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.

After returning to her family in Shanghai, Mayling also embarked on the search for a suitable mate. "The profession of marriage is the one most important profession for every woman," Mayling wrote, "and one not to be subordinated by any other profession or inspiration." By 1926, she was being courted by Chiang Kai-Shek, a protégé of Sun's, who had recently gained control of Sun's Nationalist (Kuomintang) party and begun referring to himself as Generalissimo. As a youth, Chiang was "emotionally unstable," Li notes, and as an adult continued to display a "fiery temper." He also seemed unconcerned about the propriety of courting Mayling while still married to his second wife, Jennie Chen, whom he hustled off to San Francisco and later claimed was merely one of his recently released concubines.

Mayling and Chiang were married in 1927. In a preview of the promotional skills for which Mayling would soon become well known, she arranged for a film of the wedding to be made and shown in theaters across China. When news of the marriage reached Jennie Chen in New York City, she tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide by hurling herself into the Hudson River.

It is telling that Mayling described marriage as a profession: She viewed her own as one, and she found in Chiang's vision for China an outlet for her own energies. "Here was my opportunity," she wrote. "With my husband, I would work ceaselessly to make China strong." Like many consorts of powerful men, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek ascended through a combination of family money and connections; shrewd and uncompromising personal judgment; and an ongoing ability to influence and control her husband (whom she converted to Christianity not long after their marriage). In public the generalissimo was a parody of uxoriousness; in private, relations between the couple were often prickly. Some historians have speculated that their childless union was also largely platonic.

By the 1930s, Chiang's Kuomintang party was in power but faced escalating challenges to its authority from a growing Communist movement and an aggressive Japan, as well as a barrage of criticism from Ching Ling about the rampant corruption and misguided rule of the Nationalists. Madame's solution, announced in 1934, was the New Life Movement, which Li describes as "a curious East-West ideological fusion of neo-Confucian precepts, thinly disguised New Testament Christianity, YMCA-style social activism, elements of Bushido--the samurai code--and European fascism, along with a generous dose of New England Puritanism." Not surprisingly, the New Life Movement was not a rousing success with the Chinese people, who were displeased to learn that mah-jongg, opium smoking, dancing, and public displays of affection were now forbidden. Li judges the movement a "paternalistic state-sponsored cult" that attempted to "shame [the Chinese people] into modernity," which seems like a fair assessment.

Mayling's presence on the international stage, and her popularity in America, increased significantly in the 1940s, thanks in large part to the puffery of writers like Clare Boothe Luce, who called Madame the "greatest living woman" in an issue of Time in 1942. In 1943, during a lengthy trip to the United States, Mayling became the first Asian (and the second woman) to address Congress. With her usual flair for dramatic presentation, she toddled into the Senate in four-inch high heels, wearing a black Chinese dress lined in red and a sequined turban, which she doffed with a dazzling smile at the beginning of her speech. "Grizzled congressmen were putty in her hands," writes Li.

Others were not so charmed. Winston Churchill deemed the Chiangs "mischievous and ignorant" when they attempted to meddle in colonial affairs in India. And Franklin Roosevelt lost patience with Madame's indefatigable efforts to gain American aid for China's battle with Japan. During one of Mayling's visits to the United States, an American newspaper ran an editorial cartoon that depicted a sultry and aggressive little Madame vamping Uncle Sam, who was desperately trying to guard a large safe.

"Little Sister," as Madame was often called, also had a libidinous side. In 1942, FDR sent his 1940 presidential opponent Wendell Willkie on a goodwill tour with stops in Asia. After meeting Madame Chiang, Willkie declared she was the "most charming woman [he] ever met." The feeling was evidently mutual; Willkie later boasted to friends about his "amorous conquest" of Madame Chiang. Madame's romantic feelings about Willkie were hardly girlish, however: She told a confidant that if Willkie were ever elected president, "then he and I would rule the world. I would rule the Orient and Wendell would rule the Western world."

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.

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