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The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 3, 2009

47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Pakula, an experienced biographer of royal women (An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick), looks at the imperious (if not imperial) wife of the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, presenting a richly complex account of 20th-century China that, despite its length, remains thoroughly engrossing to the end. Born May-ling Soong (1897–2003) and educated in America, Madame Chiang and her five Soong siblings were wealthy, Christian, fluent in English and major players in Chinese politics. Marrying Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, the strong-minded and hot-tempered, shrewd and ruthless May-ling quickly became a partner in his efforts as Chinese leader until the Japanese invaded, and then in 1945 when Mao's Communists drove him to Formosa (modern-day Taiwan), which he ruled until his death in 1975. From the 1930s to 1950s, Americans idolized Madame Chiang as a symbol of Chinese resistance to the brutal Japanese and as an anticommunist stalwart. But critics of her and Chiang's ineffective, authoritarian, corrupt leadership soon became the majority. Pakula draws a vivid if often unflattering portrait of a charismatic Chinese patriot, her husband and family, in tumultuous and tragic times. 16 pages of b&w photos; maps. (Nov. 13)
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Review

“Ms. Pakula writes like a dream, and her narrative is certainly a pleasure to read; anyone who wants to learn about China in the first half of the 20th century will find The Last Empress a good guide.”

--Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal

“Pakula’s biography is often absorbing. Madame Chiang emerges as more than just her husband’s wife; we see a brilliant, scheming, deliberately alluring, brave, corrupt chameleon of a woman. . . . The Last Empress . . . presents Madame Chiang as far more complex, awful and brilliant than we had imagined.”

--Jonathan Mirsky, The New York Times Book Review

“The tale of Soon May-ling, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s American-educated wife, is epic in scope. Hannah Pakula brings vividly to life the tormented odyssey of China during the 20th Century and the enthralling life story of this singular woman in a wonderfully accessible way.”

--Orville Schell, Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society

“A richly complex account of 20th-century China . . . thoroughly engrossing. . . . A vivid if often unflattering portrait of a charismatic Chinese patriot, her husband and family, in tumultuous and tragic times.”

--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The Last Empress . . . presents Madame Chiang as far more complex, awful and brilliant than we had imagined.”

--Jonathan Mirsky, The New York Times Book Review --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (November 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439148937
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439148938
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 2.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,061,307 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Hannah Pakula attended Wellesley College, the Sorbonne and Southern Methodist University. She is a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

58 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Seth Faison on December 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Madame Chiang Kai-shek was, as journalists like to say, a good story. It is a story of wartime travails, of high-stakes political gambling, of an epic fight-to-the-finish between authoritarian Nationalists and radical Communists. It's also a story of a tempestuous partnership between an ascetic military man and his glamorous, winsome, shrewd and luxury-loving wife. He needed her connections to American money. She needed his access to power. Time magazine named them "Man and Woman of the Year" for 1937, essentially colluding in their myth-making. Together, they led China, and then lost it.

Madame Chiang dazzled Franklin Roosevelt, bedded Wendell Wilkie, backstabbed Gen. Joseph Stilwell and, for a time, enthralled the greater American public. Dynamic, vain, literary and ambitious -- she's a great subject for a long biography.

This is a beautifully designed book, with an inviting cover and an excellent array of photographs inside. Unfortunately, what lies between the covers is not as magical. The writing is OK, but Pakula often seems tone-deaf to the subtleties of Chinese culture and history. Then again, Madame Chiang's story is so engrossing that, for those who like an old-fashioned approach, this long-form rendering is still pretty absorbing. Madame Chiang's life spanned the entire 20th century, and she lived through a period of considerable upheaval, intersecting with quite a cast of characters.

Born in the last years of the 19th century, May-ling Soong was the youngest of three sisters whose father, Charlie, a Christian who made millions printing Bibles, bucked Chinese tradition by raising his daughters to be independent, savvy and ambitious. The eldest became one of China's richest women.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Frances J. Kiernan on November 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
A good biography tells a good story. With grace and great sympathetic imagination Hannah Pakula gives us a flesh and blood heroine, never a mere historical figure. For all that she is aware of her subject's faults, she does justice to her courage, her wit, and her sheer endurance. Thanks to its epic scope and rich cast of characters, this biography reads at times like one of those great three-volume nineteenth century novels. By showing May-ling Soong not only in the context of her powerful and problematic family but also at the very center of China's tumultuous modern history, Pakula makes clear how tangled the choices became for this Wellesley girl who dreamed of making something of her life. Having made a great match, by allying herself with what looks to be the man of the hour, the young Madame Chiang Kai-shek soon finds herself struggling to put a good face on the ill-advised decisions of a corrupt and capricious dictator. Not only is she serving as his translator but once Japan invades Manchuria and the Communists begin to present a serious threat to her husband's government, she increasingly assumes the role of his ambassador to the Western World. If power corrupts, then absolute power can be said to corrupt absolutely. It is to Hannah Pakula's credit that the reader leaves this book wondering what would have happened to May-ling if, instead of her older sister, she'd had a chance to marry Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Or, perhaps better yet, if her romantic attachment to Wendell Wilkie hadn't been brought to an abrupt end by his death.
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Format: Hardcover
Her name was May-Ling Soong. She lived from 1897 to 2003. She came from a wealthy household. Her father Charlie Soong raised himself from peasanthood to become a rich businessman. One of her sisters married Mr. Kung a millionaire businessman, another married the legendary Sun Yat-Sen the founder of modern China. One of her brothers T.V. Soong had a PH.D from Columbia in finance and was among the richest men in the world. What a family and what a lady! May-Ling studied in Georgia and graduated from Wellesley where her best friend was American Emily Mills.
May-Ling spoke perfect English, was materialistic and a beautiful and sexy woman. In the 1920s she wed Kai-Shek. He became the dictator of China who lost in the Chinese Civil War against Mao's Communists. CKS and Mayling retreated to Taiwain in 1949 where they set up the nationalistic Chinese government. CKS died in 1975. May-Ling often spent a good deal of time in America during the power couple's long marriage. She often had skin problems and other ailments. She could be nervous and demanding of those around her. She could also charm the pants off famous men. Her spouse CKS was often cruel having no problem with eliminating those who opposed his policies.
May-Ling was a devoted Methodist Christian and talked CKS into becoming a Christian. May-Ling spent much of her life in America. She lived in New York from 1975 until her death. She probably did not love CKS and had no children. During World War II she was adroit at bringing in millions of dollars to Chinese coffers as they fought the Japanese. She often visited the White House becoming friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR. President Truman did not like her since he felt she supported a corrupt regime. (which she did!).
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