The Magazine

China Doll

Madame Chiang and her times.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
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By 1949, the Communists had taken Beijing and proclaimed the People's Republic of China; the Chiangs fled to Taiwan, where they established a quasi-dictatorship and continued to claim that they were the rightful leaders of China. As their hopes for regaining power faded, Madame became more rigid and uncompromising in her beliefs; she also became more outspokenly critical of Western governments for failing to stand up to the Chinese Communists. By the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon visited Beijing, the Chiangs' hopes for a restoration of a Nationalist government in China were permanently dashed. The generalissimo died in 1975.

Madame Chiang Kai-Shek spent her final years in New York in a palatial Upper East Side apartment she regularly described as "modest." A bevy of loyal retainers insulated her from the outside world, ferrying her to shopping trips at Saks Fifth Avenue or shows at Radio City Music Hall. Madame's lavish lifestyle, Li suggests persuasively, was funded in large part by money gleaned from Nationalist-controlled government accounts and decades of business cronyism. In her twilight years she was a living anachronism, feminism and communism having undermined her particular style of faux-naif politics.

Li, who is fluent in Mandarin and spent many years as a journalist in Asia, writes with clarity and insight about China's complicated political history. She exercises considerable restraint when judging Madame's motives, but in an astute assessment in the epilogue, she outlines the paradoxes of her personality: the decadence of her lifestyle compared with the extreme poverty of her countrymen; the outlandish sense of entitlement; the scheming, selfish narcissism that undermined her image of herself as a devoted, virtuous Christian wife. Li also notes that Madame Chiang was "at least an episodic if not a chronic substance abuser," addicted to sedatives and other medications that she used to treat the cyclical bouts of hives and other nervous ailments that plagued her.

In the end, she excelled at her profession: She was a dutiful wife who spent her life enhancing her husband's repressive and autocratic regime. That she did so in the name of democracy is yet another irony of history.

Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, is the author, most recently, of My Fundamentalist Education.