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Charismatic, Feared Emissary of China’s Nationalist Regime

Times Staff Writer

To the legions who revered her, Madame Chiang Kai-shek was the “brains of China,” polished, poised and a shining example of the virtues of an American education.

To the considerable number who learned to fear her, however, she was “Madame Dictator,” ruthless, corrupt and unmoved by the miseries of the Chinese people.

She was the charismatic wife and emissary of the most powerful man in pre-Communist China, but history would judge her harshly for helping to “lose” the country she begged others to save.

On Thursday, the woman who once flirted with Winston Churchill and parried with Chou En-lai -- and was the last major political figure remaining from the World War II era -- died peacefully in her sleep at her apartment in New York City. She had turned 105 in March.

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Although she lived in one of Manhattan’s toniest neighborhoods, she ended her days in quiet anonymity, forgotten except among a small group of loyalists from around the world who feted her in New York City nearly every year on her birthday.

This year, she was too ill to see them. In March, she was hospitalized for two weeks with flu-like symptoms; according to a family friend, she never fully recovered.

Despite her frailties, the centenarian who had survived cancer and other ailments over the last 30 years still scanned the newspapers and plied the occasional visiting dignitary with Chinese delicacies and her favorite Hershey’s chocolate.

“She was mentally involved in what was going on. She never wanted to give up,” said her friend, Chi Wang, who heads the Chinese section of the Library of Congress.

Long after the demise of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist general who set up a government-in-exile on Taiwan after the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949, Madame Chiang endured -- first as a symbol of Nationalist pride and later as one of intransigence. Despite the Nationalists’ flagging fortunes, she never publicly acknowledged the futility of her husband’s dream of a China united under the Nationalist flag.

On the island of Taiwan, where the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, ruled uninterrupted for more than half a century until its defeat in the 2000 elections, her death dominated newscasts, and the Nationalist flag was ordered to fly at half-staff for three days.

But Taiwan’s flag was not lowered, and reaction on the streets was muted at best. To younger generations, Madame Chiang was seen as being “anti-democracy and anti-freedom,” according to a political observer who recalled her husband’s repressive regime. To Taiwanese Vice President Annette Lu, Madame Chiang’s death was simply the “end of a bygone era,” the final phase of an often inglorious passage of modern Chinese history.

Madame Chiang led a remarkable life that overlapped three centuries, stretching from the last days of imperial China through the revolutions and bloody conflicts that shaped the nation of today.

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She made a triumphal tour of the United States in 1943 that drew tens of thousands of Americans to rallies and raised millions of dollars for China at a time of great suffering and turmoil in the world. As a guest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she became the first Chinese and second woman to address both houses of Congress. For decades, she appeared on U.S. lists of the world’s most admired women.

After the death of Gen. Chiang in 1975, she left Taiwan for New York state but continued to influence Taiwanese politics through the 1990s. Yet she identified profoundly with America, having spent formative years here decades before she became the regal Madame Chiang.

“She often said, ‘I’m Chinese. I’m also American. I lived here as a young kid. I owe a lot to Americans,’ ” Wang said. “Her thinking and ideas were pretty much American.”

Born in 1898, Madame Chiang was a member of what was nearly a ruling dynasty, the powerful Soong family.

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She was one of six children of Han Chiao-shun, a merchant’s son who was known later as Charles Jones Soong. In the 1870s he made his way to America, where he was educated and trained by Methodists for missionary work. He returned to his own country in 1886 and made a fortune printing and peddling Chinese Bibles.

In 1894 he met the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. He helped finance Sun’s overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 and helped him establish the Chinese republic.

The Soong sons became bankers, the most notable of whom was Tse-ven, or T.V., who became foreign affairs and finance minister in the Nationalist government and Gen. Chiang’s frequent ambassador.

The Soong daughters extended the family’s domination through marriages so extraordinary that they inspired a saying: “Once upon a time there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, one loved China.

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The eldest sister, Ai-ling, married tycoon H. H. Kung, who was once reputed to be the richest man in the world. Reputed to be a direct descendant of Confucius, he also became an influential member of Chiang’s government.

The next sister, Ching-ling, married Sun, the father of the Chinese republic. Sometimes called the Mother of China, she accused the Kuomintang of betraying her husband’s principles and transferred her loyalties to the Communists. She eventually rose to a high position in Mao Tse-tung’s China.

Mei-ling, the future Madame Chiang, was the youngest Soong daughter.

Like her sisters, she received her early education at Shanghai’s elite McTyeire High School for Girls. At a time when warlords still ruled China and women had bound feet, she was allowed to let her feet grow freely. When she was barely 10 years old, she was sent to America to further her education.

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For the first few years Mei-ling was taught by private tutors in Macon, Ga., where her English became forever tinged with a Southern accent.

She later joined her sisters for a year at Macon’s Wesleyan College. According to some historians, the Soong sisters were the first Chinese women to receive an American college education.

In 1914, Mei-ling transferred to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she distinguished herself academically as an English major with a minor in philosophy and earned a degree in 1917.

After a decade in America, Mei-ling returned to her own country, feeling so thoroughly Westernized that, she later told a friend, “the only thing Oriental about me is my face.”

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To reconnect with her culture, she plunged into studying Chinese classics. She also worked for the Young Women’s Christian Assn. in Shanghai and sat on a commission to review motion pictures.

She reportedly rejected several wealthy suitors. According to Sterling Seagrave in his book, “The Soong Dynasty,” she claimed she “would rather be an old maid than just the wife of another Chinese tycoon.”

In the early 1920s she met her future husband, then a rising member of Sun’s military staff. After Sun’s death in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek assumed Sun’s mantle and tried to marry his widow, Ching-ling. Rebuffed, he set his sights on Mei-ling.

In the eyes of the devoutly Christian Soongs, however, Chiang was an unsuitable husband. He was Confucian and, in their eyes, a heathen. Moreover, he already had a wife, as well as a number of concubines. His many proposals were turned down until 1927, when the 39-year-old Chiang went to Tokyo for a brief respite from the frustrations of Kuomintang politics. He made a side trip to Kobe, where the matriarch of the Soong family had a home and reluctantly granted him a meeting.

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This time he offered proof of his divorce and promised to dispatch his concubines. When he also agreed to study the Bible as a prelude to a religious conversion, the final obstacle dissolved.

On Dec. 1, 1927, Mei-ling married the general in a private Christian ceremony at the Soong home in Shanghai. A civil ceremony followed in a majestic hotel ballroom. A week later, Chiang plunged into planning the conquest of northern China, which was still in the hands of warlords.

Unlike the other military wives, Madame Chiang abandoned the comforts of Shanghai to remain by her husband’s side in the squalid city of Nanking, then the Kuomintang capital. She organized political education schools for children orphaned in Nationalist battles and helped oversee construction of government buildings.

When the war in the north began, she accompanied her husband on his campaigns. By 1928, after his army reached Peking and Manchuria joined forces with the Nationalists, the country seemed unified at last. The commander of China’s vast armies became famous around the world, as did his beautiful wife.

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“Everybody who interviewed the Generalissimo found her with him, interpreting if need be; she and her husband discussed everything, from the foreign policy to the Bible, and she began to teach him English,” wrote Emily Hahn, a confidant and biographer of Madame Chiang’s in the 1930s, when Hahn reported on China for the New Yorker.

There was not a year during the 1930s that the general was not waging war -- against the growing ranks of Mao’s Communists or the Japanese, who had renewed their historic aggressions with the conquest of Manchuria in 1931. During this period of upheaval, Madame Chiang became the general’s voice in the West, giving interviews and authoring articles and books for American audiences.

“To Americans the effect was dangerously fascinating,” Seagrave wrote in his stinging portrait of the Soongs. “It was as if a brainy American college girl had taken over China and was providing a running commentary on what was true and false in the affairs of that mysterious and complicated nation.” In late 1936, on one of the rare occasions when Madame Chiang was not at the general’s side, he was kidnapped in the former imperial capital of Xian by northern warlords who wanted him to join forces with the Communists against the Japanese.

Chiang refused to capitulate to the rebels’ demands. Eleven days after his capture, Madame Chiang flew into Xian, accompanied only by her brother and an advisor. No one has ever recorded in full what transpired between the general and his kidnappers, who were consulting Communist leaders -- notably Chou En-lai -- during the entire episode. But two days after Madame Chiang joined his side, he was released. With the end of the crisis came a truce between the Nationalists and the Communists, who agreed to fight the Japanese as one force. Full-scale war against Japan was launched in 1937.

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Madame Chiang remained her husband’s closest advisor, often mediating between him and foreigners as China became a theater of combat in World War II. She sometimes dispensed with her translator’s role and took over when negotiations got tough. The results were often not in China’s favor.

With Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, the American military commander in China during the war, Madame employed her considerable powers to wheedle and cajole for American aid. Theodore White, then Time magazine’s correspondent in China, believed that the brittle relationship between Gens. Chiang and Stilwell was made worse by Madame Chiang.

One time she asked Stilwell to demand from the United States three troop divisions, 500 combat airplanes and 5,000 tons a month of other supplies. If the U.S. did not comply, Madame told him, China would withdraw from the war.

When Stilwell refused to deliver her ultimatum, Madame Chiang “got hot ... and started to bawl me out, obviously mad as hell, " Stilwell wrote in his diary. “She had snapped the whip and the stooge had not come across.”

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In late 1942, the Chiangs decided to make their appeal on American soil, featuring Madame as the emblem of a valiant but beleaguered China.

“America wanted a symbol of Chinese resistance at pretty dark times during the war,” said Jonathan D. Spence, the eminent China scholar at Yale University. “Chiang Kai-shek was not at all that kind of figure -- he was very aloof, not at all charismatic. Madame Chiang could project and spoke beautiful English. She was the right person at the right time to catch the nation’s attention.”

Her U.S. campaign was officially launched in Washington on Feb. 18, 1943. Photographs from the tour depict a small-boned woman in exquisitely tailored Chinese gowns, slit high to expose a comely length of leg. Fashionable in high heels and a gleaming mink coat, she presented an alluring combination of Asian femininity and Western style.

At the Capitol, members of Congress were “captivated ... amazed

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Applause thundered when she declared that the Chinese believed it better “not to accept failure ignominiously but to risk it gloriously.” At the end, she received an extraordinary four-minute standing ovation.

Before the day was done, congressmen and senators were advocating that the U.S. send dollars and arms to China. Roosevelt publicly promised the nation’s support at a news conference the next day.

Madame Chiang repeated her performance in New York City, where she drew a crowd of 20,000 to Madison Square Garden. The public outpouring continued over the following weeks during visits to Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

In Los Angeles, her final stop, 30,000 people packed a rally at the Hollywood Bowl, where she spoke movingly of finding the blood of wounded Chinese soldiers on her shoes during visits to the front lines.

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As she crossed America she was showered with gifts, large and small. In New Jersey, a woman sent her a $3 money order with a newspaper photo of a baby crying on the railroad tracks after an air raid in Shanghai. The money, the woman wrote, “is from my three daughters and it is for the little guy on the railroad tracks somewhere in China.” It was one of hundreds of letters that Madame Chiang received each day from the American public.

“Madame aroused a greater outpouring of admiration and welcome than anyone since Lindbergh flew the Atlantic,” observed historian Barbara W. Tuchman in her book “Stilwell and the American Experience in China.”

Behind the scenes, however, Madame Chiang was quickly wearing out her welcome. At the White House, where she stayed for two weeks, the staff experienced the full weight of the imperious Madame. Ignoring the phone and bells, she summoned servants by clapping her hands. She brought her own silk sheets from China and required that they be changed several times a day, even if she went to bed for only 10 or 15 minutes. She was, wrote White House chief butler Alonzo Fields in a memoir, “a most charming lady to those who did not serve her.”

At dinner one evening, Roosevelt asked her what she would do about the miners’ strike called by John L. Lewis. When “she drew a finger across her throat,” Tuchman wrote, “he threw his head back and laughed aloud and called across the table to his wife, ‘Eleanor, did you see that?’ ”

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Eleanor Roosevelt would later remark: “She can talk beautifully about democracy but does not know how to live democracy.” The president called her “hard as steel.”

Later that year, at a conference in Cairo, China was accorded “great power” status -- grudgingly by Churchill but more vigorously by Roosevelt, who wanted China’s help in holding back the Japanese. China’s welcome by the Western Allies was short-lived, however, as allegations of U.S. funds and supplies being waylaid by greedy Nationalist officials reached Washington.

The end of the long years of war in August 1945 found the Nationalist government weakened by corruption, internal fighting and rampant inflation, conditions that the Communists lost no time exploiting. China plunged back into civil war.

Determined to maintain Nationalist control, the Generalissimo again dispatched Madame Chiang to America. Instructed to plead for $3 billion for the war against the Communists, she left China in late November 1948. She was never to return.

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This time, Washington did not roll out the red carpet. Roosevelt was dead, and President Harry S. Truman was secretly investigating reports that millions of dollars in American loans to China had wound up in bank accounts of Soong family members in the United States. When Truman finally agreed to see Madame Chiang, he did not “greet with approval, or even with interest, her suggestions that America support Chiang openly against the Communists.... It was the worst rebuff she had encountered in all her life,” Hahn wrote in a 1955 biography of the Generalissimo. In late 1949, as Mao’s forces swept the last Nationalist strongholds, Chiang Kai-shek fled into exile on Taiwan. Wanted as a war criminal, along with his wife, by the Communists, he established what he maintained would be a temporary residence in Taipei pending the Nationalists’ reconquest of the mainland.

In early 1950, after an extended U.S. stay following her dismal reception by Truman, Madame Chiang joined her husband on the island and resumed a prominent role. “She was the official liaison to the American hierarchy in Taiwan, including the CIA,” said Jay Taylor, a historian and expert on the Chiangs who served as a U.S. Embassy officer in Taiwan in the 1960s.

She made several more trips to the U.S., where conservatives embraced her as an anti-communist spokeswoman. On Taiwan, President Chiang imposed martial law and squelched dissent with violence. Although he later sponsored limited democratic reforms and laid the basis for a flourishing economy, his stature on the world stage was severely diminished.

In 1971, the United Nations recognized the People’s Republic as the sole legitimate government of China. Most major nations followed suit the next year. The United States finally severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979.

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Madame Chiang gradually receded from view as Chiang Ching-kuo, the general’s son from a previous marriage, assumed more authority. When the Generalissimo died at 87 just before midnight on April 5, 1975, she was by his side. He was described in obituaries around the world as the man who lost China by tolerating corruption and incompetence on a grand scale.

After Ching-kuo succeeded him as president, Madame Chiang left Taiwan for New York.

She periodically reinserted herself in Kuomintang politics, most notably in 1988 when Ching-kuo died, leaving a vacancy in the Kuomintang’s leadership.

The party’s standing committee recommended that Lee Teng-hui, a native Taiwanese, be appointed acting chairman. But Madame Chiang wrote to the committee urging that the party opt for a collective leadership until its next congress, six months away. Her intervention caused a political crisis that delayed a decision on the chairmanship for 10 days.

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“She did intervene -- and she failed,” said Ramon H. Myers, a veteran Taiwan watcher and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Lee ultimately became party chairman, in effect ending four decades of Chiang family domination of the island’s affairs. Lee later became president and an outspoken advocate of democracy. On the eve of Taiwan’s 2000 presidential election, with the Nationalist Party in disarray, Madame Chiang issued a written appeal from New York, urging the Kuomintang to mend its divisions and prevent disaster. She endorsed Nationalist presidential hopeful Lien Chan over opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian, but Chen was victorious. His election ended 51 years of Kuomintang rule.

Although her triumphs had faded into history, Madame Chiang maintained a hold on the public’s imagination even in her final years.

In 1995 she was invited to a Capitol Hill reception commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Hundreds of well-wishers, mainly Chinese Americans, stood in sweltering heat outside the Capitol as Madame, then 97, delighted 140 members of Congress and other guests with remarks that recalled the roots of her long-standing affection for America. Five years later, when a number of her paintings were exhibited in New York, 13,000 visitors came to the show.

A similar flood of interest greeted the auction of several hundred items from the lavish estate where she had lived for 25 years before moving to Manhattan in 1998.

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About 10,000 Chinese Americans poured into the exclusive Long Island hamlet of Lattingtown on the day her family’s mansion was thrown open to the public. Her most faithful supporters were a group of 300 senior citizens, scattered around the world, who gathered in New York almost every year to celebrate her birthday. They were the descendants of the orphans she protected in the 1930s whose parents had died in battle. When they grew up, she continued to help many of them, sometimes by paying their college tuition.

“These people became doctors, businessmen. They called her Grandma,” Wang, the Library of Congress archivist, said of the woman who could not have children of her own. “This is her legacy. She never forgot that people died for China’s revolution in the ‘20s and ‘30s.”

Others have been far less gracious in their assessment of her role in history. Of this, Wang said, Madame Chiang was well aware. Yet she declined all interviews and never wrote a memoir.

According to Chu Chong-sheng of Taiwan’s Academica Historica, when the group asked her for an oral history, she refused, saying she believed that all judgments should be left to God.

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Survived by a niece and a step-granddaughter, Madame Chiang will be buried beside other Soong family members in a mausoleum in Westchester County, New York.

The date of the funeral has not been announced.

Special correspondent Tsai Ting-I in Taipei contributed to this report.


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