[HISTORY] Madame Chiang Kai-shek & History
- Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a Power in Husband's China and Abroad, Dies
By SETH FAISON
Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a pivotal figure in one of the 20th
century's great epics the struggle for control of post-imperial
China waged between the Nationalists and the Communists during the
Japanese invasion and the violent aftermath of World War II died
on Thursday in Manhattan, the Foreign Ministry of Taiwan reported
yesterday. She was 105.
Madame Chiang, a dazzling and imperious politician, wielded immense
influence in Nationalist China, but she and her husband were
eventually forced by the Communist victory into exile in Taiwan,
where she presided as the grande dame of Nationalist politics for
many years. After Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, she retreated to New
York City, where she spent the rest of her life.
But her old influence overseas was matched, and perhaps exceeded, by
the relentless and sophisticated lobbying effort she and her husband
set up in Washington, through which they distributed uncounted
millions through law firms and public relations companies to promote
Taiwan's cause and maintain recognition by the American government.
During the 1950's, Madame Chiang and her husband blamed the United
States for the Nationalists' loss of China, and continued to
campaign for help from Washington to retake the mainland. Although
that hope eventually faded, American support for Taiwan remained
strong for years, delaying Washington's recognition of Beijing as
the capital of China until 1979, three decades after the Communists
As a fluent English speaker, as a Christian, as a model of what many
Americans hoped China to become, Madame Chiang struck a chord with
American audiences as she traveled across the country, starting in
the 1930's, raising money and lobbying for support of her husband's
government. She seemed to many Americans to be the very symbol of
the modern, educated, pro-American China they yearned to see emerge
even as many Chinese dismissed her as a corrupt, power-hungry
symbol of the past they wanted to escape.
Ultimately, that difference in perspectives was perhaps one reason
that she fled an increasingly democratic Taiwan, where many people
reviled her and where she felt less at home as native Taiwanese
eclipsed the exiled mainlanders.
Madame Chiang was the most famous member of one of modern China's
most remarkable families, the Soongs, who dominated Chinese politics
and finance in the first half of the 20th century. Yet in China it
was her American background and style that distinguished Soong Mei-
ling; that was her maiden name, sometimes spelled May-ling.
For many Americans, her finest moment came in 1943, when she
barnstormed the United States in search of support for the
Nationalist cause against Japan, winning donations from countless
Americans who were mesmerized by her passion, determination and
striking good looks. Her address to a joint meeting of Congress
electrified Washington, winning billions of dollars in aid.
She helped create American policy toward China during the war years,
running the Nationalist government's propaganda operation and
emerging as its most important diplomat. Yet she was also deeply
involved in the endless maneuverings of her husband, who was
uneasily at the helm of several shifting alliances with Chinese
warlords vying for control of what was then a badly fractured
A devout Christian, Madame Chiang spoke fluent English tinted with
the Southern accent she acquired as a schoolgirl in Georgia, and she
presented a civilized and humane image of a courageous China
battling Japanese invasion and Communist subversion. Yet historians
have documented the murderous path that Chiang Kai-shek led in his
efforts to win, then keep, and ultimately lose power. It also became
clear in later years that the Chiang family had pocketed hundreds of
millions of dollars of American aid intended for the war.
Madame Chiang had a notoriously tempestuous relationship with her
husband, and then with his son by a previous marriage, Chiang Ching-
kuo, who became Taiwan's leader after Chiang Kai-shek's death. She
had no children.
Her skill as a politician, alternately charming and vicious, made
her a formidable presence. She made a play for Taiwan's leadership
after Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, even though she was 90 and
living in New York.
Although she suffered numerous ailments, including breast cancer,
she outlived all her contemporary rivals. She was said to credit her
religious faith she told friends she rose at dawn for an hour of
prayer each day for her good health.
Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, who worked closely with her when he
commanded American forces in China during the war, described Madame
Chiang in his diary as a "clever, brainy woman."
"Direct, forceful, energetic," he wrote. "Loves power, eats up
publicity and flattery, pretty weak on her history. Can turn on
charm at will and knows it."
Soong Mei-ling's rise to power began when she married Chiang in an
opulent ceremony in Shanghai in 1927, bringing together China's star
military man with one of the nation's most illustrious families.
Her eldest sister, Soong Ai-ling, directed the family's affairs and
innumerable money-making ventures with the help of her husband, H.
H. Kung, a scion of one of China's wealthiest banking families.
Madame Chiang's second sister, Soong Qing-ling, was the wife of Sun
Yat-sen, China's first president after the last emperor was toppled
in 1911. After Sun's death, Soong Qing-ling carried his banner over
into the Communist camp, causing an irreparable rupture in the
When the vanquished Nationalists retreated to Taiwan in 1949, Soong
Qing-ling stayed behind. The Communist Party leadership called her
the only true patriot in the Soong family, and appointed her
honorary chairman of the People's Republic in 1980, a year before
A Telling DittyToday, Chinese still remember the three sisters with
a telling ditty: "One loved money, one loved power, one loved
China," referring respectively to Ai-ling, Mei-ling and Qing-ling.
Madame Chiang's elder brother, T. V. Soong, often called Nationalist
China's financial wizard, served at various times as finance
minister, acting prime minister and foreign minister, where his
primary role was raising money from America.
Although Madame Chiang developed a stellar image with the American
public, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other leaders became
disillusioned with her and her husband's despotic and corrupt
practices. Eleanor Roosevelt was shocked at her answer when asked at
a dinner at the White House how the Chinese government would handle
a strike by coal miners. Madame Chiang silently drew a sharp
fingernail across her neck.
"She can talk beautifully about democracy," Mrs. Roosevelt said
later. "But she does not know how to live democracy."
By the end of the war, the loyalty of Nationalist officials melted
away as the government grew corrupt and fiscally traitorous,
printing money so aggressively that the Chinese currency fell to an
exchange rate of several million yuan to the dollar. Many
Nationalist soldiers were reduced to begging for food because they
went unpaid, yet American diplomats discovered that military
supplies sent from the United States to China sometimes appeared on
the black market soon after arrival.
During the 1950's, Madame Chiang and her husband continued to
campaign for help from Washington to retake the mainland, although
That hope eventually faded.
In New York, Madame Chiang lived in an apartment on Gracie Square in
Manhattan. In March 1999, as she turned 101, hard of hearing but
still quick-witted, she told visitors that she read the Bible and
The New York Times every day.
The Soong family's saga, cutting across many strands of modern
Chinese history, began when Madame Chiang's father, Charlie Soong,
sailed to the United States at the age of 12. Coming from a family
of traders in Hainan Island in the South China Sea, Mr. Soong was
taken in by Methodists in North Carolina who converted him to
Christianity in hopes of sending him back to spread the word of
Jesus in China.
After returning to Shanghai in 1886, Mr. Soong, a genial wheeler-
dealer, passed up missionary life to start a business printing
Bibles, earning a fortune. He also printed political pamphlets
secretly for Sun Yat-sen, then working to overthrow China's last
emperor. On Jan. 1, 1912, Sun became China's first president.
Sun lasted in office only a few months before his coalition
disintegrated, and after he fled to Japan, he hired Mr. Soong's
second daughter, Soong Qing-ling, as a secretary. They soon married,
despite the age difference: he was 50 and she was 21.
Educated in America
Mei-ling Soong was born in Shanghai on March 5, 1898, although some
references give 1897 as the year because Chinese usually consider
everyone to be one year old at birth. At the age of 10, she had
followed her elder sisters to the Wesleyan College for Women in
She entered Wellesley College near Boston in 1913; her brother, T.
V., was enrolled at Harvard. She majored in English literature, and
was remembered by her classmates as a chubby, vivacious and
determined student. She graduated in 1917 and returned to Shanghai
speaking English better than Chinese.
She was introduced to her future husband in 1922. By that time, she
had matured into a slender beauty and taken to wearing full-length,
Chiang Kai-shek, a severe-looking military aide to Sun who
established a school for officers in southern China, may have been
as attracted to the Soongs' financial and political connections as
he was to their youngest daughter. His initial overtures to her were
rebuffed, and after Sun's death in 1925, as Chiang took the title
generalissimo and tried to succeed him as the leader of the
Nationalist cause, he proposed to Sun's young widow, Soong Qing-
ling. She said no.
Chiang allied himself with warlords in southern and central China
and with the Soviet Union, where Stalin regarded the Nationalists as
more progressive than the warlords who still controlled Beijing and
northern China. Communist rebels, not yet led by Mao Zedong, felt
they deserved Moscow's support. But Stalin insisted on supporting
In 1927, Chiang shocked his Soviet backers by carrying out a
massacre of leftists in Shanghai. Edgar Snow, the American
journalist, estimated that Chiang's forces had executed more than
The massacre caused a permanent rent in the Soong family. Soong Qing-
ling, as Sun's widow, led a faction of Nationalists who voted to
expel Chiang from all his posts. T. V. Soong resigned as finance
minister, though he was later persuaded to resume his alliance with
When Chiang renewed his interest in Soong Mei-ling in 1927, she told
him that she would consent to marry only if he could win the
approval of her mother, who had reservations about a man who was
neither Christian nor single. Chiang had already fathered a son in a
marriage that was arranged when he was only 14, and had adopted a
second son and married a second wife, Chen Chieh-ru. Chiang promised
to convert, and eventually sent Chen away to the United States,
where she enrolled at Columbia University and earned a doctorate.
The Chiang-Soong wedding took place in Shanghai on Dec. 1, 1927. A
small Christian ceremony was held at the Soong mansion on Seymour
Road, followed by a political ceremony at the Majestic Hotel,
beneath a portrait of Sun.
As a political partner to her husband, Madame Chiang developed what
she called the New Life Movement, a series of principles for
modernizing China through social discipline, courtesy and service.
She engineered public hygiene campaigns and denounced traditional
While many ordinary Chinese resisted it, the campaign was popular
with foreigners, particularly with Henry Luce, the publisher of Time
magazine, who was born to missionaries in China. A longtime
supporter of the Chiangs, Luce named the couple "Man and Woman of
the Year" in 1938.
During the war with the Japanese, Madame Chiang pushed her husband
to build up the Nationalist air force, and helped hire Claire
Chennault, who commanded a mercenary force of pilots that came to be
known as the Flying Tigers.
During World War II, the relationship between General Stilwell,
Chiang and Madame Chiang proved contentious. The general accused
Chiang of hoarding resources, deliberately avoiding battle with the
Japanese to spare his men to fight the Communists.
Madame Chiang was in the middle, sometimes interceding on General
Stilwell's behalf when resisting him threatened American support.
But she also plotted against the general, telling journalists that
he was incompetent. She and her husband lobbied Washington to have
him replaced, and he was, in 1944.
After Japan was defeated in 1945 and the civil war between
Nationalists and Communists accelerated, the Communists swiftly
expanded their control into the northeast.
The governing Nationalists received considerable American aid, but
American officials in China warned of vast amounts of graft among
Nationalists. More than $3 billion was appropriated to China during
the war, and most of it was transmitted through T. V. Soong, who as
China's foreign minister was based in Washington. It later became
apparent that the Soong family suffered vicious infighting over the
Madame Chiang traveled to Washington again in November 1948 to plead
for emergency aid for the war against the Communists. Yet Congress
had recently assigned $1 billion more to China, and President Truman
was impatient with the Chiangs and what had become an apparently
hopeless effort to shore up the Nationalist government. Madame
Chiang never returned to China.
"I can ask the American people for nothing more," she said. "It is
either in your hearts to love us, or your hearts have been turned
In her frustration, she publicly likened American politics
to "clodhopping boorishness." Coming after years of generous
American support, that irritated Truman.
"They're thieves, every damn one of them," Truman said later,
referring to Nationalist leaders. "They stole $750 million out of
the billions that we sent to Chiang. They stole it, and it's
invested in real estate down in São Paolo and some right here in New
General Chiang resigned as president of Nationalist China in January
1949 and fled to Taiwan that May, taking with him a national art
collection that was kept in crates in Taiwan for years as the
Chiangs clung to the ever-diminishing hope that they would some day
take it back to Beijing.
Over the years, Madame Chiang's health wavered, and in 1976 she was
diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy, and later, a
Her Final YearsEven after she moved to permanent residence in New
York, she kept her finger on the pulse of Nationalist politics. She
returned to Taiwan after her stepson died in January 1988. Even
though she was nearly 90, she tried to rally her old allies. But Lee
Teng-hui, chosen as vice president both because he was Taiwan-born
and because he was considered a pushover by fellow Nationalists,
proved more adept at politics than expected, and he gradually
solidified his control.
Madame Chiang lived out her final years in New York, with a pack of
black-suited bodyguards who cleared the lobby of her Gracie Square
apartment building every time she entered or left. She returned to
Congress for one last appearance in 1995.
Until this year, Madame Chiang maintained an annual tradition of
receiving a few friends at her Manhattan apartment on her birthday.
But this year, she came down with pneumonia, and was was unable to
do that, the local Chinese press reported.
Her last public appearance was believed to be in January 2000, when
she attended an exhibition of her watercolor paintings of
traditional Chinese landscapes at the Queens headquarters of the
World Journal, a prominent local Chinese newspaper. She was in a
wheelchair, but was reported to be in good spirits, telling people
there that she was very happy that day.