The Magazine

China Doll

Madame Chiang and her times.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
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Madame Chiang Kai-Shek

China's Eternal First Lady

by Laura Tyson Li

Atlantic Monthly, 576 pp., $30

An intelligent and outspoken young woman enrolls at Wellesley College, where she impresses her classmates with her ambition and annoys a few with her outsized sense of entitlement. After graduation, she marries a rising political figure who eventually becomes a national leader. She, too, is soon wielding power behind the scenes, and eventually her husband puts her in charge of a new national program, making her a more visible public figure but also a target for critics who resent her unaccountability when the program proves an embarrassing failure. Beloved by some and reviled by others, she always insists that her goal is to promote democracy, even though she is also clearly perfecting the art of promoting herself. When her husband's embattled tenure comes to an end, she quickly reinvents herself as a political figure in her own right.

This is not the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is that of Mayling Soong, better known by her married name, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Powerful women are often unlucky in their biographers, but in her engaging book, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek: China's Eternal First Lady, Laura Tyson Li ably describes the life of this indomitable little woman who "was a seamless alloy of Southern belle, New England bluestocking, and Chinese tai-tai, or matron." Born in 1897, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek died in comfortable exile in New York at the age of 105, having witnessed two world wars and countless years of civil strife in her Chinese homeland.

Although she has been called "China's Eternal First Lady," in many ways Mayling Soong's life was more Western than Eastern. Her father, Charles Soong, spent many years in the United States and studied theology at Vanderbilt. A convert to Christianity and enthusiastic singer, he taught his children hymns as well as Stephen Foster ballads and the popular minstrel tune, "I Wish I Was in Dixie." The family even tooled around Shanghai in a Buick. In the 1890s, as a prospering businessman, Charles became close to Sun Yat-sen, and was soon avidly promoting Sun's "Three Principles of the People," which Sun claimed was inspired by the Gettysburg Address. Soong also helped finance Sun's revolution.

As Li notes, the Soongs were "an anomaly" in Shanghai in that "they treated their daughters and sons the same" and insisted on educating all of their children. Mayling and her sisters attended schools run by Christian missionaries in Shanghai. Of the larger missionary impulse to China, Li writes, a touch hyperbolically, "With a zeal befitting the original Crusaders, the dream of bringing China into the fold of Christendom became an American crusade that amounted to cultural and spiritual aggression." Yet it was the dedication of these missionaries that enabled Mayling to become proficient in English and to receive an education when her less fortunate female peers were having their feet bound and their fates determined by their more traditional families.

When she reached adolescence, Mayling's parents sent her and her older sister, Ching Ling, to the United States, where they attended the Wesleyan school in Macon, Georgia. Mayling then moved on to Wellesley where, in 1913, she began her freshman year. Li notes that Mayling was unimpressed with the Wellesley campus and told the registrar, in a breezy Southern accent, "Well, I reckon I shan't stay 'round here much longer." By the time she graduated in 1917, however, Mayling felt so at ease in America that, she told a friend, "The only thing oriental about me is my face."

The Soong sisters were an earlier, Chinese version of the fabled Mitford girls in England. As Li describes, "her eldest sister, Eling, the Chinese said, loved money; middle sister Ching Ling loved China; and Mayling, the youngest, loved power." Ching Ling, with whom Mayling was intensely competitive, shocked her family by running off to marry her father's friend Sun Yat-sen in 1915; Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, making Ching Ling a revered revolutionary widow and, eventually, an uncompromising critic of her sister Mayling.