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The Triumph of Madame Chiang

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Chinese Historical Society of Southern California
Madame Chiang at a celebration held in her honor at the Hollywood Bowl, April 4, 1943. The flowers she is holding were given to her by Mary Pickford, who can be seen in the background on the right.

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 by scores of others once the news leaked out about the identity of the distinguished patient.

Descriptions of Mme Chiang’s medical problems covered a wide range—she was variously described as suffering from exhaustion due to the grim war conditions in China, as being afflicted with internal parasites that brought her agonizing stomach pains, as having sinus troubles and dental problems (including complications that led to her wisdom teeth being extracted), as suffering from the lingering effects of a car crash in Shanghai some six years before, and as having skin problems so serious that, in Mrs. Roosevelt’s words, “she could hardly bear to have anything touch any part of her body.” (It was this latter affliction, so it was said, that led her to sleep in the silk sheets that she always brought with her.) Yet at the same time, Mme Chiang’s hospital suite seems to have been a focal point for political maneuvering, and for confidential cables to and from her husband Chiang Kai-shek, which included discussion of the Casablanca meetings on global military strategy taking place between Churchill and FDR (to which China had not been invited), and on the chances of China receiving a $500 million loan from the United States.

Though her doctors thought she still needed more rest before being declared “cured,” and Mrs. Roosevelt invited her for a few days’ repose at the private presidential home in Hyde Park, in mid-February Mme Chiang embarked on a dramatically effective program of major rallies and meetings. These included, on February 18, 1943, enthusiastically received addresses to both the Senate and the House, and a joint press conference with the President at the White House (where she was staying as his guest). She also spoke at mass rallies in New York at City Hall, Madison Square Garden, and for three thousand Chinese-Americans at Carnegie Hall. She then went on to her alma mater of Wellesley College, to Symphony Hall in Boston, to Chicago, and, after crossing the nation by train and receiving a rousing welcome, to San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Her speeches all played on the themes of mutual support and sense of purpose between China and the United States, and their mutual search for a better world in the coming postwar era. She also emphasized China’s ongoing sacrifices in the war with Japan and, perhaps with a touch of the obvious, did what she could to carry out her husband’s cabled injunction that whenever possible every speech should contain at least one reference to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, one to Jesus, and one each to Confucius and Sun Yat-sen.

The climax of her trip, suitably enough, came at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, where on April 4, 1943, a vast extravaganza was mounted in front of an audience of 30,000 spectators, under the entrepreneurial and patriotic direction of David O. Selznick. On an expanded stage in front of the repainted shell in the Bowl, Spencer Tracy introduced a parade of eighteen leading film stars, including Ingrid Bergman, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Shirley Temple; these were followed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and “several bands” playing a Chinese military marching song to detachments of American marines, infantry, sailors, and cadets from the Army Air Corps. As the servicemen presented arms, Mme Chiang was driven in an open Rolls-Royce sedan to a place of honor in front of the stage and presented with a bouquet of roses by Mary Pickford. Selznick’s final vision of US–Chinese harmony, preserved on tapes still stored in the Wellesley College archives, is handily summarized for us by Pakula:

An invitation by a Methodist bishop, followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Chinese national anthem, led into an elaborate pageant called “China, a Symphonic Narrative”—an enactment of Chinese history with five hundred Chinese extras, narrated by Walter Huston. “A woman has swept the cobwebs from this nation’s past,” he announced as a huge flag crossed the stage with the carriers hidden behind it. After the flag came actors dressed as Chinese peasants, their bodies doubled over to indicate hardship, their faces hidden by coolie straw hats. They were followed by nubile Chinese girls bearing flowers. “Soon the nation will celebrate its harvest” was the announcement…. “People of China, take heart, do not despair…. The China of tomorrow speaks through a valiant woman’s voice…. The China that gives us our great and gallant guest.”

It was surely the perfect time to return to war-torn China, leaving a decent leavening of goodwill behind, with reassurances of American sympathy, and with Mme Chiang’s health at least somewhat mended. Chiang Kai-shek cabled his wife to that effect in early May 1943. Having by this time returned to New York, she ignored his call and made further forays, including one to Macon, Georgia, where she had been in school as a child, and one to Canada, where she addressed the Parliament. She spent time in Bear Mountain State Park, and then returned to a suite at the Waldorf in New York, where she received visits from Wendell Willkie and Joseph Kennedy, among many others.

Looking over Pakula’s careful summary of this period, one grows convinced that Mme Chiang was beginning to believe in her own significance and power at a new level: she made pronouncements on the problems the British faced in India (which infuriated the viceroy, who declared her statements “mischievous”), and when she learned about the forthcoming major conference to be held in Washington between May 11 and May 27—known as Trident—which was to be attended by Roosevelt, Churchill, and their senior American and British commanders, Mme Chiang determined to take an active role at the meeting as a spokesman on China policy, even though she had no formal status, let alone an invitation that entitled her to be there.

In a sharp example of her growing self-esteem, she briskly invited Winston Churchill to meet with her at her suite at the Waldorf in New York. Churchill demurred, pleading lack of time to make the journey from Washington. When FDR offered to give both her and Churchill lunch together with him at the White House, she declined in her turn, rather boldly suggesting that the three have their luncheon at FDR’s private estate in Hyde Park. FDR turned that down, and the final result was that the President and Churchill lunched together, without Mme Chiang, in the White House.

Perhaps that was all rather trivial in the context of the mighty war being waged, but Britain and China had to work alongside each other if there was to be an effective anti-Japanese campaign in Burma, and the Americans had crucial supplies that all three sides—not to mention the Russians—desperately needed. Subsequently FDR did invite Mme Chiang back to stay at the White House, and she was able to meet with important Allied leaders attending Trident, to make Chinese priorities known to them, and in some cases even to influence policy directly.

But by the time she heeded Chiang Kai-shek’s request to return to China, in July 1943, her welcome had worn very thin, and her reputation within China—among Chinese and foreign correspondents and diplomats—had definitely slumped to a newly low level. It did not help that her luggage was loaded down with expensive purchases of furs, jewelry, clothes, and cosmetics from such New York stores as Bergdorf and Saks.

Despite the clearly stated need for every plane to be available for military service against the Japanese, she traveled back to China in a specially modified US government plane. The flight was long and rough and ended in an odd yet disconcerting muddle. Because of the need to keep her flight secret from the Japanese, no one had thought to tell Chiang Kai-shek where she was landing. Accordingly Chiang traveled all the way to Chengdu to meet her, while her plane landed at the empty airfield of Chongqing. To satisfy the press and conceal this unfortunate gaffe, notes Pakula, “Madame’s arrival, complete with welcoming husband and appropriate fanfare, was later reenacted for the newsreel cameras.” Such bursts of post-facto hype could not disguise the fact that Mme Chiang and the other members of the Soong family were seen in an increasingly negative light by both foreign observers and the general public.

To what extent—if any—is it helpful to call Mme Chiang “The Last Empress” as Pakula does? Mme Chiang was certainly imperious at times, if by that word we mean “willful” or “overbearing.” She could also be impatient, and was always ready to cut corners and use personal issues and contacts to achieve goals that she believed were necessary for success in the war effort. She also used her Soong relatives for her own ends, and was inattentive to the negative effects the assertiveness she displayed in Washington was having on China’s relations with the US. General Joseph Stilwell, the American commander in China, was constantly off balance in her presence, and she played favorites only to drop them swiftly if they displeased or contradicted her.

Later, too, longevity gave her an appearance of power, for she lived long enough to span the entire tumultuous period that included the collapse of the Chinese constitutional government, the rise of the Communists, the full-scale war with the Japanese, and the collapse of the Nationalist forces in the final stage of civil war in the later 1940s. She lived so long, indeed, that she saw the end of the attempted Maoist revolution in China and the newly developed Deng Xiaoping policies for financial growth and trade with the West, and how those echoed in some uncanny ways experiments that had already been taking place in Taiwan under her husband’s rule there.

But though she married a tenacious scrapper who served as China’s predominant political leader on the mainland for twenty years and for another twenty years in Taiwan, Mme Chiang never really had a coherent vision that we might call “imperial,” and her own access to political power was episodic and never certain. Hannah Pakula has amassed an impressive amount of telling material, drawn from a wide range of sources, and her lengthy book is a stalwart attempt to create a life-and-times of Mme Chiang, even though the Chinese sources are still hard to locate or analyze, and the Western materials veer between the probably reliable and the speculative. Just because Mme Chiang was not an empress, the biographer’s task becomes harder. Mme Chiang can often only be reliably placed in relation to her husband’s actions, and thus he constantly impels the narrative forward. But Chiang was never the controlling force within China, and his advance depended on many other people’s decisions. Thus his wife was, as it were, twice removed from the main narrative, billed for convenience by Pakula in her book’s subtitle as “the Birth of Modern China.”

What now seems clear is that there was an important transition between November 1942 and July 1943 in Mme Chiang’s thinking about her own historical role, a change both in her general outlook and perhaps even in her character. Certainly observers at the time both in Washington and in Chongqing began to reflect on this change. Mme Chiang had left China for her only vaguely defined mission in the United States at a time of personal illness and uncertainty, and she rallied from her own discomfort to perform on the public stage with ingenuity and aplomb. She also seems to have been captivated by her own rhetoric and vision.

This transformation was not total, however. Her time in the States during the early 1940s reinforces (to my mind) the salient facet of her own youth and young womanhood—that she herself was a bright and vigorous woman without a clear calling. Although she was from a rich family she lacked a sense of purpose, and she spent a decade in China after her return from college in 1917 trying to find a release for her energies that would take her out of the social world in which she felt constrained, and where her main emotion on shopping for food in a poor neighborhood was that such an activity was a “lark.” Her diaries and letters show her as only peripherally interested in her various suitors, and as being restrained in public shows of emotion. Chiang Kai-shek could offer—we can hazard—a definitively different adventure, along with a kind of rough-and-ready passion (but with no clear belief in monogamy, even after their much-publicized marriage).

Chiang did not pretend to be smarter than he was—though surely he was one of the few men ever to have declared that he found reading Das Kapital “entrancing.” His ideological commitments were vague, and often defined for him by others. Mme Chiang seems to have played at times the role of translator and amanuensis, and he even prayed at her side as a fellow Christian, but their marriage was a difficult one, and neither of them really tried to pretend otherwise. Nor did they find it hard to be apart, despite occasional brief gestures in the direction of intimacy.

As I read Pakula’s biography, I was surprised to see how often Mme Chiang and her husband were apart from each other, and for what long periods. It was not just that, as one Chinese observer put it in the context of 1943, diplomatic visits normally took about ten days, but hers took eight months. Having returned to China in July 1943, Madame was off again in July 1944, first to Brazil and then to New York for a renewed hospital stay, “complaining of nervous exhaustion and skin disease.” She now often stayed for long periods in the various houses or apartments that her siblings had bought in New York City and on Long Island, and she stayed in the US until late August 1945 (Pakula suggests that this was because of Chiang Kai-shek’s affair with another woman, who lived with him in the wartime capital of Chongqing).

Whatever Mme Chiang’s motive may have been, this second long absence meant that she was not present in China during late 1944; if she had been, she might have helped peacefully to deflect or at least lessen General Stilwell’s many confrontations with her husband, instead of leaving Stilwell with no well-informed intermediary of the Chinese government at a high level who could brief him on the crucial stages of the negotiations for the conduct of the newly opened Burma campaigns. The well-known result of this lack of communication was the recall of Stilwell by FDR, and drastic changes in the conduct of the war in southwest China.

By staying so long in the US, Mme Chiang also missed all the top-level discussions over the surrender of Japan and the advance of the Nationalist armies back into their old territories in eastern China, which the Japanese had forced them to abandon. From late 1948 until January 1950 Mme Chiang was in the United States again, and thus was not at Chiang’s side to try to stem the tide of Communist victory, or to help organize the final retreat of the Nationalist forces to Taiwan. When she finally returned to Taiwan, the new order of US priorities was shown by the fact that for the first time she had to pay for her own plane ticket. There were other protracted absences from her husband, for a considerable spell in the spring of 1955 and for more than a year during 1965 and 1966.

The concluding chapters of Pakula’s book on the Chiangs in (and out) of Taiwan contain material that will be new to many readers, though they are chronologically nearer to our own time. In those chapters one can see how Mme Chiang maintained a certain aura owing to her husband’s lingering prestige within the Nationalist Party, and how she also kept up with influential friends and contacts in the United States. (One unrehearsed and touching example of such a meeting, between Mme Chiang and Beverly Sills, is quoted at some length by Pakula.) But most of the old links with China were severed, and after her husband’s death in 1975 Madame lived mainly in the United States, with only occasional visits to Taiwan.

Chiang Kai-shek is now remembered with a certain respect in the People’s Republic of China, as a tenacious nationalist who, whatever his faults, faced down the Japanese and thus made Communist rule of China possible. Mme Chiang’s name is not normally linked to his in such benedictions.

  1. *

    In 2006, three years before the appearance of Hannah Pakula’s book, Laura Tyson Li published her own original study entitled Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Eternal First Lady (Atlantic Monthly Press), which also explored a wide range of sources on Mme Chiang.

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