Caught in a family feud, Stanford University is asking a court to identify who is the true owner of valuable diaries of the former Chinese Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek, on loan to the university.
Stanford's Hoover Institution received the papers -- 51 boxes of material, filled with thousands of pages -- from a Chiang descendant in mainland China. But now other relatives, including some in Taiwan, claim they own the papers.
"Despite our many attempts, we have not been able to resolve the dispute and so are reluctantly turning to the Court for assistance," said Eric Wakin, Director of Stanford's Library and Archives, in a prepared statement. Stanford is asking the court to force the families to resolve the dispute among themselves, and seeks a court order shielding it from being sued for wrongly holding property.
Scholars say the fight reflects the importance of the diaries to both sides -- Taiwan and China -- and is an interesting episode in the delicate history of relations between the two.
The dispute comes as China is embracing its pre-Communist past and achieving its long quest for economic strength.
"Since both sides claim to be the legitimate heirs of republican China, the ownership of the diaries carries the symbolic meaning of legitimacy and identity," said Danke Li, a professor of history at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., and a specialist in modern China.
Chiang is famed for building an army that united China and wrested territory from warlords. But in 1949 Mao Zedong's Communist Party took control.
"Chiang Kai-shek is one of the most important figures in China's 20th-century history. His diaries give insights into his decisions and policies," said China scholar James Carter, professor of history at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia and editor of the journal Twentieth-Century China. "These diaries are a vital resource."
Mainland China and Taiwan have struggled with each other to control China's history for decades, noted Carter.
Hundreds of scholars come to Palo Alto every year to study the diaries, according to Stanford. The dispute is more evidence of their value and illustrates the importance of family relationships in Chinese culture, said Qingwen Dong, a professor of communication at University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Nine years ago, the papers were loaned to Stanford for 50 years by descendant Elizabeth Chiang of Taiwan and Danville, the daughter-in-law of Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek's son. But since then, several grandchildren and other relatives have claimed an interest in the material -- and have given differing instructions for their return.
Each of the family members has a potentially legitimate claim, notes Stanford.
After spending hundreds of hours attempting to resolve the dispute, Stanford is asking the U.S. District Court in San Jose to determine the ownership. The university is represented by the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Saw Pittman.
What is important is that the diaries be published completely and accurately, said Joseph Fewsmith, professor of international relations at Boston University. "And to date that has not happened because of a dispute within the Chiang family."
No matter where the diaries end up, scholarly exchange between Taiwan and China is increasingly common.
But there remains concern about access. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party took millions of pages of documents and archives to Taiwan when it fled to the island following its defeat in the 1945 to 1949 civil war with Mao Zedong's Communists. Some researchers are concerned that China could restrict access to the documents.
"For future historians, as long as the diaries are open to scholars," said Fairfield University's Li, "it does not matter who ultimately ends up with possession."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.