Song Meiling (b. 1897)

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Song Meiling (b. 1897)

Leading member of the most influential Chinese family of the first half of the 20th century, and wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who was undoubtedly the most powerful woman of her time. Name variations: Soong or Sung May-ling, Mayling, or Mei-ling; Madame Chiang, Madame Chiang Kai-shek or Madame Chiang Kaishek; Mme. Jiang Jieshi; Chiang Mei-ling. Pronunciation: Soong MAY-ling. Born on March 5, 1897, in Shanghai, China; youngest daughter of Charlie Jones Song (a business leader and philanthropist born Hon Chao-Shun or Jia-shu Song) and Ni Guizhen (Ni Kweitseng, daughter of a wealthy scholar family in Shanghai who believed in Christianity, also known as Song Guizhen); educated at Potwin's private school, Wesleyan College, and Wellesley College, Massachusetts; married Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975, the nationalist leader and ruler of China, 1927–49), on December 1, 1927. (See also Song Sisters.)

Bearing a name that can best be translated as "Beautiful Life," Song Meiling was born in Shanghai on March 5, 1897, the fourth of six children of Charlie Jones Song and Ni Guizhen . The American-educated Charlie was a devout Methodist who made his fortune publishing Bibles in Chinese as well as importing heavy machinery. He had secretly been a most powerful backer of the revolutionary movement of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Ni Guizhen stemmed from one of China's oldest and most illustrious evangelical Christian families. A native of Shanghai, she had received a Western education and was a pillar of Shanghai Methodism.

In all China, no family would be better connected. One sister of Meiling, Song Ailing (see Song Sisters ), married H.H. Kung, later China's leading banker, finance minister, and supposedly a lineal descendent of Confucius. Another, Song Qingling (see Song Sisters ), married the founder of the Chinese republic, Sun Yatsen. One brother, the extremely wealthy T.V. Song, became the economic wizard of the Chinese government, intermittently serving as economic minister, foreign minister, and prime minister. Two other brothers, T.L. Song and T.A. Song, were financiers.

Tutored at home until 1907, Meiling was sent to Miss Clara Potwin 's modest preparatory school in Summit, New Jersey. In the summer of 1908, she accompanied her sister Qingling to the Georgia hill town of Demorest. Meiling spent the eighth grade in a local school there while Qingling began studies at Wesleyan College, Macon. Bright, precocious, and occasionally sassy, Meiling soon became an unofficial student at Wesleyan; college administrators broke formal rules to permit her access to classes.

In 1912, Meiling began her freshman year at Wesleyan, but within a year transferred to the prestigious Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, from which she graduated in 1917. Proficient in her courses and in athletics, and speaking English with a lilting Georgia accent, she was known for her inquisitive attitude, independence of thought, and rugged honesty. By then, she felt so Americanized that she confessed, "The only thing Chinese about me is my face."

Returning to Shanghai in 1917, Song Meiling became known for her drive, charm, and wit. As she was hardly acquainted with her own country, it took formal lessons to make her fluent in Chinese. She soon became one of the city's leading socialites. In the words of biographer Roby Eunson: "She had beauty and breeding and money to dress exquisitely, making her an asset to any of the endless and lavish parties held by foreigners and a few westernized Chinese." Yet, highly community-minded, she was active in the Film Censorship Board and the Young Women's Christian Association. She was the first woman and the first Chinese national to serve on the Municipal Council's child labor committee, which in 1924 issued a damning report on sweatshop conditions.

In early December 1921, Song Meiling met the nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek, whose armies controlled much of China. Though uneducated and inarticulate, Chiang was a determined and forceful military leader. Yet only on December 1, 1927, were they married. The wedding was a major social event embodying a union between China's new business elite and an equally new and ambitious military caste; it was attended by 1,300 people and made the front page of The New York Times. Meiling's mother Guizhen had opposed the marriage because Chiang was a Buddhist and a bigamist, sister Qingling opposed the match because she found Chiang betraying the ideals of her deceased husband, Dr. Sun. Yet sister Ailing, brother T.V., and brother-in-law H.H. Kung all supported the union, and Chiang helped fend off objections by claiming that he had made a proper divorce and would study Christianity. (Chiang was then married to Chen Jieru ; his first wife was Mao Fumei .) After the wedding, he became a Methodist, becoming baptized in 1930.

Ni Guizhen (c. 1869–1931)

Matriarch of the influential Song family. Name variations: Song Guizhen; Mrs. Charles Jones Song; Mme Charlie Song or Soong; Ni Kwei-tsent or Ni Kweitseng; Ni Kwei-tseng Song or Soong; Mammy Soong. Born Ni Guizhen (Ni Kwei-tseng or Ni Kweitseng) around 1869; died of cancer in 1931; daughter of Yuin San; married Charlie Jones Song (a business leader and philanthropist born Hon Chao-Shun or Jia-shu Song), in 1886; children: six, including Song Ailing (1890–1973); Song Qingling (1893–1981); Song Meiling (b. 1897); T.V. Song (diplomat, finance and foreign minister, who married Anna Chang ); T.L. Song (Song Zeliang or Tse-liang); and T.A. Song (Song Ze-an or Tse-an).

Ni Guizhen was a direct descendant of prime minister Wen Dinggong (Wen Ting-Kung) of the Ming dynasty who was converted to Christianity under the tutelage of the Jesuit Matthew Ricci in 1601. In the 17th century, his daughter built churches and hospitals. Ni Guizhen's mother veered from her Catholic upbringing and became a Protestant when she married Ni Guizhen's father Yuin San. In 1886, the well-educated 17-year-old Ni Guizhen married Charlie Jones Song, an American-educated Methodist minister who had a degree in theology from Vanderbilt. Charlie Song left the ministry and set up a printing house to publish Bibles while Ni Guizhen brought up their six children, sending them to McTyeire School, a Methodist school in Shanghai. She later was instrumental in sending her daughters to Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. A devout Christian, Ni Guizhen gave Bible readings and was known for her charity. When Chiang Kai-shek once asked Meiling, "What exactly is a Christian?" she replied, "My mother is the finished product. I am a Christian in the making."


Deen, Edith. Great Women of the Christian Faith. NY: Harper, 1959.

American journalist Helen Foster Snow writes of the marriage: Meiling "was a hostage in the ancient Chinese tradition, a pledge of good faith between families and political interests. But Chiang was a dashing and handsome officer of strong personality and boundless ambition, and there is no reason why it should not have been a love match on both sides." Qingling was caustic, saying Chiang "would have agreed to be a Holy Roller to marry Meiling. He needed her to build a dynasty." Yet later, Qingling would claim that without Meiling's guidance, Chiang's authoritarian rule "might have been much worse."

A few days after their marriage, the couple moved to Nanjing (Nanking), where Chiang was selected to head the Guomindang government. As first lady of China, Song Meiling—now known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek—organized hospitals, nursing corps, schools for orphans, rural service clubs, and recreation halls for soldiers. She served continually on government committees, made inspection tours, and frequently accompanied Chiang to the front lines, where he was first fighting warlords and then Communists. Here she changed silk and satin gowns for a slack suit, high-heeled slippers for flat walking shoes. Often she would sleep in railway stations, thatched huts, and farm houses. In October 1929, she and her husband traveled in China's northeast, the first time she really became known among the Chinese people. Notes biographer Emily Hahn :

She began to emerge in her own right into the public eye during the wanderings. The necessity of making speeches day after day cured her of shyness and toughened her against the fatigues of what might be called electioneering. In each city she took upon herself the job of marshaling the women and urging them to help in a nationwide reform. She talked against the old ways of China, the incarceration of upper-class women, the menace of opium and of dirt and poverty; she begged them to develop a sense of social responsibility.

More than anyone else, Meiling was the spearhead of Chiang's "New Life Movement," an effort to unite China around an ideology combining tenets of Dr. Sun, Christian missionaries, and traditional Confucianism. By following the "four virtues" of courtesy, service, honesty, and honor, China would have a new national consciousness that would enable it to solve its "four great needs": clothing, food, housing, and transportation. Claiming "'Except a man be born again' he cannot see New Life," she called on women to cultivate their own "four virtues": chastity, appearance, speech, and work. Though New Life involved such projects as Western hygiene, the construction of sewers, improving the water supply, and attacks on superstition, the movement seemed embodied in simplistic maxims: don't spit, safety first, good roads, watch your step, keep to the right, line up here, fresh air and sunshine, swat the fly, brush your teeth, take your vitamins, love thy neighbor, stop, look and listen, better babies, and clean up, paint up, fix up.

Such details, Meiling said, were merely outward signs of far more important spiritual reforms, centering on China's "four values": propriety, justice, integrity, and conscientiousness. Time magazine correctly called New Life "a big dose of the castor oil of Puritanism." She once said, "Putting new wine into old bottles is not an easy task…. I have spent one hundred per cent of effort to get one per cent of result."

Despite such crusades, she occasionally sounded like a Social Darwinist. When, in 1935, someone told her that it was useless to speak of New Life while Chinese people lacked rice, she replied, "There is plenty of rice. But those who have it hoard it, and those who do not have it do not understand the dignity of labor. No work is too hard if one is honest."

Chen Jieru (fl. 1920)

Second wife of Chiang Kai-shek. Name variations: Ch'en Chieh-ju. Flourished around 1920; said to have been a prostitute; became second wife of Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), in November 1921 (marriage lapsed). Chiang's first wife was Mao Fumei.

Mao Fumei (1892–?)

First wife of Chiang Kai-shek. Name variations: Mao Fu-mei. Born in 1892; became first wife of Chiang Kai-shek, in 1909 (divorced 1921); children: Zhang Jingguo (Chiang Chingkuo), later president of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

At age 17, Mao Fumei entered into an arranged marriage with 14-year-old Chiang Kai-shek, whom she had never seen. They were married for 12 years. Their son, Zhang Jingguo, would be president of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Her personality and power remain debated to this day. Positive qualities included administrative ability, a lively sense of phrasing, quickness of mind, and unquestioned devotion to her nation. To such admirers as Henry Luce, America's most powerful publisher, she was "the brains of China," the chic, gracious, and cultured modernizer of a land in the process of being rescued from feudal despotism by Western technology, foreign investment, and the Christian religion. In Luce's Time magazine, Generalissimo Chiang was always the "Gissimo," Mme

Chiang "the Missimo" and indeed Luce was the greatest factor in making the couple familiar to the American public.

Mme Chiang's critics were particularly prevalent among American journalists and the lower-ranking diplomatic corps. To them, she was a woman of intense arrogance, imperious ego, and ostentatious wealth, a spoiled insincere snob wrapped in furs and bedecked with jade. Some claimed that she was the model for Milton Caniff's cartoon character "The Dragon Lady."

Though no one would deny that Meiling was a woman of great influence, the extent of her dominance is also disputed. According to American journalist John Gunther, writing in 1939, "She is probably the second most important and powerful personage in China," coming "immediately after the Generalissimo in influence." Writes biographer Sterling Seagrave, Chiang Kai-shek "offered her the opportunity to implement historic changes, to alter the life of China according to her will. [Meiling] saw herself as a Medici able to alter destinies." Yet historian Donald G. Gillin is far more cautious, denying that the Songs, and in particular Meiling, were the real power behind Chiang. "On the contrary," writes Gillin, "Chiang probably made such extensive use of the Songs and the Kungs in part because they lacked real power. They were peculiarly dependent upon him and, therefore, likely to remain loyal to him in a political environment where treachery and betrayal were commonplace."

As Chiang Kai-shek spoke no English, Meiling served as his interpreter and voice to the Western world, thereby possessing untold influence in crucial diplomatic negotiations. Highly conscious of the need for a positive American image of her nation, and alert to all techniques of public relations, she did all she could to enhance China's visibility. She granted interviews and wrote letters, magazine articles, and books—all designed for an American audience and all stressing her nation's rich cultural heritage and highlighting her Christian roots and U.S. education. If, arguably, she had negligible impact on fellow Chinese, she was such an asset in molding Western opinion that Chiang confessed she was worth ten divisions.

In 1936, Chiang briefly put Meiling in charge of China's air force, by making her secretary-general of the Commission on Aeronautical Affairs. The procuring system had become so shot with corruption that Chiang would trust no one but his wife to buy planes at the market price. Journalist Frances Gunther quipped: "Was this the face that launched a thousand airships?"

On December 12, 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped at Xian (Sian) just as he was about to launch an anti-Communist "annihilation campaign." Warlord Zhang Xueliang (Chiang Hsueh-liang), known as "the Young Marshal," and General Yang Huzheng (Yang Hu-Cheng), who controlled much of northwestern China, sought to convince the generalissimo to cancel all such plans, join forces with the Communist guerrillas based at Yenan, and create a united front against further Japanese penetration. To rescue her husband, Meiling immediately flew to Xian. As her plane was about to land, she pulled a revolver from her handbag and gave instructions to William Henry Donald, an Australian and close family adviser, to shoot her if she were attacked. Though the specific negotiations that ensued are still a matter of speculation, she gained widespread admiration for her courage. Chiang wrote in his diary:

I was so surprised to see her that I felt as if I were in a dream. I had told T.V. more than once the day before that my wife must not come to Xian, and when she braved all danger to come to the lion's den, I was very much moved and almost wanted to cry.

Beginning in July 1937, China was involved in full-scale war with Japan. Touring the battlefront that October, Mme Chiang was almost killed when a Japanese plane strafed her car while she was visiting hospitals at the front. In 1938, she organized the evacuation of thousands of Hankou (Hankow) factory workers and their families. During the war, she led the National Refugee Children's Association, which supported 25,000 orphans, and with her sister Ailing started the Women's Advisory Committee, an effective war-relief group.

Meiling often broadcast to the United States, pleading with Americans to boycott Japanese goods and to stop supplying oil to Japan. Furthermore, her books saturated the American market. The year 1938 saw her Messages in War and Peace, a potpourri of speeches and articles that nonetheless revealed much of her thinking. In 1940, This Is Our China appeared, a series of essays that combined such matters as her religious faith, travel impressions, and tales of old dynasties with an impassioned indictment of the Japanese. A year later, her China Shall Rise Again was published, a condemnation of the democracies for failing to aid China and a prediction of her nation's ultimate triumph. In 1943, still another volume of speeches, We Chinese Women, came out.

After December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States was China's full-fledged ally. In November 1942, at the invitation of American politician Wendell Willkie, Mme Chiang flew to the U.S. First, she underwent secret treatment at New York's Harkness Pavilion for urticaria (hives), a skin disease; her entourage took up the entire 12th floor. Then, for two weeks, she was the guest of Franklin D. Roosevelt at Hyde Park. The president had privately opposed the visit, fearing that she would agitate against the prevailing Europe-first strategy. At one point, she startled FDR by indicating how she would handle a major coal-mining strike then plaguing the U.S.; she drew her hand across her throat and made a gagging sound.

Addressing both houses of Congress separately in February 1943, she appealed to the U.S. to alter its wartime priorities by defeating Japan before tackling Germany. Indicting what she saw as Western apathy towards Asia, she quoted a Chinese proverb: "It takes little effort to watch the other fellow carry the load." Her speech, which had impact and was repeatedly interrupted by congressional applause, was described in Newsweek in the following way:

The effect was enchanting. The lady was dark and petite. She wore a long, tight-fitting black gown, the skirt slit almost to the knee. Her smooth black hair was coiled simply at the nape of her neck. Her jewels were of priceless jade. Her slim fingers were redtipped. She wore sheer hose and frivolous high-heeled slippers.

From Washington, she toured the United States, crossing the nation by train and everywhere asking for aid. She spoke to 20,000 at New York's Madison Square Garden, 30,000 at Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl (where a special "Madame Chiang Kai-shek March" was performed). Though arrogant towards hospital and hotel staff, she thoroughly charmed American politicians, movie stars, and business leaders. "No figure on the world stage stirs the American imagination more than hers," said The New York Times.

On July 4, 1943, Meiling arrived at the mountain stronghold of Chongqing (Chungking), China's temporary capital. Here she strongly championed U.S. General Claire Chennault, whose advocacy of air power—in her eyes—promised military victory without the troublesome task of reforming the corrupt Chinese army. "If we destroy fifteen Nippon [Japanese] planes each day," she said, "soon there will be none left." At the same time, she opposed the strategy of U.S. General Joseph Stilwell, commander of American and Chinese forces in Burma (now Myanmar), who was Chiang Kaishek's chief of staff and a defender of intensive ground action. Mme Chiang sought the removal of U.S. ambassador Clarence Gauss, who reported candidly of Chinese ineptitude; banned American journalist Edgar Snow, whom she claimed was a Comintern agent; wanted Luce to fire Time staffer Theodore White, a critic of Guomindang rule; and banished hostile U.S. correspondent Agnes Smedley from ever returning to China. Meiling spoke frequently against the British, accusing them of selfish over-concentration on the defense of their own island, and endorsed independence for India.

From November 22 to 26, 1943, Mme Chiang accompanied her husband to the Cairo summit meeting. Never in good health, she collapsed during the conference. Yet Roosevelt hoped to win the confidence of the couple, assuring them of China's membership in the Big Four and the postwar return of Manchuria, Taiwan, and the Pescadores islands. Said FDR later to a reporter:

I never was able to form any opinion of Chiang in Cairo. When I thought about it later I realized all I knew is what Madame Chiang had told me about her husband and what she thought. She was always there and phrased all the answers. I got to know her, but this fellow Chiang—I could never break through to him.

Unbeknownst to Meiling, the Cairo summit marked the apex of her political career. Henceforth, the Chiangs were on a downward slope. Tormented continually by her urticaria (which led to the constant changing of her sheets) and jealous of Chiang's continued attention to his former wife Chen Jieru, in June 1944 she left China. At Chiang's farewell party for his wife, he publicly denied any infidelity. First she traveled with sister Ailing to Brazil, where H.H. Kung had many investments, then in September journeyed to New York, where she remained in seclusion at the Kung household in Riverdale. Only in July 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, did she return to Chongqing.

On November 30, 1948, she again arrived in the United States, this time to secure American military aid for Chiang's war against the Communist forces of Mao Zedong. She also wanted three billion dollars over a three-year period. With the cautious Harry S. Truman now U.S. president and with a Democratic administration wary of massive commitments in Asia, the trip was something of a flop. This time there was no White House invitation, no address to Congress. Tired and unsmiling, she was again forced to live a hermit-like existence at the Kung estate.

In January 1950, Meiling returned to Asia, this time not to China, which was under Mao's rule, but to the island fortress of Taiwan, where her husband had set up a rump government. Always caustic when she so desired, she responded to Britain's recognition of the People's Republic of China by saying, "Britain has bartered the soul of a nation for a few pieces of silver." She continued her involvement in social work, particularly orphanages, schools, and groups advancing the welfare of women. More then ever, she had to speak publicly for a husband increasingly turning senile, while engaging in a quiet rivalry with her stepson Zhang Jingguo (Chiang Ching-kuo), later president of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

August 1953 and April 1954 saw her again journeying to the U.S., the first time to arouse American enthusiasm for regaining the mainland, the second to help block the proposal to seat Mao's regime in the United Nations. In 1958, 1965, 1966, and 1970, she returned to America, the latter two times for mastectomy operations. Addressing Wellesley students in 1965, she was only a shadow of her former self, lapsing at times into incoherence:

The intersitical periods within the seasons bring forth a plentitude in natural proliferation of brilliant or subtle colors … within the purfled walls.

When on April 5, 1975, Chiang died at age 87, Song Meiling (who was estranged from his successor, her stepson) settled in Lattingtown, Long Island, at the estate of her nephew, the New York financier David Kung. Since that time she has lived there or in New York City in seclusion. On March 10, 1998, she turned 100 and celebrated quietly, still in New York after 23 years.


Eunson, Roby. The Soong Sisters. Franklin Watts, 1975.

Hahn, Emily. The Soong Sisters. NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1941.

Seagrave, Sterling. The Soong Dynasty. NY: Harper and Row, 1985.

suggested reading:

Chiang Kai-shek and Mme. Chiang Kai-shek. General Chiang Kai-shek. NY: Doubleday, 1937.

Chiang May-ling Soong. China Shall Rise Again. NY: Harper, 1941.

——. This is Our China (published in England as China in Peace and War). NY: Harper, 1940.

——. We Chinese Women. Clark, 1943.

Fairbank, John K. China: A New History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. NY: W.W. Norton, 1990.

Thompson, James C., Jr. While China Faced West: American Reformers in Nationalist China, 1928–1937. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida