previous studies of leadership, Huang writes, have “tended to portray Gandhi as moral, visionary leader and Chiang as a problematic, power hungry one.” While Gandhi’s leadership was “transformative,” Chiang was — at best — a victim of circumstance. More recent scholarship, Huang notes, has attempted to rehabilitate Chiang while highlighting the unsavory aspects of Gandhi’s character.

Rather than any personality trait, though, Huang examines an element of the national identity narratives the leaders attempted to foster, namely the reliance on the motif of shame. In Gandhi’s case, the shame came quite obviously from the British. Huang cites a well-known tale of an assault by a coachman in South Africa as the catalyst for Gandhi’s “journey of ‘avenging’ his personal and the Indian collective humiliation.”

For Chiang, the British also played a role by initiating the “century of humiliation” in the First Opium War. However, it was Japan’s treatment of China, at the tail-end of the “century” that was crucial in forming Chiang’s shame-based philosophy.

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