[HISTORY] Madame Chiang kai-shek
- MADAME CHIANG KAI-SHEK | 1898-2003
Charismatic, Feared Emissary of China's Ancient Regime
By Elaine Woo, Times Staff Writer
To the legions who revered her, Madame Chiang Kai-shek was
the "brains of China," polished, poised and a shining example of the
virtues of an American education.
To the considerable number who learned to fear her, however, she
was "Madame Dictator," ruthless, corrupt and unmoved by the miseries
of the Chinese people.
She was the charismatic wife and emissary of the most powerful man
in pre-Communist China, but history would judge her harshly for
helping to "lose" the country she begged others to save.
On Thursday, the woman who once flirted with Winston Churchill and
parried with Chou En-lai and was the last major political figure
remaining from the World War II era died peacefully in her sleep
at her apartment in New York City. She had turned 105 in March.
Although she lived in one of Manhattan's toniest neighborhoods, she
ended her days in quiet anonymity, forgotten except among a small
group of loyalists from around the world who feted her in New York
City nearly every year on her birthday.
This year, she was too ill to see them. In March, she was
hospitalized for two weeks with flu-like symptoms; according to a
family friend, she never fully recovered.
Despite her frailties, the centenarian who had survived cancer and
other ailments over the last 30 years still scanned the newspapers
and plied the occasional visiting dignitary with Chinese delicacies
and her favorite Hershey's chocolate.
"She was mentally involved in what was going on. She never wanted to
give up," said her friend, Chi Wang, who heads the Chinese section
of the Library of Congress.
Long after the demise of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist general
who set up a government-in-exile on Taiwan after the Communist
victory on the mainland in 1949, Madame Chiang endured first as a
symbol of Nationalist pride and later as one of intransigence.
Despite the Nationalists' flagging fortunes, she never publicly
acknowledged the futility of her husband's dream of a China united
under the Nationalist flag.
On the island of Taiwan, where the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang,
ruled uninterrupted for more than half a century until its defeat in
the 2000 elections, her death dominated newscasts, and the
Nationalist flag was ordered to fly at half-staff for three days.
But Taiwan's flag was not lowered, and reaction on the streets was
muted at best. To younger generations, Madame Chiang was seen as
being "anti-democracy and anti-freedom," according to a political
observer who recalled her husband's repressive regime. To Taiwanese
Vice President Annette Lu, Madame Chiang's death was simply the "end
of a bygone era," the final phase of an often inglorious passage of
modern Chinese history.
Madame Chiang led a remarkable life that overlapped three centuries,
stretching from the last days of imperial China through the
revolutions and bloody conflicts that shaped the nation of today.
She made a triumphal tour of the United States in 1943 that drew
tens of thousands of Americans to rallies and raised millions of
dollars for China at a time of great suffering and turmoil in the
world. As a guest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she became the
first Chinese and second woman to address both houses of Congress.
For decades, she appeared on U.S. lists of the world's most admired
After the death of Gen. Chiang in 1975, she left Taiwan for New York
state but continued to influence Taiwanese politics through the
1990s. Yet she identified profoundly with America, having spent
formative years here decades before she became the regal Madame
"She often said, 'I'm Chinese. I'm also American. I lived here as a
young kid. I owe a lot to Americans,' " Wang said. "Her thinking and
ideas were pretty much American."
Born in 1898, Madame Chiang was a member of what was nearly a ruling
dynasty, the powerful Soong family.
She was one of six children of Han Chiao-shun, a merchant's son who
was known later as Charles Jones Soong. In the 1870s he made his way
to America, where he was educated and trained by Methodists for
missionary work. He returned to his own country in 1886 and made a
fortune printing and peddling Chinese Bibles.
In 1894 he met the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. He helped finance
Sun's overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 and helped him
establish the Chinese republic.
The Soong sons became bankers, the most notable of whom was Tse-ven,
or T.V., who became foreign affairs and finance minister in the
Nationalist government and Gen. Chiang's frequent ambassador.
The Soong daughters extended the family's domination through
marriages so extraordinary that they inspired a saying: "Once upon a
time there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, one
The eldest sister, Ai-ling, married tycoon H. H. Kung, who was once
reputed to be the richest man in the world. Reputed to be a direct
descendant of Confucius, he also became an influential member of
The next sister, Ching-ling, married Sun, the father of the Chinese
republic. Sometimes called the Mother of China, she accused the
Kuomintang of betraying her husband's principles and transferred her
loyalties to the Communists. She eventually rose to a high position
in Mao Tse-tung's China.
Mei-ling, the future Madame Chiang, was the youngest Soong daughter.
Like her sisters, she received her early education at Shanghai's
elite McTyeire High School for Girls. At a time when warlords still
ruled China and women had bound feet, she was allowed to let her
feet grow freely. When she was barely 10 years old, she was sent to
America to further her education.
For the first few years Mei-ling was taught by private tutors in
Macon, Ga., where her English became forever tinged with a Southern
She later joined her sisters for a year at Macon's Wesleyan College.
According to some historians, the Soong sisters were the first
Chinese women to receive an American college education.
In 1914, Mei-ling transferred to Wellesley College in Massachusetts,
where she distinguished herself academically as an English major
with a minor in philosophy and earned a degree in 1917.
After a decade in America, Mei-ling returned to her own country,
feeling so thoroughly Westernized that, she later told a
friend, "the only thing Oriental about me is my face."
To reconnect with her culture, she plunged into studying Chinese
classics. She also worked for the Young Women's Christian Assn. in
Shanghai and sat on a commission to review motion pictures.
She reportedly rejected several wealthy suitors. According to
Sterling Seagrave in his book, "The Soong Dynasty," she claimed
she "would rather be an old maid than just the wife of another
In the early 1920s she met her future husband, then a rising member
of Sun's military staff. After Sun's death in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek
assumed Sun's mantle and tried to marry his widow, Ching-ling.
Rebuffed, he set his sights on Mei-ling.
In the eyes of the devoutly Christian Soongs, however, Chiang was an
unsuitable husband. He was Confucian and, in their eyes, a heathen.
Moreover, he already had a wife, as well as a number of concubines.
His many proposals were turned down until 1927, when the 39-year-old
Chiang went to Tokyo for a brief respite from the frustrations of
Kuomintang politics. He made a side trip to Kobe, where the
matriarch of the Soong family had a home and reluctantly granted him
This time he offered proof of his divorce and promised to dispatch
his concubines. When he also agreed to study the Bible as a prelude
to a religious conversion, the final obstacle dissolved.
On Dec. 1, 1927, Mei-ling married the general in a private Christian
ceremony at the Soong home in Shanghai. A civil ceremony followed in
a majestic hotel ballroom. A week later, Chiang plunged into
planning the conquest of northern China, which was still in the
hands of warlords.
Unlike the other military wives, Madame Chiang abandoned the
comforts of Shanghai to remain by her husband's side in the squalid
city of Nanking, then the Kuomintang capital. She organized
political education schools for children orphaned in Nationalist
battles and helped oversee construction of government buildings.
When the war in the north began, she accompanied her husband on his
campaigns. By 1928, after his army reached Peking and Manchuria
joined forces with the Nationalists, the country seemed unified at
last. The commander of China's vast armies became famous around the
world, as did his beautiful wife.
"Everybody who interviewed the Generalissimo found her with him,
interpreting if need be; she and her husband discussed everything,
from the foreign policy to the Bible, and she began to teach him
English," wrote Emily Hahn, a confidant and biographer of Madame
Chiang's in the 1930s, when Hahn reported on China for the New
There was not a year during the 1930s that the general was not
waging war against the growing ranks of Mao's Communists or the
Japanese, who had renewed their historic aggressions with the
conquest of Manchuria in 1931. During this period of upheaval,
Madame Chiang became the general's voice in the West, giving
interviews and authoring articles and books for American audiences.
"To Americans the effect was dangerously fascinating," Seagrave
wrote in his stinging portrait of the Soongs. "It was as if a brainy
American college girl had taken over China and was providing a
running commentary on what was true and false in the affairs of that
mysterious and complicated nation." In late 1936, on one of the rare
occasions when Madame Chiang was not at the general's side, he was
kidnapped in the former imperial capital of Xian by northern
warlords who wanted him to join forces with the Communists against
Chiang refused to capitulate to the rebels' demands. Eleven days
after his capture, Madame Chiang flew into Xian, accompanied only by
her brother and an advisor. No one has ever recorded in full what
transpired between the general and his kidnappers, who were
consulting Communist leaders notably Chou En-lai during the
entire episode. But two days after Madame Chiang joined his side, he
was released. With the end of the crisis came a truce between the
Nationalists and the Communists, who agreed to fight the Japanese as
one force. Full-scale war against Japan was launched in 1937.
Madame Chiang remained her husband's closest advisor, often
mediating between him and foreigners as China became a theater of
combat in World War II. She sometimes dispensed with her
translator's role and took over when negotiations got tough. The
results were often not in China's favor.
With Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, the American military commander in
China during the war, Madame employed her considerable powers to
wheedle and cajole for American aid. Theodore White, then Time
magazine's correspondent in China, believed that the brittle
relationship between Gens. Chiang and Stilwell was made worse by
One time she asked Stilwell to demand from the United States three
troop divisions, 500 combat airplanes and 5,000 tons a month of
other supplies. If the U.S. did not comply, Madame told him, China
would withdraw from the war.
When Stilwell refused to deliver her ultimatum, Madame Chiang "got
hot ... and started to bawl me out, obviously mad as hell, "
Stilwell wrote in his diary. "She had snapped the whip and the
stooge had not come across."
In late 1942, the Chiangs decided to make their appeal on American
soil, featuring Madame as the emblem of a valiant but beleaguered
"America wanted a symbol of Chinese resistance at pretty dark times
during the war," said Jonathan D. Spence, the eminent China scholar
at Yale University. "Chiang Kai-shek was not at all that kind of
figure he was very aloof, not at all charismatic. Madame Chiang
could project and spoke beautiful English. She was the right person
at the right time to catch the nation's attention."
Her U.S. campaign was officially launched in Washington on Feb. 18,
1943. Photographs from the tour depict a small-boned woman in
exquisitely tailored Chinese gowns, slit high to expose a comely
length of leg. Fashionable in high heels and a gleaming mink coat,
she presented an alluring combination of Asian femininity and
At the Capitol, members of Congress were "captivated ... amazed ...
dizzied" by her "grace, charm and intelligence," according to a
reporter for Life magazine. The thrust of her speech, delivered with
humor and eloquence, was that Japan was a greater threat to the
world than Germany and that the U.S. should generously embrace China
as its ally.
Applause thundered when she declared that the Chinese believed it
better "not to accept failure ignominiously but to risk it
gloriously." At the end, she received an extraordinary four-minute
Before the day was done, congressmen and senators were advocating
that the U.S. send dollars and arms to China. Roosevelt publicly
promised the nation's support at a news conference the next day.
Madame Chiang repeated her performance in New York City, where she
drew a crowd of 20,000 to Madison Square Garden. The public
outpouring continued over the following weeks during visits to
Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.
In Los Angeles, her final stop, 30,000 people packed a rally at the
Hollywood Bowl, where she spoke movingly of finding the blood of
wounded Chinese soldiers on her shoes during visits to the front
As she crossed America she was showered with gifts, large and small.
In New Jersey, a woman sent her a $3 money order with a newspaper
photo of a baby crying on the railroad tracks after an air raid in
Shanghai. The money, the woman wrote, "is from my three daughters
and it is for the little guy on the railroad tracks somewhere in
China." It was one of hundreds of letters that Madame Chiang
received each day from the American public.
"Madame aroused a greater outpouring of admiration and welcome than
anyone since Lindbergh flew the Atlantic," observed historian
Barbara W. Tuchman in her book "Stilwell and the American Experience
Behind the scenes, however, Madame Chiang was quickly wearing out
her welcome. At the White House, where she stayed for two weeks, the
staff experienced the full weight of the imperious Madame. Ignoring
the phone and bells, she summoned servants by clapping her hands.
She brought her own silk sheets from China and required that they be
changed several times a day, even if she went to bed for only 10 or
15 minutes. She was, wrote White House chief butler Alonzo Fields in
a memoir, "a most charming lady to those who did not serve her."
At dinner one evening, Roosevelt asked her what she would do about
the miners' strike called by John L. Lewis. "[W]hen she drew a
finger across her throat," Tuchman wrote, "he threw his head back
and laughed aloud and called across the table to his wife, 'Eleanor,
did you see that?' "
Eleanor Roosevelt would later remark: "She can talk beautifully
about democracy but does not know how to live democracy." The
president called her "hard as steel."
Later that year, at a conference in Cairo, China was accorded "great
power" status grudgingly by Churchill but more vigorously by
Roosevelt, who wanted China's help in holding back the Japanese.
China's welcome by the Western Allies was short-lived, however, as
allegations of U.S. funds and supplies being waylaid by greedy
Nationalist officials reached Washington.
The end of the long years of war in August 1945 found the
Nationalist government weakened by corruption, internal fighting and
rampant inflation, conditions that the Communists lost no time
exploiting. China plunged back into civil war.
Determined to maintain Nationalist control, the Generalissimo again
dispatched Madame Chiang to America. Instructed to plead for $3
billion for the war against the Communists, she left China in late
November 1948. She was never to return.
This time, Washington did not roll out the red carpet. Roosevelt was
dead, and President Harry S. Truman was secretly investigating
reports that millions of dollars in American loans to China had
wound up in bank accounts of Soong family members in the United
States. When Truman finally agreed to see Madame Chiang, he did
not "greet with approval, or even with interest, her suggestions
that America support Chiang openly against the Communists.... It was
the worst rebuff she had encountered in all her life," Hahn wrote in
a 1955 biography of the Generalissimo. In late 1949, as Mao's forces
swept the last Nationalist strongholds, Chiang Kai-shek fled into
exile on Taiwan. Wanted as a war criminal, along with his wife, by
the Communists, he established what he maintained would be a
temporary residence in Taipei pending the Nationalists' reconquest
of the mainland.
In early 1950, after an extended U.S. stay following her dismal
reception by Truman, Madame Chiang joined her husband on the island
and resumed a prominent role. "She was the official liaison to the
American hierarchy in Taiwan, including the CIA," said Jay Taylor, a
historian and expert on the Chiangs who served as a U.S. Embassy
officer in Taiwan in the 1960s.
She made several more trips to the U.S., where conservatives
embraced her as an anti-communist spokeswoman. On Taiwan, President
Chiang imposed martial law and squelched dissent with violence.
Although he later sponsored limited democratic reforms and laid the
basis for a flourishing economy, his stature on the world stage was
In 1971, the United Nations recognized the People's Republic as the
sole legitimate government of China. Most major nations followed
suit the next year. The United States finally severed diplomatic
ties with Taiwan in 1979.
Madame Chiang gradually receded from view as Chiang Ching-kuo, the
general's son from a previous marriage, assumed more authority. When
the Generalissimo died at 87 just before midnight on April 5, 1975,
she was by his side. He was described in obituaries around the world
as the man who lost China by tolerating corruption and incompetence
on a grand scale.
After Ching-kuo succeeded him as president, Madame Chiang left
Taiwan for New York.
She periodically reinserted herself in Kuomintang politics, most
notably in 1988 when Ching-kuo died, leaving a vacancy in the
The party's standing committee recommended that Lee Teng-hui, a
native Taiwanese, be appointed acting chairman. But Madame Chiang
wrote to the committee urging that the party opt for a collective
leadership until its next congress, six months away. Her
intervention caused a political crisis that delayed a decision on
the chairmanship for 10 days.
"She did intervene and she failed," said Ramon H. Myers, a veteran
Taiwan watcher and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at
Stanford University. Lee ultimately became party chairman, in effect
ending four decades of Chiang family domination of the island's
affairs. Lee later became president and an outspoken advocate of
democracy. On the eve of Taiwan's 2000 presidential election, with
the Nationalist Party in disarray, Madame Chiang issued a written
appeal from New York, urging the Kuomintang to mend its divisions
and prevent disaster. She endorsed Nationalist presidential hopeful
Lien Chan over opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian, but Chen was
victorious. His election ended 51 years of Kuomintang rule.
Although her triumphs had faded into history, Madame Chiang
maintained a hold on the public's imagination even in her final
In 1995 she was invited to a Capitol Hill reception commemorating
the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Hundreds of well-
wishers, mainly Chinese Americans, stood in sweltering heat outside
the Capitol as Madame, then 97, delighted 140 members of Congress
and other guests with remarks that recalled the roots of her long-
standing affection for America. Five years later, when a number of
her paintings were exhibited in New York, 13,000 visitors came to
A similar flood of interest greeted the auction of several hundred
items from the lavish estate where she had lived for 25 years before
moving to Manhattan in 1998.
About 10,000 Chinese Americans poured into the exclusive Long Island
hamlet of Lattingtown on the day her family's mansion was thrown
open to the public. Her most faithful supporters were a group of 300
senior citizens, scattered around the world, who gathered in New
York almost every year to celebrate her birthday. They were the
descendants of the orphans she protected in the 1930s whose parents
had died in battle. When they grew up, she continued to help many of
them, sometimes by paying their college tuition.
"These people became doctors, businessmen. They called her Grandma,"
Wang, the Library of Congress archivist, said of the woman who could
not have children of her own. "This is her legacy. She never forgot
that people died for China's revolution in the '20s and '30s."
Others have been far less gracious in their assessment of her role
in history. Of this, Wang said, Madame Chiang was well aware. Yet
she declined all interviews and never wrote a memoir.
According to Chu Chong-sheng of Taiwan's Academica Historica, when
the group asked her for an oral history, she refused, saying she
believed that all judgments should be left to God.
Survived by a niece and a step-granddaughter, Madame Chiang will be
buried beside other Soong family members in a mausoleum in
Westchester County, New York.
The date of the funeral has not been announced.
Special correspondent Tsai Ting-I in Taipei contributed to this
Madame Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan Dies at 105
From Associated Press
TAIPEI, Taiwan Madame Chiang Kai-shek, widow of the Nationalist
Chinese president who used her charm and fluent English to become a
driving force for nationalism in Taiwan, died Thursday in New York
at age 105, the Foreign Ministry said.
Madame Chiang had been treated for cancer and other ailments, but no
cause of death was immediately released. She lived in semiseclusion
after her husband's death in 1975, spending most of the time in her
Manhattan apartment or at her family's 36-acre estate in
Lattingtown, an exclusive Long Island suburb 35 miles east of New
Madame Chiang and Chiang Kai-shek were once one of the world's most
famous couples. They married in 1927, a year after Chiang, also
known as the Generalissimo, took over China's ruling Nationalist
The Nationalists, or Kuomintang, overthrew China's last dynasty, the
Qing, but their pledges to bring democracy to China and modernize
the economy were frustrated by Japan's invasion prior to World War
II and corruption within the government. After the war, the
Nationalists lost a bloody civil war to Mao Tse-tung's Communists
and retreated to Taiwan in 1949.
Though born in the East, Madame Chiang was thoroughly Western in
thought and philosophy. Brought up in a Methodist family, she
studied in America from age 10 to 19 and graduated with honors from
Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1917.
"The only thing Oriental about me is my face," she once said.
Her supporters said she was a powerful force for international
friendship, understanding and good. But her detractors called her
arrogant and a propagandist for her husband's corrupt and
She was born Soong Mei-ling in 1898, on the southern Chinese island
Her father, Charles Soong, was educated as a Christian missionary at
Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Soong worked closely with Dr.
Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Nationalist revolution that overthrew
China's last emperor in 1911.
Madame Chiang was a working wife, taking on tasks ranging from
interpreter and social worker to head of China's air force during
World War II.