Book Reviews Non-Fiction
The Last Empress - Madam Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China by Hanna Pakula, Simon & Schuster, hardcover, $42.00, 787 pages (with illustrations), ISBN 978-1-4391-4893-8
By Alidė Kohlhaas
The Last Empress - Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China by Hannah Pakula is not merely a biographical sketch of May-ling (Mei-ling) Soong (Madame Chiang), but a fascinating history lesson. While Pakula frequently veers off her main subject, she never bores the reader, but leads one to an understanding as to why in the end the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government had to fail against the Communists. To write only Madame Chiang Kai-shek's biography without the diversions to the past and to the other players in her life would leave most readers lost as to cause and effect.
Before entering into the life of May-ling, third daughter of Charlie Soong, we learn what made a boy from rural China turn into a graduate from Vanderbilt University, a confirmed Methodist, future preacher, lover of all things American, and eventually one of Shanghai's richest men. Soong expected as much of his three daughters as he did of his three sons, thereby going against the conventions of his time. He could not foresee that his youngest daughter would be called The Dragon Lady, The Empress or the most important woman of the 20th century, depending on who made the statement, and when.
May-ling was born in 1898 (but also possibly 1896 or '97) in Shanghai and soon revealed she was a strong-willed child, who managed to persuade her parents to let her follow her older sisters to America when only 10. Educated in a number of Georgia boarding schools before entering Wellesley College, she learned to speak with a perfect southern accent just as she learned to charm and manipulate people to her own end with perfect ease as she grew older. A plump duckling as a child, she turned into an elegant swan as an adult, though barely five feet tall. By the time she returned to China in 1917, she had become thoroughly westernized and found it difficult to fit into Shanghai's way of life.
As Pakula observed in her book, "She had not been given a Western education in order to spend her afternoons at the mah-jongg [sic] table." Neither would her parents have wanted her to lead a useless life, nor did they want a typical Chinese marriage for her in which she would have been turned into an unpaid, voiceless servant of her in-laws. Yet they objected to a Western suitor, an architect of Dutch and French background whom she had met while sailing back from the USA to Shanghai. She later wrote to her friend, Emma Mills, that "Since I cannot marry someone I really care for, I shall not marry for anything else except fame & money." Which is exactly what she did by marrying Chiang Kai-shek, 11 years her senior.
In this way she followed her sister Ching-ling, who had married the much older Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the future "father" of the Chinese republic following the overthrow of the Ch'ing Dynasty in 1911. Although Sun had been a friend of Charlie Soong's and a fellow Christian, he already had a wife through an arranged marriage by his family. The 30-year difference in age between Ching-ling and Sun, and the existence of another wife horrified the strict Methodist morality of the Soong parents. It caused a deep rift in the family that would eventually be healed only through eldest daughter, Ai-ling, who had married the wealthy banker, H.H. Kung, a directed descendant of Confucius (Kung Fu-tzu). Hers was the only conventional marriage among the three Soong sisters.
Chiang Kai-shek had been Sun's deputy, who managed to maneuver himself into the position of taking over reins of the Nationalist Party following Sun's death. Unlike Sun, however, Chiang felt Communism was the enemy of China, an opinion he reached after Sun had sent him to Russia. May-ling and Chiang first met in 1920, but did not marry until 1927. Chiang had to promise May-ling's mother (her father long dead by then) that he would convert to Christianity from Buddhism before she gave her blessing to the union. May-ling, despite her own devout Christianity, conveniently overlooked the existence of two previous wives, and her husband's association with Shanghai underworld figures. And, as her story evolves, it becomes clear that she was prepared to overlook many other faults in her husband, and in those who surrounded him, to gain the influence and power she desired for both of them.
Although her husband did convert to Christianity, he failed to learn to speak sufficient English to communicate. Hence, May-ling became her husband's voice on the international stage, and with his Western advisors. Of course, being extremely inflexible, he did not always follow her advice or that of others, which turned out to the detriment of the Nationalists. Nor did he follow the strong suggestions of the American generals and politicians, who, after all, footed most of the bill of his misdirected attempts to rout Mao's forces. They rightly expected that he first take care of the Japanese. While at one time the Chiangs were seen in the West as modernizing influences on China, this faded and even the Roosevelts became disenchanted by May-ling, their White House guest during the war. Later, President Harry Truman referred to May-ling's husband as "Cash My-check." Yet, May-ling managed to extract more than a billion dollars (1940\50s currency) from the Americans, such was her manipulative charm.
Pakula gives us a well-informed description of the Chiangs' stay in WWII's Chongqing, where the Nationalist forces had set up their headquarters. It is there that Ernest Hemingway referred to May-ling as "empress" in a not too flattering manner. It is from him that Pakula borrowed the term for for her main title of this biography. Hemingway, like so many others, saw the extravagance in which May-ling lived and traveled, even in wartime. And, then there are the three demands Chiang issued to the Americans, telling them if they were not met, "there would be a 'liquidation' of the Chinese theater and a 'readjustment' of China's position." May-ling not only supported these demands, but expected the American general in charge of affairs in China to give them his personal recommendation, something he understandably refused. We also learn of May-ling's affair with an important American presidential hopeful, who had come to Chongqing. It is not clear whether Chiang knew of his wife's indiscretion.
After the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, May-ling spent more and more time abroad, perhaps to avoid being painted by the ruthlessness of the Kuomintang (KMT). But, May-ling had her own ruthless side as Eleanor Roosevelt discovered. When the US had problems with the United Mine Workers and their leader, John L. Lewis, Mrs. Roosevelt asked her guest how she might deal with this problem. "She never said a word," Mrs. Roosevelt revealed, "but the beautiful, small hand came up and slid across her throat." That gesture was very much indicative of how the KMT dealt with its opponents in China and on Taiwan.
After Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, May-ling moved to New York City to lead a reclusive life. She rarely returned to Taiwan, where the people had turned against the KMT. At home in Manhattan she had contact with her American relatives, mostly the children of her brothers and sister Ai-ling. Not that she lived humbly. That was not May-ling's style. The apartment at 10 Gracie Square had 18 rooms, and she employed 24 servants. But she could not help trying to interfere in Taiwan's affairs. As late as 2000, when she was 103 years old, she tried to sway the election in favor of the KMT from New York, but failed. She died on October 23, 2003 and was interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, NY with the intension of eventually being buried with her husband on Mainland China.
Pakula could easily have concentrated solely on May-ling Soong and her conflicting emotions and tendencies, in which west seemed constantly to be at war with east. For the reader, though, this book would have been a less satisfying experience. She mined a rich vein when she plunged into the historic aspects of China, especially the Ch'ing Dynasty, and the life under the corrupt Empress Cixi, the equally corrupt eunuchs, and the history of the opium wars, before she turned to May-ling's story. There are plenty of biographies of May-ling to be found, and countless histories of the dynasties, but the combination of the two created a new experience, demanding in its length and breadth, but eminently revealing. In some ways it is a story from which we can learn just how little China changes, despite outer trappings, and political philosophies.