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Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady Paperback – September 1, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
To admirers, the wife of the Nationalist dictator of China and later Taiwan was a symbol of resistance to Communist tyranny; to detractors, she was a crafty "Dragon Lady" or a quisling of American imperialism. In this absorbing biography, Li, a former Taiwan correspondent for the Financial Times, manages a balanced portrait that situates Madame Chiang in an uneasy borderland between East and West. In her charm offensives to the United States seeking military aid during WWII, the author writes, the glamorous, Wellesley-educated Madame Chiang embodied a modern, Westernizing China that made her "a perfect focus for America's rescue complex." But Li also finds her "quintessentially Chinese" in her submissiveness to her husband's authority and "loyalty to clan and personality over principle." Amply conveying her subject's charisma without falling under its spell, Li diagnoses Madame Chiang as a classic "narcissistic personality" and critiques her complicity in the Nationalist regime's brutality and corruption and her lavish lifestyle, which alienated China's impoverished masses. Li is barely adequate at sketching the 105 years of Chinese history Chiang's life spanned, but she offers a well-researched, fluently written assessment of the life and impact of one of the 20th century's iconic figures. Photos, map. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* Petite, elegant, and mighty, Madame Chiang Kai-shek lived to be 105, but when she died in 2003, many Americans had no idea of how powerful a woman she was or of how much she suffered. First-time biographer Li is the first to tell Madame Chiang's dramatic life story. Mayling Soong was one of three sisters in an ambitious Christian Chinese family who altered the course of Chinese history. Educated in the U.S and fiercely intelligent, Mayling married Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and became his interpreter and advisor. Besieged by the invading Japanese and embroiled in a horrific civil war with the Communists, Chiang Kai-shek depended on his glamorous, eloquent wife to petition the Allied leaders for aid. In 1943, Madame Chiang galvanized America as she became the first Asian and only the second woman to address the U.S. Congress. Sensational and indomitable, she infuriated Churchill; put Franklin Roosevelt on his guard; disappointed Eleanor Roosevelt with her narcissism, grandiosity, and insensitivity; and, Li theorizes, helped jump-start Washington's anti-Communist witch hunts. With access to newly opened files, fluent insights into China's convulsive transformation, and a phenomenal gift for elucidating intricate politics and complicated psyches, Li brilliantly analyzes a fearless and profoundly conflicted woman of extraordinary force. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
The Nationalist regime, headed by her husband, was hated by the Chinese people for its notorious brutality and corruption. But as portrayed by Madame Chiang, especially to American audiences, Chiang Kai-shek's government was a modern, educated bulwark of democracy and freedom for a country whose history had allowed little of either. Indeed, Madame Chiang personified the vaunted hopes, bitter disappointments and complex misunderstandings of the U.S.-China relationship, which vacillated wildly during her exceptional 105-year lifetime. Laura Tyson Li's incisive new biography, rises to the tall task of capturing this pivotal figure in all her splendor and humiliation, against a backdrop of war, revolution and unending political turmoil. Li, a journalist with a decade of experience in Asia, accurately portrays her as "beautiful, vain, witty, spirited, capricious, scheming, selfish, and driven."
What a character. What a tale.
The book opens in the waning days of China's second-to-last emperor in the late 1890s, when Mayling Olive Soong was born in Shanghai, the youngest daughter of a businessman who had made a fortune selling Bibles and presided over a family of savvy, idealistic and recklessly ambitious children. One married Sun Yat-sen, China's first president. Another became finance minister and acting prime minister of Nationalist China. Another became one of China's richest women. Mayling became Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
In an era when few girls learned to read and fewer traveled, Mayling was schooled in Georgia, then graduated from Wellesley College, where she excelled at French, violin and religious studies. She returned to Shanghai in 1917 just as China lurched into a bloody warlord period, and soon she was courted by the most severe warlord of all, Chiang Kai-shek. He divorced one wife and sent another off to Columbia University before Mayling agreed to marry him.
During World War II, Madame Chiang became a superb envoy to the United States, where her address to Congress in 1943 thrilled Washington, and her barnstorming across the country won renewed support and money to defeat the Japanese. In China, she was a poised partner to her husband, softening his imperiousness while sharpening his political machinations.
In Li's telling, husband and wife (who shared a bedroom with a screen separating their beds) could not have differed more. He was an early riser; she stayed up late watching movies. He was ascetic; she insisted on luxury. Still, they called each other 'Dar' (short for 'darling') and for years collaborated to cement fragile political alliances and keep a shaky hold on power.
The book has delicious tidbits, such as an affair with Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie and her insistence on getting silk sheets when she stayed in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's White House.
Overall, Li delivers a thoughtful portrait of a complex woman and resists the considerable temptation to crucify her. That is a refreshing contrast to the shock-and-awe approach seen in so many recent books on prominent figures in China's recent history. Li deconstructs critical historical events with skill: the Xian Incident, when Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by rebellious generals; the 50-year house-arrest of the leading kidnapper, with whom Madame Chiang developed a curious friendship; Madame Chiang's mysterious disappearances for months at a time, caused, Li thinks by physical and mental illnesses, including debilitating hives, breast cancer and nervous breakdown.
More reporter than writer, Li assiduously draws on Madame Chiang's extensive personal correspondence, from archives around the world, to explain each stage of her drama. It's a spellbinding period of history. And it does not end well for the Chiangs. The Nationalist regime crumbled to the Communists in 1949. The Chiangs fled to Taiwan, admitting no fault, but blamed President Truman and vowed to retake the mainland. That dream faded gradually after Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975.
Madame Chiang's antagonistic stepson, Chiang Ching-kuo, would oversee a murderous suppression of dissidents as head of Taiwan's intelligence network. Paradoxically, as president, he later paved the way for the launch of Taiwan's democracy just before his death in 1988. That year, at age 90, she tried to rally Taiwan's Old Guard and prevent the onset of democracy she once spoke of so often. She failed.
Madame Chiang lived out her days in New York, watching China and Taiwan as one became capitalist and the other became a democracy. Despite her illnesses, she lived until 2003.
Ultimately, Madame Chiang was "a deeply flawed heroine," Li writes, "that rare creature who stuck resolutely to her beliefs, however misguided some of them may have been, through the decades and the trials."
Second, despite what other reviewers felt it was in fact quite obvious the author greatly dislikes Madame Chaing. In places she goes so far as to blatenly mock her! Biographies are best when the can relate in some way to the subject. Although their are many positives in Madame Chaing's life they were delivered as though each good act was for some personal gain. The author failed to elaborate.
Most importertly I had to set this book aside several times from boredom and frustration. Having read thousands of biographies I have set aside less than a handfull because of poor/dry writing or bias. This is the first I did so for both reasons. I forced myself to read a chapter before allowing myself to start another book. In this way I finally completed the book.
In conclusion I admit I do have a new wealth of knowledge about a large array of topics. I do not, however, have ANY sense of who Madame Chaig truly was as a powerful woman whose lived in three centuries this fact sheet is devoid of any life.
Epilogue - shameful, unnessary subligation.
While almost every aspect of this life is intriguing, certain people and episodes stand out. I had forgotten Zhang Xueliang until he emerged after a 50 year house arrest, after which he & his wife move to Hawaii. Apparently he was able to keep his pre-war fortune, or had been cared for financially; he is deemed a friend of the Madame. (Another 5 year house arrest of a physician who botches an operation of the General suggests house arrest is a common punishment for "friends" and other professionals.) Madame's war time US appeal for funds, with its cross country caravan of staff whom MCKS treats "as coolies" is certainly an episode worth a small volume. (The $800,000 she raises goes to her personal account.) While the Wendel Wilkie relationship (true or false) is intriguing, I fixed on the William H. Donald relationship, which may have been a professional friendship and refuge from her husband's authoritarianism, but her end of life treatment of him suggests something else.
There are a host of issues worthy of their own books. Perhaps these books exist but I don't know about them. One issue is the "arrival" of 2 million mainlanders to the island of Formosa, who's 7 million citizens seemed to have some degree of prosperity under the Japanese. While the Chaings arrive with resources, others huddle in makeshift places and cry at night. "Invasion" appears to be a better word for this arrival (particularly after 2/28), but it is certainly not portrayed as such (or allowed to be portrayed as such) by the Nationalists who felt entitled to rule and had the resources to make it so. Even later, Madame objects to the appointment of Taiwanese to government posts.
Another issue deserving its own book is Madame's money. Whether or not the NYC exterminators actually saw it, a closet of gold bars is not far fetched. For maybe 30 years, Madame's "charity" received a % of all imports to Taiwan. There were several "vacation" homes in Taiwan, one built at a cost of $2 million. Then, the resources brought from the mainland to Taiwan. This money provided Madame with luxury and a large staff until her death. How large was it? How was it acquired (any from the US war assistance?) and where did it go?
MCKS can be noted for her longevity alone. There must be something Guinness-worthy about her survival despite many years in a war zone, continued medical treatments, operations including several for breast cancer, nervous afflictions, a late in life automobile accident, lifelong cigarette smoking (and potential drug abuse) and at least one assassination attempt. Any one of these factors would tend to predict an early demise, not a life of 103 years.
If you read this book, it's riveting, so be prepared to give it time. Also, the level of detail might make continuity difficult if you have to make gaps in your reading time.
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