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Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady Hardcover – August 31, 2006

4.2 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.

From Booklist

*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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; First Edition - First Printing edition (August 31, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871139332
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871139337
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,999,037 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Seth Faison on November 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This is a book to dive into, and lose yourself for days. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek is that good a story, and this is that good an account of her life. Madame Chiang used her political cunning and legendary drive to seduce supporters to her side of China's epic civil war during the middle part of the 20th century.

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.
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I don't typically read biographies, but on the recommendation of Amazon reviewers, I picked up Li's _Madame Chiang Kai-Shek_. I am glad I did - it is a fascinating life's story about not only a powerful and complex woman, but also the history of China in the 20th century. As divisive as personality as Mayling Soong was (and remains), I certainly have a renewed appreciation and undestanding of her and her family as a mirror to the struggles and obstacles China faced.

The position and affluence of the Soong family was previously unknown to me, as was the close political ties her family forged with the Chinese leadership - Mayling's sister was the wife of Sun-Yat Sen (founder of the KMT). The fact that Mayling was educated in America and was, as a result, bi-cultural was also something I was previously unaware of. Li shows how these important events in her life shaped her as a force to be reckoned with in her own right, and as a valuable ally to her husband Chiang Kai-Shek as he sought to unify China, and later as they established a separate government on the island of Formosa.

That Madame Chang-Kai Shek lived so long (she was over 100 when she died), was such a powerful and influential woman, and played such an active role in events has earned her as many detractors as supporters. Li does not pull any punches in showing how she became notorious (rumors of her affair with Wendell Willkie and her appeal for American support during the Chinese civil war following WWII, the press portraying her as a 'femme fatale'), or her strong personality in matters of state (both with her husband and step-son Chiang-kuo). Whether or not she is a woman to be admired, her presence and impact was certainly felt in shaping (or attempting to shape) events. It is a fascinating read about an intriguing and strong woman, that also provides much insight into the political evoluition of modern China. A highly recommended read.
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Format: Hardcover
Laura Tyson Li has assembled a spectacular bio. It's page turner with the authority and detail of an encyclopedia. LTL has managed to keep her opinions out of the text. It isn't until the last chapter when through an informed discussion on the Madame's possible motivations that LTL becomes subjective.

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.
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