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Madame Chiang Kai-shek

Madame Chiang Kai-shek

Born Soong Mei-ling, December 2, 1898, in Kwangtung, China; died October 23, 2003, in New York, NY. Politician. Articulate, charismatic, and beautiful, Madame Chiang Kai-shek was the wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, one-time president of China. Unlike most Chinese women of her day, Madame Chiang was a woman of remarkable political influence and perhaps the most powerful woman on earth during the 1940s. In 1943, she became the first Chinese person, and only the second woman, to address a joint session of the United States Congress as she sought to have the United States repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had been in effect since 1882 and prohibited new Chinese immigration.

Madame Chiang was born Soong Mei-Ling on December 2, 1898, into an influential family in the Kwangtung province of China. She was educated in the United States, attending high school in Macon, Georgia, and earning a degree in English literature from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Wellesley honored her with the school's highest distinction when she was named a Durant Scholar in her senior year. Her years in the United States and the influence of western cultures on her led her to once note, "The only thing Oriental about me is my face."

After graduating from Wellesley, she returned to China. "She was in her mid-20s and the flower of Shanghai's intellectual community when she first caught the eye of Chiang Kai-shek, then chairman of the Supreme National Defense Council," noted Time contributor Pico Iyer. The couple married in 1927, and Madame Chiang quickly became an influential confidante to her husband. The following year, he became president of China when the Nationalist Party rose to power after overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, the last of China's royal dynasties.

Unlike the wives of many rulers and government leaders, Madame Chiang was highly influential. She became her husband's most trusted confidante, as well as his interpreter and chief propagandist. She also converted her husband, who was a Buddhist, to Christianity. Known for her powers of persuasion, as well as her beauty, Madame Chiang once saved her husband's life when he was taken by the troops of a angry warlord. She not only persuaded the warlord to release her husband but, according to one version of the story, also got the warlord to surrender himself into their custody.

In the 1930s, Madame Chiang was a prime mover in China's New Life Movement, which focused on a moral rebirth of the Chinese people and focused on such values as dutifulness, discipline, loyalty and cleanliness. The effort garnered attention from the world press, and Madame Chiang became the movement's most eloquent and famous spokesperson.

During World War II, Madame Chiang traveled the world eliciting support for her country's battle against Japan. A report about her death on CNN.com noted, "Her husband could not speak English and hated talking with foreigners so Chiang took on the role of his spokesman, wowing world leaders and especially Washington." The story went on to note, "The American public became enamored with Madame Chiang, and her name appeared annually on the U.S. list of the ten most admired women in the world."

Although China, with the help of its allies, defeated the Japanese, the Nationalist Party's rule was to be short lived. In 1949, China underwent a communist revolution. Madame Chiang and her husband fled mainland China and settled in Taipei, Taiwan, where they remained as leaders of the Nationalist government until the Generalissimo's death in 1975.

Following her husband's death, Madame Chiang moved to the United States, where she lived in a New York City apartment and a family mansion on Long Island. Although her days as a powerful influence were largely over, she was still revered by many. When the United States broke off diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1978 to establish stronger relations with China, Madame Chiang did not comment on the change of diplomacy.

Once called the "Empress of China" by writer Ernest Hemingway, Madame Chiang was the last surviving world figure of World War II when she died on October 23, 2003, in her apartment in New York City; she was 106. Memorial services were held at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City. She was buried in a family cemetery in upstate New York with the stipulation that her remains will be returned to China if the country becomes democratic and reunites with Taiwan.

Sources

Asian Political News, March 12, 2001.

Clari News, http://quickstart.clari.net/qs_se/webnews/wed/dj/Qustaiwan-chiang.Rbmq_DOU.html (November 13, 2003).

CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/east/10/24/obit.madame.chiang/index.html (November 13, 2003).

Guardian Newspapers, http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/11-4-2003-47260.asp (November 13, 2003).

San Francisco Chronicle, October 25, 2003.

Time, November 3, 2003.

Wellesley College, http://www.wellesley.edu/Anniversary/chiang.html (November 13, 2003).

—Marie Thompson

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