Customer Reviews: The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China
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Showing 1-7 of 7 reviews(3 star). Show all reviews
on December 14, 2009
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. The second married Sun Yat-sen, China's first president, and then cast her lot with Mao and the Communists. May-ling went to the U.S. for schooling at age 10, first in Georgia and then at Wellesley. When she returned to Shanghai, she said: "the only thing Oriental about me is my face." Before long, however, she took to wearing elegant, body-hugging Chinese gowns on her slender figure. She drew many suitors, but none had quite the promise of young Chiang Kai-shek, a general who believed himself destined to lead China into a modern era. Chiang had to divorce one wife, pack off a second to graduate school in New York and promise to convert to Christianity before May-ling's mother would approve the match.

"In seeking out a wife with money and power behind her, Chiang had found a woman with ideas and energy as well," writes Pakula. May-ling had more than ideas and energy. She soon became a poised partner who could soften his imperiousness, write his speeches and eventually become his best diplomat and public relations agent. When Chiang joined Roosevelt and Churchill for a summit in Cairo, his wife simultaneously translated and refashioned his remarks.

Her finest hour came in 1943, when she went to the U.S. to appeal for support in the war against Japan. With a Georgia lilt in her fluent English, and impassioned speeches about an ancient culture transforming into a democracy, Madame Chiang charmed Washington and Congress. By the time she was done touring the country, she had secured political support for billions in aid. How much of it ended up in the pockets of the Chiangs and Soongs is an enduring mystery. Pakula made considerable efforts to find a paper trail, with limited success.

Madame Chiang suffered mysterious illnesses, and took lengthy stays in U.S. hospitals, with long separations from her husband. Their relationship was complex. There are signs of tenderness in surviving letters and telegrams, as well as eyewitness accounts of vicious arguments. Pakula airs some intriguing anecdotes. One has May-ling confiding to a friend that she and Chiang were never intimate, because he wanted no more children. Another suggests that he had been rendered infertile from venereal disease, and never told her. She did have a passionate affair with Wilkie, Roosevelt's ex-rival for president. But she remained childless.

Eventually, Mao and the Communists defeated Chiang, chasing him to the island of Taiwan. The Chiangs vowed to retake China, but hope faded as the U.S. moved onto other wars in Korea and Vietnam. After Chiang died in 1975, Madame moved to New York, living until 2003. She was 105 years old. Or maybe 106. (She consistently hid her true age.)

Pakula has an annoying habit of abandoning judgment when she encounters conflicting evidence, resorting to phrases like "some say . . ." or "whatever the truth or falseness of these stories. . . ." From a historian who evidently spent 10 years with her material, we deserve more.

Madame Chiang trailblazed the role of first lady in China, and surpassed it. Her advocacy for the Nationalist cause was doomed, but she certainly cut a deep path on the consciousness of modern China.
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on December 2, 2015
I was interested in learning about Madame Chiang but this book gave more detail about the history of 20rh Century China than I really wanted. For a more serious student of Chinese history, I think it would a good choice. Very well-researched.
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on September 9, 2010
I was not at all well informed on this topic before opening the book, which is one of the reasons I read it.

On the plus side, I can say I learned quite a bit.

On the minus side, I found Pakula's wandering focus made it quite hard to concentrate on the subject matter. I nearly gave up on this book several times, which is rare for me. Specifically:

1. Pakula makes leaps backwards and forwards in time to follow certain themes and sequences of behavior. However, I didn't find those themes sufficiently compelling or well articulated to warrant the dislocations in time. One consequence is that Pakula seems to actually provide inconsistent data from one page to the next; for example, at one point she says Chiang Kai-Shek was in his early 80s in 1967, while a few pages later she says he was 78. In general, I found the discussion extremely rambling.

2. The narrative did not really help me understand why Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was considered the Dragon Empress of China. Certainly a human being is more than a four-word caricature, but Pakula casts her net so broadly in trying to describe May-Ling's character that she focuses more on matters I would consider distractions. My overwhelming impressions from Pakula's narrative are that May-Ling was a pedantic hypochondriac, somewhat ineffectually adrift on the currents of her Christianity, totalitarianism, corruption and humanism. I doubt that is an accurate understanding of someone characterized as the most powerful woman in modern history, but that's the impression that Pakula imparts.
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on February 27, 2011
I worked for many years for L. C. Kung who was the nephew of Chiang Kai-shek. Although President Kai-shek had already passed away, I had the honor of meeting the Madame on many occasions during the 1980's when she came to Texas to see her nephew. She was completely devoted to her family, a woman of pure elegance and humble attitude. In her presence I was always in awe of her kindness to everyone. No matter any negative comments made about the family, during times of war and rule, they were good people. I feel blessed that I was able to see inside their lives on a daily basis and take with me the feelings of standing before a magnificent woman.
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on December 21, 2014
A good book but I expected it to be more of a biographical novel. Lots of interesting historical facts that I either didn't know or forgot about.
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on June 4, 2016
Too many pages!!!! Too many facts!!! Too long a book!!!
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on December 20, 2009
Have not yet read. But selected as gift thinking it was by Chang! I thought you advertized as such. i guess you said "If you liked will like..." But I thot it was by the same author Jung Chang , who is the much aclaimed one. This was a great disappointment since purchased for specific reasons as a gift. Receiver has not said it is good writing, tho she has read one third of the book.
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