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Makings of China's epic madame

Madame Chiang Kai-shek China's Eternal First Lady Laura Tyson Li Atlantic Monthly Press: 558 pp., $30

November 10, 2006|Seth Faison | Special to The Times

MADAME Chiang Kai-Shek dazzled Americans, using her flawless English, delivered in a lilting Southern accent, 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, "Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady," 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."

Seth Faison, former Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, is the author of "South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China."

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