Madame Chiang Kai-shek, 105:
A former flame in America's love affair with China

by Sol Sanders
Monday, October 27, 2003

China's ruling communist inner circle has sent condolences to the family of Taiwanese former first lady Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who died Thursday at her home in New York City at age 105, praising her as a patriot and a "figure of influence" in modern China.The message reflected the communists' complex relationship with the widow of the late Nationalist leader Gen. Chiang Kai-shek — their former ally and former enemy. Just as complex was Madame Chiang's relationship with her adopted home, the United States.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek. AP
Rarely has America been more captivated by a foreign personality: Fifty-thousand people mobbed her in New York’s Chinatown, another 20,000 came to see her in Madison Square Garden, and bobbysoxers rioted in the Hollywood Bowl when 30,000 gathered to hear her speak for China. In 1943, Soong Mei-ling, daughter of a poor Chinese emigrant to the U.S. who had gone back to Shanghai (as a Christian convert) and struck it rich, was the quintessential representative of the victimized Chinese.

America had gone to war as a result of the dastardly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But it was the heart-rending suffering of the Chinese people after almost a decade of their war against the better-equipped and ever victorious Japanese militarists that pulled on American heartstrings. Who had not heard of the “Rape of Nanking” when the Japanese killed tens of thousands of Chinese in the most brutal manner! And there was guilt — at least among those in policymaking positions and in that small pre-World War II world of American foreign policy wonks: Tokyo’s war against the Chinese moved on oil and scrap iron sold to Japan by the U.S. And when it was cut off, the Japanese attacked the U.S. and its allies in East Asia — as some Old Asian Hands had predicted.

Now that China and the U.S. were full-fledged allies, Soong Mei-ling had come to ask for more help for China’s victims and her beleaguered armies. She came as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the beautiful and charming wife of the austere and aloof “Generalissimo”, leader of a tired and battered underdog nation. And her plea was delivered by an American-educated woman in fluent, vernacular American English, even with a slight Scarlett O’Hara accent from her early years in the U.S. as a student in a church-affiliated women’s college in the U.S. South. Yet and at the same time she seemed to epitomize that same mysterious and romantic China that had long been the scene of quintessentially American missionary philanthropy, gathered from millions of nickels and dimes deposited in alms baskets in churches on Sunday mornings across North America. All the stops were pulled out and China began to get massive aid, even from an America staggering under the effects of the massive defeat in the Pacific that had inaugurated the war and its commitments to Winston Churchill’s Britain.

But only five years later, by 1948, after what was intended as a second grand tour of the U.S. to find additional help, Mme. Chiang met disappointment — and then disaster. She had come for more aid to save her husband’s tottering regime that after a nagging civil war was falling victim to a new enemy, the Chinese Communists. Not only was there no official U. S. support in response to her mission. But the always immaculately coifed, beautiful “Dragon Lady” (the quintessential Oriental beauty who had been the model for the heroine of the vastly popular comic strip, ‘Terry and the Pirates”) could no longer communicate to an American audience tired of the war and struggle of four years of World War II. America’s heart, always so responsive to Chinese appeals in the past, had hardened to the “Missimo’s” impassioned speeches.

At home in China, the World War II victory and peace after a generation of grueling Japanese attacks and internecine conflict had come too late. China’s huge carcass, torn and bleeding from a century of colonial aggression, first by the Europeans and then by the Japanese, descended into hyperinflation and chaos. Stories of Chinese corruption and dictatorship abounded in an American media turned highly critical of the Madame and President Chiang. Young U.S. foreign service officers, embittered by years of frustration as advisers to the often oblivious Chinese, were ready to buy the argument that Chinese Communism would be “different” from its Russian model, that Mao Tse-tung and his peasant army followers were only “agrarian radicals”.

Mme. Chiang had once told a friend that because of her U.S. education and the Americanization of her family the only thing Chinese about her was her name. Now she had no choice but to abandon the America she had known as a vaunted celebrity and join her husband in their exile and refuge on the island of Taiwan (Formosa) off the south China coast. Already the local Taiwanese, treated relatively benignly as “a home island” under 50 years of Japanese occupation, had rebelled against the strong hand of the Chiang’s band of Kuomintang Party Mainlander refugee officials. It seemed only a matter of time before the Communists would invade and, with the same methods of propaganda and subversion they had used on the Mainland, destroy this last bastion of the old China.

But in another turn of history, in quick succession, the intensification of the Cold War between the two blocs after 1948, the signing of the Sino-Soviet alliance between Stalin and Mao in 1950, the dramatic Communist attack on South Korea and its bloody final stalemate laboriously reached in 1953 after Chinese intervention, made Chiang’s island fortress an important strategic asset for Washington as it revved up in a worldwide struggle against Moscow and its allies including the Chinese Communists. Taiwan, it was said, was an unsinkable aircraft carrier off the hostile Asian Mainland. In 1958, when the Chinese Communists finally seemed prepared to invade, the U.S. threatened nuclear war in the Taiwan Straits in defense of Chiang’s Nationalists. The Communists, if they indeed had intended to wipe out the exiled and discredited regime, had no choice but to pull back.

But it was a hollow victory for Chiang and his Madame. Nationalist China was still a pariah. Mme. Chiang’s supporters in the U.S., the so-called China Lobby, had become a symbol of failed policies and reviled in the media as reactionary political dinosaurs. As Mme. Chiang had predicted, on the Mainland wave after wave of terror — “Land Reform”, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution — brought a tyranny even more heinous than Stalinism to the so-called People’s Republic of China. Taiwan’s Republic of China remained a backwater under U.S. protection, an isolated enclave of traditional Chinese values.

Vindication for their anti-Communism did not come in Mei-ling’s husband’s lifetime. But it did come — in a sense — if slowly and without fanfare, even if not in the popular, always critical Western media.

Some of the bitterest old critics, especially in academia, recognized that increasingly Taiwan’s Chinese had profited from its privileged position. The regime learned from Gen. and Mme.’s mistakes on the Mainland. Successful land reform, industrialization, a return to China’s tradition of giving education the highest priority, all changed the Island’s once backward agrarian environment into one of the showplaces of East Asia, one of the few countries in the Third World where Washington officials could proudly point to the benefits of the vast sums poured into foreign aid.

The Generalissimo passed on, along with many of his older discredited refugee colleagues, and Madame slowly receded into the background, still a powerful figure behind the scenes. By the 1980s, Chiang’s old Kuomintang Party under the tutelage of his wife, and then his son, had created incredible prosperity for the 25 million people living in the Nationalists’ Republic of China on the island. In the 1990s, its government was moving, painfully but with manifest determination, toward liberal democracy, a paradigm of peace, prosperity, and personal freedom, for at least one small corner of the vast Chinese world. The new masters of the regime, most of them now of native Taiwanese, origins, had even given up claims to representing all Chinese on the Mainland as well as in Taiwan, content to be the model for a new post-Communist China that many hoped and believed might evolve as the octogenarian Communist revolutionaries died away.

As new leaders arose and the decades marched on, the Chiangs retreated into history, still tainted with the charges of corruption and malfeasance which had dogged them in the Civil War and afterward. But Mme. Chiang lived on until last week at 106, a lonely, and for the moment, a forgotten, once leading figure in one of the great ideological and personal struggles of the 20th century. Crippled by cancer but still alert, embittered by an America she feels turned on one of its own, she shuttled from her New York apartment to her home with her grandnieces and grandnephews in suburban New Jersey where she kept her famous tribe of Pekinese. She is the last of her dynasty — the Soongs: Gone is Elder Sister married to a famous Chinese financier and direct descendent of Confucius. Gone is Second Sister, married to the Chinese revolutionary and patron of her husband, Sun Yat-sen who founded the Chinese Republic, and who allied herself with the Communists until her death (1981) in Peking. Gone, too, is her dashing brother, T.V. Soong, the prototype of the pre-World War II Shanghai businessman and one of the legends of that generation who directed Chinese affairs before the Communists.

The jury is still out on this verdict of history. Was Soong Mei-ling the Chinese “angel” that her American admirers in the 1940s believed her to be, interpreter of East to West and West to East, working against heroic odds for the salvation of the ancient Chinese civilization, a victim of Western colonialism for a 100 years? Or was she the pampered, corrupt, and egocentric relic of the old “comprador capitalism” that Chinese reformers and propagandists claimed — a popular image which had gone so far in helping set the stage in America for Communism coming to power in China?

The argument goes on, just as the saga of America’s love affair with China goes on. For in a very dramatic way Mme. Chiang’s life story parallels that of modern China’s relations with America. Wartime infatuation with her as a Chinese symbol is only one chapter in that strange, emotional pattern of events that continues to dominate the history of U.S.-Chinese relations. From the beginnings of the Republic, in part drawn from a European wellspring of fascination with “Chinoiserie” in its intellectual as well as cultural manifestations, Americans have rarely been able to take a pragmatic and objective view of that far away, distant land and its 5,000-year-old civilization.

Although most contemporary Americans think of relations with China as only a part of our recent history, China has always intruded on American events. It was, after all, China and the Indies for which Columbus set sail. When the Puritan Cotton Matter in the early 1700s wanted an endowment for what was to become Yale University, Elihu Yale, a Boston-born English merchant, gave him the proceeds of a sale of an opium cargo he had shipped from India to China. (Yale in China, an effort to effect Chinese education and modernize the society, later became an important part of U.S.-China relations.) Our transcontinental railways would not have been built in mid-19th century for at least another generation had it not been for imported, exploited Chinese coolie labor. It was the embittered Chinese (and Japanese) exclusion laws that helped set the stage for World War II in the Pacific. In the post-Chiang era, the American left was as enamored of the Chinese Communists as American conservatives had been of Mme. Chiang; their followers, parlor Maoists widespread on U.S. university campuses, dominated American radical politics of the 1960s. Now, again, with the opening of the of the Chinese economy to the world, American businessmen, are smitten with the dream of a billion-man market, a dream of the West ever since the Italian trader Marco Polo’s journey to the China and residence in the court of the Great Khan in the 13th century. Once again as dramatic events take place in the oldest civilized society, Washington policy fluctuates between an aggressive missionary effort to end tyranny in the region and its lust for markets.

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