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Statues of Chiang Kai-shek dot a mountainside park in Tashi, northeastern Taiwan.Wally Santana/The Associated Press

For six decades, he was reviled in China as Devil No. 1 and mocked in the West as General Cash-My-Cheque, the man who lost China to the Communists. Few leaders in modern history have been as denigrated as Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist loser of China's civil war and the founder of modern Taiwan.

But history is no longer written only by the winners. Now, 35 years after he died in office, Mr. Chiang's reputation is getting a posthumous makeover, both inside and outside China.

In a Beijing-backed film that was last year's biggest blockbuster here, he's portrayed as a flawed but honourable man who was trying to do what he thought was best for the country. And a new book by Jay Taylor that has just won a major Canadian non-fiction prize argues that Mr. Chiang is actually a modern Chinese hero.

"Today in China there are two different views. Some still insist on the old view that Chiang was very evil and stupid. The other side believes that Chiang and the Nationalists also had many positive points," said Yang Kuisong, a history professor at East China Normal University and an expert on relations between Taiwan and the mainland. "It is not fair to blame Chiang for everything."

As part of last fall's celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Communist victory in 1949, the state-owned China Film Group released The Founding of a Republic, a revisiting of the Communist Revolution and the biggest-budget film ever made in China.

Slickly produced, though packed with standard propaganda canards (Mao Zedong is shown playing with children in a field of flowers), the movie finds its most interesting character in Mr. Chiang, whom veteran actor Zhang Guoli subtly depicts as a well-meaning man led astray by his advisers. The long-time villain of Communist Party propaganda has suddenly gained a heart, a soul and good intentions.

Mr. Chiang was given the name General Cash-My-Cheque by U.S. officials to whom he regularly went for financial aid while fighting the Japanese and Communists. During and after the wars, his regimes were seen as plagued by corruption (though Mr. Taylor's research suggests the generalissimo himself was not on the take).

His rehabilitation comes as relations are rapidly warming between Beijing and Taipei, where the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) was voted back to power in 2008 after an eight-year absence. With the Kuomintang now seen as the most Beijing-friendly of Taiwan's political parties, quarrels over history have been shoved aside in favour of the closer economic and cultural ties that Chinese President Hu Jintao and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou both seek.

More controversial is a new reassessment of Mr. Chiang that argues that although the Nationalist chief lost the war, it was he who laid the foundations for China's current rise, by reuniting the country and by securing for Beijing one of the five permanent, veto-wielding seats on the United Nations Security Council.

Drawing from 56 years of Mr. Chiang's own diaries, in addition to Chinese, American and Russian sources, Mr. Taylor's biography The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China surmises that while Mr. Chiang made some enormous errors - most notably the White Terror campaign of arrests and executions unleashed on his political opponents in Taiwan - his accomplishments outweigh the harm done.

"I came to the conclusion that Chiang did commit crimes against humanity in Taiwan … but on the balance he comes out as having made some remarkable contributions to Chinese history," says Mr. Taylor, a historian and former U.S. government intelligence analyst, who has also written a biography of Mr. Chiang's son and successor to power, Chiang Ching-kuo.

Later this month, Mr. Taylor will be in Toronto to receive the Lionel Gelber Prize for non-fiction books that generate debate on global issues. The jurors said Generalissimo would serve as "an important corrective to another era's intellectual fashion, as China itself is forced to consider the continuing remarkable success of [Taiwan]"

Indeed, in his conclusion, Mr. Taylor says that even though Mr. Chiang lost the war to Mao's Communists, his ideas won the longer struggle to shape China. He argues that the country today's Communist Party presides over is in many respects closer to Mr. Chiang's vision than to Mao's.

"If the Chiangs could see modern Shanghai and Beijing, they might well believe that their long-planned ' counterattack' had succeeded and that their successors had recovered the mainland," Mr. Taylor writes in the conclusion of Generalissimo.

"Truly, it is their vision of modern China, not Mao's, that guides the People's Republic in the 21st century."

Although China is rethinking Mr. Chiang, that last idea is far too revisionist for Mao's heirs. Mr. Taylor's book is being translated into traditional Chinese ahead of its Taiwan publication, but he doesn't expect to see it on Beijing book- shelves any time soon.