The Storied Century of Madame Chiang: Beauty, Brains Helped Her Charm World

By Marshall, Toni; Constantine, Gus | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 14, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Storied Century of Madame Chiang: Beauty, Brains Helped Her Charm World


Marshall, Toni, Constantine, Gus, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Madame Chiang Kai-shek has achieved one of the most cherished ideals of the Chinese universe - longevity - and her lifetime overlaps the story of contemporary China itself.

She has outrun history and her family has moved so close to the inner circles of power they could probably be recorded as a dynasty.

The exact age of Soong Mei-ling, as she is called in Chinese, is as enigmatic as the life she has led.

Last week, friends in Taiwan, where she lived in exile from 1949 until the late 1980s, celebrated her 100th birthday or thereabouts. And Thursday her friends in New York will do the same.

The Chinese count the first birthday as the day you are born, which makes Madame Chiang 100 years old. But Westerners say she is 99. It is believed she was born on Feb. 12, 1898, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The solar calendar puts the date in mid-March.

Whether she is a centenarian, or just a year shy, does not overshadow the influence the frail widow of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek had on world politics. Not to mention the trail of rumors and intrigue that has surrounded her life.

Madame Chiang is remembered by those who knew her in her heyday as a woman of enormous power and charm, who dazzled World War II allies and their Cold War successors into all-out support for the embattled Nationalist Chinese government, which her husband led.

Architects of the postwar world order, Christian missionaries and media giants were deeply moved by her devotion to the cause of a nation struggling against Japanese fascism, then against its Communist kinsmen in a civil war.

She perhaps built the same kind of passionate following for her nation abroad that Eva Peron did at home in Argentina.

"She was a remarkable personality. Her good looks, brilliant mind and flawless English enraptured many an audience," said Marvin Liebman, secretary of the Committee of One Million.

The committee, a public policy organization, was formed in 1953 by Minnesota congressman, missionary and anti-communist crusader Walter Judd to strengthen support for the Nationalist Chinese cause.

"While charming Western audiences, Madame Chiang in the process served the interests of her country by elevating a relatively weak nation into a major player in the eyes of Americans," Mr. Liebman said.

It is virtually impossible to brush-stroke the shape of U.S. policy toward China from the 1940s on without reference to Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Soong family she came from.

Madame Chiang is one of three daughters of Charlie Soong, a Bible salesman who became a wealthy merchant during the end of the Qing Dynasty. Through his daughters' marriages, Mr. Soong was able to manipulate politics in China.

The wealthy Soong family backed Chiang Kai-shek and used him to enter top positions in the Chinese government. Another daughter, Soong Ching-ling, married Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew the Qing Dynasty and founded the Republic of China in 1911.

Soong Mei-ling's entry into politics came in 1927 when she married Chiang Kai-shek. It was a political move on her part, for Chiang already was married and had two concubines.

But Christianity won over Confucianism, resulting in a wedding officiated by a Methodist minister. Her mother, a devout Christian, was against the marriage. So was her sister, Ching-ling, a Communist sympathizer.

But most astounding is how Soong Mei-ling's life spans the abrupt changes in China's history - from a feudalistic imperial China, to communism and the modern industrialized nation that it is today.

She may yet see it become a free-market economy, abandoning the Communist doctrine that chased her away.

Reports that she is in good health indicate that she probably will live to see Hong Kong join the People's Republic of China July 1, after more than 150 years of British colonial rule. …

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