Great minds don’t think alike — or at least the saying is true for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石, 1887-1975) and Hu Shih (胡適, 1891-1962), who is best known as a strong advocate for the modernization of China and the country’s vernacular movement in the last century.
Starting this week, an exhibition, Hu Shih and Chiang Kai-shek: Different Paths Crossing (胡適與蔣介石: 道不同而相為謀), sheds light on the decades-long troubled relationship between the two “stars of the military and civic spheres” in cross-strait history.
Organized by Academia Sinica (中央研究院), Taiwan’s top research institute, the one-room exhibit features Chinese-language manuscripts, official documents and priceless diaries, with brief introductions in English. Some are being shown to the public for the first time.
Among the recently released documents is a manuscript of a speech Hu delivered at his inaugural ceremony as the president of Academia Sinica in 1958 in Taiwan.
In it, Hu boldly rebuts the mission Chiang, the then-president of the Republic of China, envisioned for the institute, which was to “shoulder the responsibility of restoring and promoting the nation’s traditional culture and morality.”
“Our job is in the academic field; we should promote academic (activities),” the former president of Peking University said. Irritated, Chiang described the incident as “impertinent” and referred to Hu in his diary as “a real maniac.”
Huang Ko-wu (黃克武), director of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History, said that the two iconic figures didn’t see eye to eye mainly because they held different political ideals and came from different educational backgrounds.
“Hu believed in a political system based on freedom and democracy. He made his points clear about destroying the party [KMT] to save the nation,” Huang said.
Chiang, on the other hand, believed that the only effective strategy to counter the Communists was through strong leadership, Huang told the Taipei Times.
“Another major difference lay in their attitudes toward Chinese traditional culture and westernization,” he added.
While Chiang prioritized four anchors and eight virtues (四維八德) and sense of propriety, justice, honesty and honor (禮義廉恥), Hu, a graduate of Cornell and Columbia universities, campaigned relentlessly for western values to be imported to China.
Despite being at odds with each other on a personal level, the two still managed to cast aside dislikes in times of national crisis and worked toward a better future for China.
From 1938 to 1942, Hu served as Chiang’s wartime ambassador to Washington. His mission was to secure financial loans during the Second Sino-Japanese War (抗日戰爭), one of the largest Asian wars in the last century.
Probably out of gratitude, after retreating to Taiwan Chiang was said to spare a portion of the royalty from his book, Soviet Russia in China: A Summing up at Seventy (蘇俄在中國), to build a residence in Taipei for Hu. When the literary giant died in 1962, Chiang hailed Hu as a paragon of old virtues and new culture.
Sean Lei (雷祥麟), curator of Hu Shih Memorial Hall (胡適紀念館), said that the exhibition was held with an eye on the present as well as the past.
“A major purpose of the exhibit was to attract people with different political stances and beliefs. They are encouraged to question history and think deeper about the possible meanings and inspirations of the events,” he said.