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The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China

Hannah Pakula

(Simon & Schuster; US: Nov 2009)

20th Century Woman

Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her husband the Generalissimo are, next to Mao Tse-tung, the most well-known and arguably the most influential Chinese politicians of the 20th century. Madame Chiang, born Soong May-ling, was an influential politician in her own right and the public face of China in the west during World War II, and a tireless ambassador for her country (and her family’s fortunes).


However, as revealed in Hannah Pakula’s engaging and accessible if dauntingly in-depth biography The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China, the Chiangs were an historical anachronism, a product of the period of instability that bridged Imperial and Communist China and their reign was marked by corruption, ineptitude, and a quasi-Fascist nationalism that could not survive for long when the Communists were skillfully manipulating China’s long suffering and abused masses. The Chiangs had philanthropic impulses, but this was usually accompanied by a monarchial assumption that the country was theirs for the taking, that all had to bow down before them and that, essentially, the welfare of nobody came before preserving their hyper elite status.


Madame Chiang was a roiling mass of contradictions. Pakula quotes a description of her by the writer Christopher Isherwood: “exquisitely dressed, vivacious rather than pretty, and possessed of an almost terrifying charm and poise. Obviously she knows just how to deal with any conceivable type of visitor ... She could be terrible, she could be gracious, she could be businesslike, she could be ruthless”. She makes compelling subject matter and Pakula juggles May-ling’s many-sided character wonderfully well.


This biography is wide-ranging in scope. Paying attention to “The birth of Modern China” in the subtitle is key to understanding Pakula’s approach; she spends as much time on the history, culture, and politics of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan from the mid-19th century to the present day as much as the biography of her central figure. Madame Chiang lived from 1897 to 2003 and her life is a useful encapsulation of the Chinese aristocracy that bloomed and withered during this period. As a member of the famed generation of Soongs—sister Ching-ling was Sun Yat-sen’s wife and a Communist sympathizer, sister Ai-ling married into the wealthy and corrupt Kung family, and brother T.V. was one of the most influential economists and finance figures in mid-century China—that made up the most powerful family of the Nationalist era.


In setting the historical background, Pakula goes off into extensive descriptions on such topics as the last emperors, the opium industry and its affect on China, the colorful warlords that rose to power after the Empire fell, Confucianism and societal attitudes on women and family, and China’s international relations. In the process she provides a clear and concise history of the country. If at times Madame Chiang disappears for too long stretches at a time, it is essential in placing her in the context of and as a product of her era.


Pakula allocates the most pages to the ‘30s and ‘40s, when Kai-shek and the Nationalists were the primary ruling government and when they struggled against both the Japanese and Communists. Madame Chiang was also at her most powerful, influencing the often stubborn and narrow-minded Kai-shek, visiting soldiers and trying to buck up the Chinese people, and serving as cultural ambassador to the United States in trying to get military and financial aid to fight the Japanese.


She comes through vividly here and Pakula engenders great sympathy for her during the ‘30s, when Kai-shek was taken hostage by Young Marshal Chang and Madame helped engineer his release and when she was secretary-general of the Chinese airforce, like a plucky sexy Barbara Stanwyck style heroine, drawling to American Colonel Claire Chennault “in her best Georgia accent” and risking “her life and her emotional well-being by going out to the airfield” during the Japanese bombing raids. There’s even a bit of scandal; Pakula convincingly proves that Madame had an affair with ambassador and US presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie.


A crucial component to May-ling’s early development was her American education at the Wesleyan and Wellesley colleges. During her first tour to the US in 1943, ostensibly to get further support to fight the Japanese, she came armed with perfect English and a flashy wardrobe and subsequently made a big impact on the American public and its power brokers. (The press wheels had already been greased by admirer Henry Luce of Time, who dubbed the Chiangs named “Man and Wife of the Year” in 1937.) She gave speeches to Congress and was feted at a Hollywood Bowl celebration that featured stars ranging from Mary Pickford to Shirley Temple.


Pakula humorously tracks the over-the-top press coverage during this tour, laced with Oriental exoticisms about her “ivory skin” and “almond eyes,” as well as May-ling’s fondness for impressing her audience with obscure words like “indehiscence” and “cenote” in her speeches. Watching old footage of her speech to the U.S. Congress pleading for aid she exudes an American-style no-nonsense intelligence without a trace of the stereotypical Chinese accent. She was glamorous and a devoted Christian and she knew how to use her better traits to personalize and make relatable the Chinese people and their problems for the American people.


This period was also the proverbial high point as the beginning of the end. Washington gradually came disillusioned with the Madame’s diva behavior, ruthless power broking, and her family’s obscene corruption, pocketing much of the US aid they were receiving at the expense of the Chinese people. Pakula writes, “More than two years later [after Madame’s first whirlwind US visit], Eleanor Roosevelt said that Madame could ‘talk beautifully about democracy, but she does not know how to live democracy’.” Later President Harry Truman would say, “I discovered after some time that Chiang Kai-shek and the Madame and their families, the Soongs and the Kungs, were all thieves, every last one of them, the Madame and him included ... I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. And I don’t want anything to do with people like that.”


In this post-World War II turn, when the Chiangs and the Nationalists fell out of favor with the United States and the Communists ran them out of the country, Pakula skillfully weaves the history and personal stories and structures it so that the Chiangs’ reversal of fortune strikes with subtle strength, as in describing Madame’s subsequent less successful trips to the US, when her glamour was not so exotic or appealing compared to China’s larger ills.


After the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, the Chiangs refused to acknowledge their loss of power in China and Kai-shek perpetually advocated for a re-invasion to rescue the Chinese people from Communism. The power couple gradually faded from relevance and the Taiwanese people became more outspoken against the poor governance marked by Kai-shek and his cronies. (Pakula is strongly and consistently critical of his methods.) After he died in 1975, the Madame became less of a public figure, although Pakula tracks her occasional outspoken declarations on Taiwan’s politics and the mental rapacity she retained into her very old age and one gets a good sense for the mixture of resentment and monarchial respect with which she was viewed in Taiwan in her final years.


In order to flesh out May-ling and her interior thoughts, Pakula relies on a number of sources, primarily the letters written to her college friend Emma Mills, which are invaluable in portraying her mind set as a young woman and later as a power broker, trying to balance her public and private personas. Elsewhere Pakula quotes, perhaps too judiciously at times, from the correspondences and biographies of the many notable personalities with whom the Madame interacted and the many books already written about the Chiangs and the Madame such as Emily Hahn’s biography of the Soong sisters. She uses footnotes liberally to let the reader know when there are points of disagreement, oftentimes citing Jung Chang and John Halliday’s recent revisionist biography Mao: The Unknown Story.


The Last Empress is a solid and impressive biography, devoted to a complicated and multi-hued portrait of its subjects, sympathetic but not overly forgiving, judgmental but not damning, as epic and captivating as the life Madame Chiang lived.

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