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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #19 (May 8, 2007), page 16.
Book explores Madame Chiang’s influence
Madame Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Eternal First Lady
By Laura Tyson Li
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006
Hardcover, 557 pages, $30.00
By Maileen Hamto
Born to an influential Chinese family, raised in a Christian household, and educated at Wellesley, Mayling Soong’s pedigree and education were the stuff of legendary world leaders. And that’s exactly what she became. As wife of a former Chinese leader and the founder of Taiwan, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was one of the most powerful and influential women of the 20th century.
Laura Tyson Li’s biography of the Madame paints a picture of an intelligent, strong-willed, and single-minded woman who had a clear vision of what she wanted for her country. At a time when women even in the United States — one of the up-and-coming socially progressive nations in the world — clung to well-defined gender roles, Mayling defied tradition by becoming active in civic and social life in her native China. Throughout Chiang Kai-Shek’s reign as leader of the Nationalist Party in China, the Madame "developed tremendous influence."
The book explores the dynamics of the marriage and lasting partnership of the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang. When they met, Mayling was the leader of China’s New Life Movement, bent on the "physical, educational, and moral rebirth" of the country. He was a Buddhist, a revolutionary who spoke no English. His untiring efforts against Communism impressed Mayling, although he was 11 years her senior and had been married. Despite divergent backgrounds, they were united in their goal to catapult China to the ranks of world powers. Fluent in Mandarin and English, Madame Chiang served as her husband’s interpreter and was a staple at meetings with foreign dignitaries.
Her penchant for negotiation and diplomacy was tested when the Generalissimo was kidnapped by an opposing faction. The book recounts how the Madame came to his rescue by pleading for his life.
While the Generalissimo led campaigns to battle Communism and, in later years, the Japanese, Madame Chiang was resolute in her goal to make the American public aware that China was more than a military ally to the United States. In 1943 she became the first Chinese citizen and the first Asian woman to address the U.S. Congress. Articulate and elegant, she lobbied for strengthened U.S. support of Nationalist causes. Drawing similarities between the values of the two countries, Madame Chiang emphasized that China was the U.S.’s strongest "spiritual ally." Her flair for public speaking, charm, glamour, and confidence made her an instant media darling, dubbed "one of the outstanding women of all the earth."
Madame Chiang was not without her detractors. She was criticized for living in "American-style splendor" while Chinese citizens lived in abject poverty. Despite her public persona as an independent woman, she relied on aides and a large entourage everywhere she went. In the waning years of the Nationalist regime, she became more susceptible to the influence of her family. At best, she is remembered as her husband’s fiercest propagandist. At worst, she is depicted as manipulative, self serving, and power hungry.
Though tragically dethroned as Empress of China when the Communists finally took control of the mainland, she maintains a legacy of leadership unparalleled in modern China. Obedient women never make history — whoever wrote the bumper-sticker slogan must surely have referred to the Madame.