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Charismatic, Feared Emissary of China's Nationalist Regime

October 25, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

To the legions who revered her, Madame Chiang Kai-shek was the "brains of China," polished, poised and a shining example of the virtues of an American education.

To the considerable number who learned to fear her, however, she was "Madame Dictator," ruthless, corrupt and unmoved by the miseries of the Chinese people.

She was the charismatic wife and emissary of the most powerful man in pre-Communist China, but history would judge her harshly for helping to "lose" the country she begged others to save.

On Thursday, the woman who once flirted with Winston Churchill and parried with Chou En-lai -- and was the last major political figure remaining from the World War II era -- died peacefully in her sleep at her apartment in New York City. She had turned 105 in March.

Although she lived in one of Manhattan's toniest neighborhoods, she ended her days in quiet anonymity, forgotten except among a small group of loyalists from around the world who feted her in New York City nearly every year on her birthday.

This year, she was too ill to see them. In March, she was hospitalized for two weeks with flu-like symptoms; according to a family friend, she never fully recovered.

Despite her frailties, the centenarian who had survived cancer and other ailments over the last 30 years still scanned the newspapers and plied the occasional visiting dignitary with Chinese delicacies and her favorite Hershey's chocolate.

"She was mentally involved in what was going on. She never wanted to give up," said her friend, Chi Wang, who heads the Chinese section of the Library of Congress.

Long after the demise of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist general who set up a government-in-exile on Taiwan after the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949, Madame Chiang endured -- first as a symbol of Nationalist pride and later as one of intransigence. Despite the Nationalists' flagging fortunes, she never publicly acknowledged the futility of her husband's dream of a China united under the Nationalist flag.

On the island of Taiwan, where the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, ruled uninterrupted for more than half a century until its defeat in the 2000 elections, her death dominated newscasts, and the Nationalist flag was ordered to fly at half-staff for three days.

But Taiwan's flag was not lowered, and reaction on the streets was muted at best. To younger generations, Madame Chiang was seen as being "anti-democracy and anti-freedom," according to a political observer who recalled her husband's repressive regime. To Taiwanese Vice President Annette Lu, Madame Chiang's death was simply the "end of a bygone era," the final phase of an often inglorious passage of modern Chinese history.

Madame Chiang led a remarkable life that overlapped three centuries, stretching from the last days of imperial China through the revolutions and bloody conflicts that shaped the nation of today.

She made a triumphal tour of the United States in 1943 that drew tens of thousands of Americans to rallies and raised millions of dollars for China at a time of great suffering and turmoil in the world. As a guest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she became the first Chinese and second woman to address both houses of Congress. For decades, she appeared on U.S. lists of the world's most admired women.

After the death of Gen. Chiang in 1975, she left Taiwan for New York state but continued to influence Taiwanese politics through the 1990s. Yet she identified profoundly with America, having spent formative years here decades before she became the regal Madame Chiang.

"She often said, 'I'm Chinese. I'm also American. I lived here as a young kid. I owe a lot to Americans,' " Wang said. "Her thinking and ideas were pretty much American."

Born in 1898, Madame Chiang was a member of what was nearly a ruling dynasty, the powerful Soong family.

She was one of six children of Han Chiao-shun, a merchant's son who was known later as Charles Jones Soong. In the 1870s he made his way to America, where he was educated and trained by Methodists for missionary work. He returned to his own country in 1886 and made a fortune printing and peddling Chinese Bibles.

In 1894 he met the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. He helped finance Sun's overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 and helped him establish the Chinese republic.

The Soong sons became bankers, the most notable of whom was Tse-ven, or T.V., who became foreign affairs and finance minister in the Nationalist government and Gen. Chiang's frequent ambassador.

The Soong daughters extended the family's domination through marriages so extraordinary that they inspired a saying: "Once upon a time there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, one loved China.

The eldest sister, Ai-ling, married tycoon H. H. Kung, who was once reputed to be the richest man in the world. Reputed to be a direct descendant of Confucius, he also became an influential member of Chiang's government.

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