History · The Unraveled Teacher

Don’t Confuse Your Students: Call Him Chiang Kai-shek

When teaching world history, the names of historical figures can get really tough for us teachers. Now, if it’s hard for us, imagine what that means for our 15 and 16 year old students. The goal of teaching is to get our students to understand and analyze history, but if our students have a series of teachers that all give different pronunciations or even different names of the same historical figure all together, we end up sending those students into the realm of confusion and frustration. Chinese names can be particularly difficult for anyone who is not familiar with Chinese pronunciation or who doesn’t understand why there can be two or three seemingly different names for one person. Let’s talk about Chiang Kai-shek, the guy who lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao and retreated to Taiwan to where he continued to lead the Republic of China until his death in 1975.

Now, the actual name we decide to use in our classrooms is going to vary depending on where in the world we are and who our students are. As a teacher in the US, Chiang Kai-shek is the name you want to use. Not because it’s necessarily the “correct” name, but it is the name which will appear most frequently in high school accessible readings that refer to the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party. So, if you’re lecturing and call him by Jiang Jieshi (pronounced jee-yang je-yeh-shir), and then you ask your students to work on an independent project about the rise of communism in China under Chairman Mao, they are going to be really confused. The literature they find is most likely going to use the name Chiang Kai-shek. And, in thinking about AP® World History classes specifically, your students already have a ton of Chinese names swirling around in their heads and notes. I can guarantee you will have students that think Chiang Kai-shek and Jiang Jieshi are two different people. I’ve witnessed a particular kind of “shutting down” that even some really great students do when they are inundated with unfamiliar names.

In Western culture, we have an enormously different notion when it comes to the names of people compared to China. We generally are given a name at birth, and that’s our name, it’s pronounced one way, and it doesn’t change during different stages of life. Chiang Kai-shek and Jiang Jieshi are actually the exact same name but the former is the Cantonese pronunciation and the latter is the Mandarin pronunciation. The name itself is written exactly the same: 蔣介石. I spent a lot of time in China and I speak Mandarin and have some basic familiarity with Cantonese, so to me, both Chiang Kai-shek and Jiang Jieshi appear to be (somewhat silly) romanizations of the same name. But, I would never assume my students would be able to just know that (it took me YEARS to start to feel comfortable with Chinese langauge- it is just so fundamentally different than English). Additionally, Chiang Kai-shek wasn’t born with that name. He had a whole series of different names which we won’t get into here because it’s really not important when looking at the Chinese Civil War in the high school world history classroom.

Now, with all of that being said, in an ideal history classroom, we would introduce Chiang Kai-shek by his Chinese name 蔣介石, and then talk about the Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations of those characters. I enjoy bringing a bit of Chinese language into my history classroom because I feel very strongly that China and its history is best understood with at least some knowledge of the correct names for places and people. However, this kind of instruction is simply not possible when we are under the pressure of the racing clock to testing season. For that reason, choosing the name which is most widely used an accepted in the US is the best course of action. Chiang Kai-shek is your best bet if you can’t introduce and explain his many names.

If you do insist on using Jiang Jieshi, please spend a moment learning to pronounce it properly. The “shi” in Mandarin Chinese is not pronounced like the word “she,” but rather like “sure” with an r-sound at the end. You don’t need a perfect Chinese accent, but a little effort towards proper pronunciation is part of our duty as teachers of world history.


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