Madame Chiang

Jennifer Wilding and Ralph Zuljan

Once upon a time there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved China, and one loved power...

The eldest Soong sister, Ai-ling, loved money, she became the wife of the banker H.H. Kung. The second Soong sister, Ching-ling, loved China, she became the wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. The third Soong sister, Mei-ling, loved power. She was Madame Chiang, media darling and the power behind the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek.

The Soong family played an enormous role in the Chinese revolt against the Manchu dynasty and in subsequent events. The father, Charlie Soong was an American educated Methodist minister who acquired a huge fortune in China publishing Bibles and then in commercial publishing. His fortune was instrumental in financing the Nationalist revolution. This participation was the reason his children were educated in the United States, he knew dangerous times were coming and he wanted them as far away as possible.

Mei-ling was born in 1897, fourth of six children. As a very little girl she was chubby, spoiled and ruled her family with a reign of terror. She always got her own way. At eight years of age she was sent to America to begin formal schooling. She was young, but her elder sisters and one brother were already there, and it seemed to Charlie Soong to be the safest thing to do. Mei-ling was very well liked by her schoolmates throughout her academic career. She returned to China in 1917 with a degree in English Literature, ten years later she married Chiang Kai-shek.

It is difficult to know the truth of the Chaings marriage. Some biographers describe it as one of the great love matches of all time, others describe it as a marriage of convenience. It is certain that Chiang was not as faithful as one might expect a professed Christian to be (he fathered at least one illegitimate son during his marriage) and it is equally certain that Mei-ling became immensely powerful. The Chiangs never had children.

Throughout the Second World War Madame Chiang acted as her husband's translator and secretary. She prepared daily précis of the English language news for him and interpreted social nuances of Western behavior that often baffled and infuriated the Chinese who were thrown into close contact with Allied military and diplomats. Her husband benefited greatly from her linguistic skills and political acumen.

Madame Chiang traveled extensively, with her husband and on her own, working to unify China. She was popular at home, having a vast knowledge of Chinese languages, literature and traditions, but her greatest admirers were the foreigners with whom she came into contact. She was a consummate politician, but never hesitated to play both ends against the middle to reach her goals. One such admirer was General Stilwell. He and Chiang Kai-shek loathed each other, but he found Madame Chiang sweet, reasonable, and sympathetic. She worked hard to foster this impression (although she cordially disliked him), her goal was to have China recognized as a great power and her husband a war leader on a level with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Stilwell had the ear of the Big Three at events such as the Cairo Conference of 1943. Perhaps if Madame Chiang had been less disinterested in the defeat of Germany as the first priority she may have succeeded. As is was, China's troubles in the war and with the Communists at home continued to be a distant second to the troubles of the Western Allies.

Madame's behavior at the Conference seriously jeopardized her case. She was personally popular, but her habit of rewriting speeches and retranslating the official interpretation made her a liability rather than as asset. This was a source of irritation to all Westerners who dealt with Madame Chiang in the war arena. And deal they did. She was so prominent in the war effort that Stilwell recommended, only half jokingly, that she be appointed Minister of Defense.

It was in America, however, that Madame Chiang really shone. She was so popular during her wartime tours of the US that she became a folk hero. Everywhere she went she was wildly acclaimed, her public speeches were attended by crowds of up to 30,000 people and the media adored her. She was so well regarded that she made the cover of Time magazine for the second time (the first had been with her husband as "Man and Wife of the Year"), was the model for "Dragon Lady", a sort of Air Force fairy godmother in a popular comic strip, and appears in a stained glass window in a Massena, New York church as "the First Lady of Christendom".

The tours of the United States were not all popular acclaim and radio broadcasts. Madame Chiang was on the fund-and-sympathy raising circuit, she worked hard and did well. Her good looks and Western demeanor emphasized similarities rather than differences between two cultures. To fail to admire Madame Chiang was almost an admission of being a Communist sympathizer.

One of her triumphs was squeezing a number airplanes out of Roosevelt. The other was her address to Congress on February 18, 1943, only the second woman and the first Chinese to do so. Madame Chiang's appeal for help against the Japanese was so moving she received a four minute standing ovation. The emotional tidal wave was a concern to senior politicians, it was rumored that the bestowal of the airplanes was an effort to persuade her to end her trip to America.

Madame Chiang also wrote a great number of books and articles, primarily for the American market. She remained in the forefront of the fight against Communism until the Nationalist retreat to Taiwan. In 1965 she returned to the United States to plead for war materiel with which to retake Mainland China, but received no aid.

When Chiang Kai-shek died Mei-ling again returned to the United States. She lives in New York, where she observed her hundredth birthday by opening an exhibit of her own paintings.

Originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on April 1, 2002.
Reprinted in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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