The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China
by Hannah Pakula
Simon and Schuster, 787 pp., $35.00
Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized a Christian, enrolled in school, and learned enough English to graduate from Vanderbilt. Returning to his homeland as a preacher and Bible salesman, he became an innovative businessman in eastern China. Before dying at the age of fifty-two in his Shanghai mansion, Charlie married and had six children, three boys (two of whom graduated from Harvard and one from Vanderbilt) and three girls.
Two of the girls graduated from Wesleyan College in Georgia, and the third girl, May-ling, lived in the South from the age of ten before enrolling and graduating from Wellesley. All six of the children played active parts in Chinese politics and finance, covering between them a gamut of political positions, from far left to far right. May-ling Soong, born in 1897, was the youngest of the three girls, and because she later married China’s Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, her story has long fascinated a wide readership in China and the West. The fact that despite much historical burrowing it has not proved easy to find any clear explanation of why and how May-ling did what she did, or to interpret the scattered elements of her story that have become available over the years, has merely piqued our interest further.
After finishing Hannah Pakula’s lengthy and intensely detailed study of May-ling’s life—a life that spanned 106 years, from 1897 to 2003—it seems to me that we can now identify one specific period, from late 1942 to the summer of 1943, as providing a kind of turning point in May-ling’s story. For it was in this short period that the complex and contradictory facets of her life became sharply visible, and that her personal predilections and self-regard began to edge out her better judgments concerning her role in the formation of China’s future.
In late November 1942 the United States government flew Mme Chiang and her sizable entourage of assistants and servants from southwest China to Florida, at taxpayers’ expense. There she was put on a connecting flight to New York and booked into the Harkness Pavilion of New York Presbyterian Hospital. Her room had been reserved under a pseudonym, and residence on the entire twelfth floor was restricted to her entourage. The United States Secret Service provided around-the-clock security, and the department of state assigned her the code name Snow White. Eleanor Roosevelt was among her first visitors, and the First Lady was followed …