»  National Review Online

October 28th, 2003

  Wife to a Footnote

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[I left the impression in this article that Chiang Kai-shek is interred at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. In fact his body rests at one of his summer villas, in the mountains of Taiwan's Taoyuan County, near Shih-men dam. You can walk through the room where his body lies, though you are expected to bow respectfully.]

I imagine the death of Madame* Chiang Kai-shek** barely registered with any non-Chinese person much under the age of sixty. The lady was 105 years old, and had not been in the news in any interesting way since 1988, when she made an unsuccessful attempt to interfere in Taiwan politics. She had not had any real prominence in the minds of most Americans since the 1940s, when her husband ruled China. Chiang's rule ended in 1949, when he lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Tse-tung's communists. Chiang fled to Taiwan with his entourage and the remnants of his army. He became a footnote to history, and Madame Chiang the wife of a footnote.

Madame Chiang was born Soong May-ling, the fourth child of a Shanghai millionaire who had done most of his growing up in the U.S.A., under the care of missionaries. She herself came to the States at age ten. She spent five years at a private school in Georgia before going to Wellesley, where she was a student 1913-17. All her life she spoke flawless American English with a slight Scarlett O'Hara accent.

The accent was not the only resemblance. May-ling was a pretty, social and strong-willed woman, with few scruples about method when she was determined to get her way. Though she was famous for saying that "The only thing oriental about me is my face," her destiny was always bound up with China's. This was true even before she married Chiang Kai-shek in 1927; her father had helped finance Sun Yat-sen's 1911 revolution, the one that brought down the last imperial dynasty. The story of her family has been very well told by Sterling Seagrave, in a book I reviewed some years ago for a London newspaper.

So far as Madame Chiang and her husband are remembered at all by Americans nowadays, it is with some distaste. Before explaining why, I had better include my standard disclaimer.

In writing about 20th-century Chinese history, one needs to proceed with great care. You can never be too skeptical about what you read. Neither of the two major regimes that held power in post-imperial China tolerated free inquiry; both employed very skilful propagandists; both had foreign shills working for them who were either well paid — Madame Chiang's brother Paul ("T.V. Soong") may have been the richest person in the world in the early 1940s — or ideologically committed to the viewpoint they were propagating, or both. Even after the mid-century shills had laid down their pens and more objective observers came along, the secondary sources were so corrupted that it needed a diligent scholar indeed to get to the bottom of things.

For example: One of the people who attempted to teach me Chinese was a lady named Anne Chang, whose husband had served on Chiang Kai-shek's personal staff during the Chinese civil war of 1945-49. The first time I had dinner with the Changs, I prepped up by reading a biography of Chiang Kai-shek I got from the local library. The biography — I forget the author's name — was unfriendly. To illustrate what a control freak Chiang was, the author noted that he made all the members of his staff practice calligraphy for an hour every day. I mentioned this at dinner with the Changs. "Nonsense," said Mr. Chang. "I was on the Generalissimo's staff for three years, and he never made me practice calligraphy." Was the biographer a liar? Or was he an honest man taken in by dishonest secondary sources? Or was Mr. Chang telling a fib out of loyalty to his old boss? I have no clue.

Even allowing for the fog of propaganda and misprepresentation that shrouds China's recent history, however, and giving the benefit of all possible doubt, it is clear that Chiang Kai-shek was a nasty piece of work, and his wife very little better. China was desperately unlucky in her rulers during the 20th century. Possibly there was some systemic reason for this, and sinologists are not shy about coming up with theories. Whatever the case, the post-imperial rulers are a depressing lot. A thumbnail sketch of 20th-century Chinese leadership looks like this:

1900-08 — Corrupt, disintegrating imperial dynasty under reactionary old Empress. Widening chaos.
1908-12 — Corrupt, disintegrating imperial dynasty under infant emperor, unprincipled eunuchs, and incompetent bureaucrats. Chaos widens further.
1912 (for two months) — Sun Yat-sen, a brave, intelligent and sincere man, out-maneuvered by more ruthless operators. Major chaos.
1912-16 — Yuan Shikai, unscrupulous warlord with imperial ambitions. Total chaos.
1916-28 — The Warlord Era, in which the country was only theoretically under central control. In practice it was divided among powerful military bosses, some of them mere gangsters, some quite sophisticated ideologues. Utter chaos, spasmodic civil war.
1928-49 — Chiang Kai-shek, a dictator on the fascist model, who, in addition to his own failings as a ruler, had to cope with the Japanese invasion (from 1931 on), and with the rise of powerful communist warlord Mao Tse-tung. Major chaos, invasion, recalcitrant warlords, world war, civil war.
1949-76 — Mao Tse-tung's Leninist dictatorship. Spells of chaos alternating with secret-police terror.
1976-99 — Leninism Lite under Deng Xiaoping and a succession of his lackluster appointees. Chaos abates, prosperity rises, but all without law, liberty or justice, and garnished with sensational levels of corruption.

It is an interesting and much-debated question to what degree the Chiangs were patriots who actually wished to do something for their poor storm-tossed nation. "To no degree at all," many people will tell you, with good justification. The Chiangs certainly regarded the enriching of themselves, their relatives, and their business associates to be a very high priority — higher than the welfare of low-class Chinese people, to which they seem to have been stonily indifferent. Joe Stilwell referred to Chiang as "Generalissimo Cash My Check." (Patrick Hurley preferred "Chancre Jack." The two men's pet names for Mao Tse-tung were, respectively, "Mouse Tongue" and "Moose Dung.")

Chiang did not even bother much with advertising his regime to the peasantry. His main propaganda efforts were addressed to the urban middle classes and foreign sources of finance and military aid. He seems to have thought of the peasants, in his own mind, as a kind of livestock. His wife shows little sign of having thought about them at all.

The idea that the Chiangs were motivated by nothing more than avarice seems to me an over-simplification, though. Patriotism is an odd thing, no more than half of which dwells in the conscious mind. Chinese patriotism is a particularly knotty variety, all tangled up with racial pride and historical resentments. The very concept of a nation, as it has been understood in the West since the Middle Ages, did not take hold in China until well into the 20th century. In Imperial times, the common term used by the Chinese to refer to their country was tianxia — "all under heaven." The imperial Chinese were of course aware of the existence of foreigners, but under the official ideology, all non-Chinese were mere savages, whose proper relationship to the Dragon Throne was one of subservient admiration. This applied to the British and French just as much as to Tibetans or Mongolians; that is why Lord Macartney, sent by Britain as an ambassador in 1793, was expected to kowtow to the Emperor. (He refused, and after much diplomatic wrangling, a compromise was struck.)

Chiang Kai-shek had had a disgraceful early career in the Shanghai underworld, well-attested by British police records from the International Settlement in that city. Foreigners all found him impossible to work with. He was secretive, rude, and cruel, and had a vicious temper. His writings, though — including his private diaries, captured in the ludicrous Xi'An Incident of 1936 — were often passionately patriotic. I have met several Chinese people who worked for Chiang, and all spoke well of him, as a sincere patriot. The relatives of the tens of thousands murdered by his secret police, or of those soldiers who died in his ill-executed military campaigns, or of the peasants who starved to death while Chiang's own relatives looted the nation's wealth, cannot be expected to agree; but I am inclined to credit the Chiangs with a few non-selfish motives in spite of it all.

Oddly, the older generation of Chinese communists — people like my father-in-law, who joined the Party in 1953 — agree, and it is unusual to hear them speak harshly of Chiang. When he died in 1975, the communists offered to make a suitable burial plot available for him in his home district. (The offer was refused.) The Chinese can be disarmingly amoral about the pursuit of power. "If you win, you're the Emperor; if you lose, you're a bandit," goes the old saying. Just a matter of luck, really.

The Chiangs lost. They retreated to Taiwan, where, with an ill grace, at the point of a U.S. military-aid budget, and after some salutary massacres to show the Taiwanese — formerly a contented Japanese colony — who was boss, they carried out the kinds of reforms that might have saved their regime on the mainland, thus laying the foundations of Taiwan's modern prosperity. The Generalissimo*** died in 1975 and h is son took over. This was May-ling's stepson, Chiang and she having had no children. (Nor any sex life at all, according to some Chinese gossip. It was a frank marriage of convenience, Chiang getting access to the Soong family ATM and American connections, the Soongs plugging in to the power of a solidifying military dictatorship. The main passion of Chiang's life was his second wife, Chen Jieru, who was shipped off to America so Chiang could marry May-ling, but who soon found her way back, and seems to have borne Chiang's child in 1944. She died in Hong Kong while I was living there, in 1972. Chiang also had a long succession of mistresses, though.)

Relations between Chiang Junior and his stepmother had always been tense, so after Junior got power in Taiwan, May-ling took herself off to live in New York. There was a house here on Long Island and an apartment in Manhattan. The Long Island house, a couple of miles from my own, was given up in 1998 and briefly opened to public viewing — it was full of Chinese art objects — before being sold. My wife and I drove over to join the viewing, but the entire Chinese population of the greater New York area had got there before us and we didn't even get close.

Soong May-ling died at her Manhattan apartment last Thursday.

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* Why "Madame," not "Mrs"? The English-language convention used to be that foreigners from a few familiar nations — France, Germany, Spain, Italy — were referred to using the appropriate title in their own language: Herr Wagner, Signora Rossini, and so on. Other foreigners defaulted to their title in French, the language of diplomacy. This convention seems now to have been dropped, except in one or two self-consciously punctilious newspapers.

** "Chiang" is the surname. Chinese is one of those languages, like Hungarian and Romanian, in which the surname is placed first.

*** Here is another Stilwell-ism: "The problem here is, the communists got the General, we got the Issimo."