Madame Chiang Kai-shek

Formidable wife of the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek

Saturday 25 October 2003 00:00 BST

Soong Mei-ling: born Shanghai, China 20 March 1897; married 1927 Chiang Kai-shek (died 1975); died New York 23 October 2003.

Soong Mei-Ling, better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, was, during the Second World War, the most powerful woman in the world. She was the last major survivor of the Republican era in pre-Communist China and of the wartime alliance against Germany and Japan.

She was the intermediary between the United States and the world's most heavily populated country, which Franklin Roosevelt regarded as one of the great power building blocks for the new international order. She barnstormed America, and sat at the table of a summit conference in Cairo with Winston Churchill, Roosevelt and her husband, leading some of those present to wonder if she or Chiang was speaking for China. She held the secret codebook for communication between the wartime capital of Chungking and the White House and, at one point, caressed the notion of becoming China's Minister for War.

The three major leaders of 20th-century China, the Father of the Nation, Sun Yat-sen, the Generalissimo, Chiang, and Mao Tse-tung all had formidable women as their last wives. But Soong Mei-ling outscored the others in her international fame, charming foreigners with the perfect English she learned during her education in America, with her cleverness, her blend of Westernised modernity and what they inevitably described as Chinese mystery and grace, to which some added, more straightforwardly, sex appeal.

She had the enthusiastic support of the American publishing tycoon Henry Luce, through his magazines Time and Life, and was reported to have once spoken of an ambition to rule the world, in combination with one of Roosevelt's challengers, Wendell Willkie, with whom she had a flirtation. Churchill called her "a most remarkable and fascinating personality". Meeting her on a trip to China after war with Japan erupted in 1937, Christopher Isherwood described her as "a small, round-faced lady, exquisitely dressed, vivacious rather than pretty, and possessed of an almost terrifying charm and poise". She asked Isherwood's companion W.H. Auden if poets ate cake. When he said they did, she replied that she had thought they might live on spiritual food alone.

During the decade of Nationalist rule in China from the capital of Nanking between 1927 (the year she married Chiang) and 1937, Mei-ling was endlessly busy as her husband attempted to unify China under his increasingly autocratic yet ineffective rule. She did endless good works, issued rallying cries to China's women, accompanied the Generalissimo as he pursued Mao on the Long March, pushed the development of the Chinese air force, and drove to the front in the murderous battle of Shanghai in 1937, nearly losing her life in a motor accident on the way.

As an answer to Communism, she and her husband pursued a crusade to get the Chinese to behave better. Known as the "New Life" movement, it issued scores of instructions outlawing everything from spitting to lateness. It also sought to discourage drinking and smoking, although Madame Chiang was a heavy consumer of English cigarettes. In 1936, she showed her courage and determination by flying into the rebel city of Xian to help negotiate the release of her husband after he had been kidnapped by a general who wanted to force him into a united front with Mao against the Japanese. As they flew out after 13 days, she was said to have looked out of the window, "a faint smile of happiness on her lips".

Such achievements made her fall from grace after 1944 all the more bitter. By then, she was suffering from health problems, and had become a diva, clapping her hands for service at the White House and having her collected speeches printed in a silk-bound volume at the height of a major battle. Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, came to take a more realistic view of the strengths and weakness of Chiang's regime, and his enthusiasm for pouring more billions into the civil war with the Communists declined further after his Republican opponents drew on the support and funds of the pro-China, pro-Chiang lobby.

There was also trouble on the domestic front; rumours about Chiang Kai-shek's private life reached such a point that he held a press conference to deny he was having an affair with his nurse. For her part, Madame Chiang told an American general how impossible the Generalissimo was to live with.

As things deteriorated towards the end of the Second World War, she went off for another, and far less successful, trip to the US, but came back to China at the end of the war and was reunited with Chiang. After he withdrew from the mainland to Taiwan in the face of the Communist advance in 1949, she played the role of first lady until his death in 1975. Thereafter, her attempts to steer the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist, Party were unsuccessful, and she spent much of the rest of her life in the United States.

She became an anti-Communist icon, honorary doctor of a dozen American universities, an honoured figure at Republican Party conventions, and an honorary Lieutenant-General in the Marine Corps. For her 100th birthday in 1997, a Chinese opera performance was staged in her honour at Lincoln Center in New York. At the end of her life, she moved from Long Island into New York City. She was increasingly regarded by the Kuomintang Party in Taiwan as a spectre from the past.

Born into one of Shanghai's richest families in 1897, Mei-ling was a member of the Soong clan that was to acquire semi-mythical status. The patriarch, Charlie Soong, was a would-be Methodist preacher who made a fortune instead as a publisher, starting with bibles, and Mei-ling was brought up a Methodist. Her elder brother, T.V., became a financier and businessman, supposedly the richest in the world at one point, and served at various times as Chiang's Prime Minister, Finance Minister and Foreign Minister.

Her eldest sister, Ai-ling, married a rich banker, who was also Prime Minister and Finance Minister; the couple made a huge fortune, in part through adroit use of insider information. The other sister, Qing-ling, was the second wife of Sun Yat-sen, and championed the left against the increasingly reactionary path followed by Chiang. The saying was that one (Ai-ling) loved money, one (Mei-ling) loved power, and one (Qing-ling) loved China.

Though they insisted otherwise, and the Generalissimo learned the English word "darling", the marriage in 1927 between Mei-ling and Chiang Kai-shek was a political union, engineered by Ai-ling as Chiang completed the first half of his campaign to lead the Nationalist forces out of southern China to defeat the warlords ruling China and to unify the country.

The general, who as a teenager had been put into an arranged marriage by his widowed mother and had then married again, ditched his second wife to form what was known as the Sun-Soong-Chiang dynasty to rule China. The Shanghai Times called the wedding "the outstanding Chinese marriage ceremony of recent years". Mei-ling's gown was in silver and white georgette with a long lace veil, her shoes and stockings silver. The groom wore a cutaway coat. But Mei-ling later told an American publisher that she had never had sex with Chiang - he was not sure if he believed her.

After the wedding, Chiang resumed his campaign and, in the summer of 1928, Mei-ling accompanied him on a triumphal trip to the old imperial capital of Beijing which had been conquered from a Manchurian warlord. Thereafter, she travelled constantly with him, and handled mountains of paperwork, working with an Australian adviser, W.H. Donald, who wrote doggerel poems to her as they flew round China. Seeing her in 1938 during the wartime retreat from the Japanese, the author Han Suyin wrote that: "All the traditions of Chinese womanhood meet in her . . . She is not only modern: that is the lesser part. She is Chinese."

However, for all her fame, and her influence on the vital relationship with Washington in her heyday, she was always a member of the Westernised élite epitomised by her elder brother. Chiang kept her out of his handling of domestic matters and, crucially, the army. She was useful to him, but, when he became aware of her ambitions, he elbowed her aside in a long-running family feud played out against the backdrop of the last stages of China's eight-year war with Japan. Still, her power and influence, particularly in dealing with America in the crucial years of the war, marked her out as a woman who transcended the restrictions of her time and made herself the indomitable symbol of her country for the international public, however misleading that symbolism was.

Jonathan Fenby

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