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Madame Chiang, 105, Chinese Leader's Widow, Dies   - New York Times

Friday, October 24, 2003


Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a pivotal player in one of the 20th century's great epics - the struggle for control of post-imperial China waged between the Nationalists and the Communists during the Japanese invasion and the violent aftermath of World War II - died on Thursday in New York City, the Foreign Ministry of Taiwan reported early Friday. She was 105 years old.

Madame Chiang, a dazzling and imperious politician, wielded immense influence in Nationalist China, but she and her husband were eventually forced by the Communist victory into exile in Taiwan, where she presided as the grand dame of Nationalist politics for many years. After Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, Madame Chiang retreated to New York City, where she lived out her last quarter-century.

Madame Chiang was the most famous member of one of modern China's most remarkable families, the Soongs, who dominated Chinese politics and finance in the first half of the century. Yet in China it was her American background and lifestyle that distinguished Soong Mei-ling, her maiden name (which is sometimes spelled May-ling).

For many Americans, Madame Chiang's finest moment came in 1943, when she barnstormed the United States in search of support for the Nationalist cause against Japan, winning donations from countless Americans who were mesmerized by her passion, determination and striking good looks. Her address to a joint meeting of Congress electrified Washington, winning billions of dollars in aid.

Madame Chiang helped craft American policy toward China during the war years, running the Nationalist Government's propaganda operation and emerging as its most important diplomat. Yet she was also deeply involved in the endless maneuverings of her husband, Chiang Kai-shek, who was uneasily at the helm of several shifting alliances with Chinese warlords vying for control of what was then a badly fractured nation.

A devout Christian, Madame Chiang spoke fluent English tinted with the Southern accent she acquired as a school girl in Georgia, and presented a civilized and humane image of a courageous China battling a Japanese invasion and Communist subversion. Yet historians have documented the murderous path that Chiang Kai-shek led in his efforts to win, then keep, and ultimately lose power. It also became clear in later years that the Chiang family had pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid intended for the war.

Madame Chiang had a notoriously tempestuous relationship with her husband, and then with his son by a previous marriage, Chiang Ching-kuo, who became Taiwan's leader after Chiang Kai-shek's death. Madame Chiang had no children.

Her skill as a politician, alternately charming and vicious, made her a formidable presence. She made a play for Taiwan's leadership after Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, even though she was 90 and living in New York at the time.

Although she suffered numerous ailments, including breast cancer, Madame Chiang eventually outlived all her contemporary rivals. She was said to credit her religious faith - she told friends she rose at dawn for an hour of prayer each day - for her good health.

Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, who worked closely with her when he commanded American forces in China during the war, described Madame Chiang in his diary as a "clever, brainy woman." "Direct, forceful, energetic. Loves power, eats up publicity and flattery, pretty weak on her history. Can turn on charm at will and knows it."

Love of Money, Power and China

Soong Mei-ling's rise to power began when she married Chiang Kai-shek in an opulent ceremony in Shanghai in 1927, bringing together China's star military man with one of the nation's most illustrious families.

Her eldest sister, Soong Ai-ling, directed the family's affairs and innumerable money-making ventures with the help of her husband, H.H. Kung, a scion of one of China's wealthiest banking families.

Madame Chiang's second sister, Soong Qing-ling, was the wife of Sun Yat-sen, China's first president after the last emperor was toppled in 1911. After Sun Yat-sen's death, Soong Qing-ling carried his banner over into the Communist camp, causing an irreparable rupture in the family.

When the vanquished Nationalists retreated to Taiwan in 1949, Soong Qing-ling stayed behind. The Communist Party leadership called her the only true patriot in the Soong family, and named her honorary chairman of the People's Republic in 1980, a year before her death.

Today, Chinese still remember the three sisters with a telling ditty: "One loved money, one loved power, one loved China," referring to Ai-ling, Mei-ling and Qing-ling.

Madame Chiang's elder brother, T.V. Soong, often called Nationalist China's financial wizard, served at various times as China's finance minister, acting prime minister and foreign minister, where his primary role was raising money from the United States.

Although Madame Chiang developed a stellar image with the American public, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other leaders became disillusioned with her and her husband's despotic and corrupt practices. Eleanor Roosevelt was shocked at Madame Chiang's answer when asked at a dinner at the White House how the Chinese Government would handle a strike by coal miners. Madame Chiang silently drew a sharp fingernail across her neck.

"She can talk beautifully about democracy," Mrs. Roosevelt said later. "But she does not know how to live democracy."

By the end of the war, the loyalty of Nationalist officials melted away as the Government grew corrupt and fiscally traitorous, printing money so aggressively that the Chinese currency fell to an exchange rate of several million yuan to the dollar. Many Nationalist soldiers were reduced to begging for food because they went unpaid, yet American diplomats discovered that military supplies sent from the United States to China sometimes appeared on the black market soon after arrival.

Even at the busiest times of war, Madame Chiang often left her husband and disappeared into seclusion in New York for months at a time. The Chiang camp was too secretive to deny rumors about marital troubles, but Madame Chiang's retreats may also have been caused by a debilitating skin condition.

During the 1950's, Madame Chiang and her husband blamed the United States for the Nationalist loss of China, and continued to campaign for help from Washington to retake the mainland. Although that hope eventually faded, American support for Taiwan remained strong for years, delaying Washington's recognition of Beijing as the capital of China until 1979, three decades after the Communists had seized power.

By then, Madame Chiang had moved to New York, where she lived in an apartment on Gracie Square in Manhattan. In March 1999, as she turned 101, hard of hearing but still quick-witted, she told visitors that she read the Bible and The New York Times every day. gfobsubhdA Family's DivisionsReflect a Nation's

The Soong family's saga, a story that cuts across many strands of modern Chinese history, began when Madame Chiang's father, Charlie Soong, sailed to the United States at the age of 12. Coming from a family of traders in Hainan Island in the South China Sea, Mr. Soong was taken in by Methodists in North Carolina and converted to Christianity in hopes of sending him back to spread the word of Jesus in China.

After returning to Shanghai in 1886, Mr. Soong, a genial wheeler-dealer, passed up missionary life to start a business printing Bibles, earning a fortune. He also printed political pamphlets secretly for Sun Yat-sen, then working to overthrow China's last emperor. On Jan. 1, 1912, Sun was named China's first president.

Sun lasted in office only a few months before his coalition disintegrated, and after he fled to Japan, he hired Charlie Soong's second daughter, Soong Qing-ling, as a secretary. They soon married, despite the age difference: he was 50 and she was 21.

At the time Mei-ling Soong, who was born in Shanghai in 1898, was already studying in the United States. At the age of 10, she had followed her elder sisters to the Wesleyan College for Women in Macon, Ga.

She entered Wellesley College near Boston in 1913; her brother, T.V., was enrolled at Harvard. She majored in English literature, and was remembered by her classmates as a chubby, vivacious and determined student. She graduated in 1917 and returned to Shanghai speaking English better than Chinese.

She was introduced to her future husband in 1922. By that time, she had matured into a slender beauty and taken to wearing full-length body-hugging gowns.

Chiang Kai-shek, a severe-looking military aide to Sun Yat-sen who established a school for officers in southern China, may have been as attracted to the Soongs' financial and political connections as he was to their youngest daughter. His initial overtures to her were rebuffed, and after Sun's death in 1925, as Chiang Kai-shek took the title Generalissimo and tried to succeed him as the leader of the Nationalist cause, he proposed to Sun's young widow, Soong Qing-ling. She said no.

General Chiang allied himself with warlords in southern and central China and with the Soviet Union, where Stalin regarded the Nationalists as more progressive than the warlords who still controlled Beijing and northern China. Communist rebels, not yet led by Mao Zedong, felt they deserved Moscow's support. But Stalin insisted on supporting the Nationalists.

In 1927 General Chiang shocked his Soviet backers by carrying out a massacre of leftists in Shanghai. Edgar Snow, the American journalist, estimated that General Chiang's forces executed more than 5,000 people.

The massacre caused a permanent rent in the Soong family. Soong Qing-ling, as Sun Yat-sen's widow, led a faction of Nationalists who voted to expel General Chiang from all his posts. T.V. Soong resigned as finance minister, though he was later persuaded to resume his alliance with General Chiang.

General Chiang also allied himself with Shanghai's notorious underworld, then led by an opium-dealing gangster named Du Yuesheng, widely known as Big-Eared Du. In a fractious city, separated into sectors run by competing foreign powers, Du was the most powerful man, dominating banking, smuggling and opium.

A Suitable Husband and Dubious Friends

When General Chiang renewed his interest in Soong Mei-ling in 1927, she told him that she would consent to marry only if he could win the approval of her mother, who had reservations about a man who was neither Christian nor single. General Chiang had already fathered a son in a marriage that was arranged when he was only 14, and had adopted a second son and married a second wife, Chen Chieh-ru. General Chiang promised to convert, and eventually sent Chen away to the United States, where she enrolled at Columbia University and earned a doctorate.

The Chiang-Soong wedding took place in Shanghai on Dec. 1, 1927. A small Christian ceremony was held at the Soong mansion on Seymour Road, followed by a political ceremony at the Majestic Hotel, beneath a portrait of Sun Yat-sen.

According to the North China News, the event was a highlight of Shanghai's social calendar, attended by more than 1,300 of the cosmopolitan city's elite. A photograph shows Chiang Kai-shek in a morning suit, with a thin stubble of hair on his head. Madame Chiang looks like a 1920's coquette, with a white lace veil crawling down her forehead to her eyebrows.

Madame Chiang became a true political partner to her husband, traveling with him, advising him on military and political matters, turning her charm on allies and foes alike. Chiang spoke almost no English, though his wife taught him to call her "darling," and she served as his interpreter, often interspersing her own views.

However, she was continually reminded of the limits of the general's authority. Ilona Ralf Sues, a Polish journalist who worked briefly for Madame Chiang and later wrote "Shark Fins and Millet," documenting the treacherous politics of Shanghai, described how Madame Chiang was kidnapped by "Big-Eared Du" after she tried to convince her husband that as the leader of the Nationalists, he no longer needed to pay protection money to Du's underworld operation, the Green Gang.

Madame Chiang went out shopping in her limousine one afternoon, and did not return home by evening. When Du was reached on the phone, he said that Madame Chiang was fine, but that she had been found motoring alone in the streets of Shanghai, "a very imprudent thing to do considering the ever-present hazards." Money changed hands, and Madame Chiang was henceforth cautious with the Green Gang.

Madame Chiang's highly political life was often lonely, according to Ms. Sues. "She had admirers, but no true friends," she wrote of Madame Chiang in 1944. "She wants to be First Lady of the World."

Madame Chiang developed what she called the New Life Movement, a series of principles for modernizing China through social discipline, courtesy and service. She engineered public hygiene campaigns and denounced traditional superstitions.

While many ordinary Chinese resisted it, the campaign was popular with foreigners, particularly with Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, who was born to missionaries in China. He named the couple "Man and Woman of the Year" in 1938.

Madame Chiang pushed her husband to build up the Nationalist air force, and helped hire Claire Chennault, who commanded a mercenary force of pilots that came to be known as the Flying Tigers.

Madame Chiang also helped defuse one of the gravest crises of her husband's career, when he was kidnapped by rebellious generals in December 1936 in what came to be known as the Xian Incident.

Their rebels' leader, Gen. Zhang Xueliang, had long advocated better efforts at fighting the Japanese, who had gained control of Manchuria in 1931 and continued to make inroads in northern China, and criticized General Chiang's preoccupation with the Chinese Communist forces then based in China's northwest.

When General Chiang refused to redirect his military focus, General Zhang engineered a kidnapping at dawn on Dec. 4 at a hot springs resort where General Chiang was camped. General Chiang tried to escape in his nightclothes, badly injured his back scaling a back wall, and was found hours later, cowering and shivering between some rocks up a hill, minus his false teeth.

General Chiang refused to negotiate with his captors. Yet as Madame Chiang deliberated with other Nationalist leaders in the capital, Nanjing, it became apparent that some of General Chiang's rivals were advocating a military strike that could end in General Chiang's death. Madame Chiang flew to Xian to help mediate.

Communist leaders were also called in, and they were split over whether to execute General Chiang or to follow Stalin's instructions to unite with the Nationalists against the Japanese. Weeks of murky negotiations ensued. Finally, after T.V. Soong authorized a large payment to insure General Chiang's release, an agreement was reached on Dec. 31.

Retribution against General Zhang was swift and lasted a lifetime. General Chiang placed him under house arrest, where he was kept, on the Chinese mainland and then in Taiwan, until he was in his 90's. He later moved to Hawaii, where he remained until his death in 2001.

Diva-Like Petulance and a Winning Way

During the war, the relationship among General Stilwell, Madame Chiang and Chiang Kai-shek proved contentious. Stilwell accused General Chiang of hoarding resources, deliberately avoiding battle with the Japanese to spare his men to fight the Communists.

Madame Chiang was in the middle, sometimes interceding on Stilwell's behalf when resisting him threatened American support. But she also plotted against Stilwell, telling journalists that he was incompetent. She and her husband lobbied Washington to have Stilwell replaced, and he was, in 1944.

Madame Chiang also emerged as China's most important ambassador, frequently charming American visitors like Wendell Willkie, the Republican politician, who came to China in 1942 after losing a presidential campaign against Roosevelt in 1940.

"There is little doubt that Little Sister has accomplished one of her easiest conquests," wrote John Paton Davies, an American diplomat, apparently referring to the way Madame Chiang took advantage of Mr. Willkie's lack of access to women in wartime China. "It's interesting the influence which enforced celibacy has on his judgment - and the course of political events."

According to Sterling Seagrave, who wrote a scathing portrait of Madame Chiang in his racy history, "The Soong Dynasty," she was also capable of diva-like petulance. Madame Chiang was in New York in 1943 when she learned that Winston Churchill was on his way to Washington. She suggested that the British Prime Minister stop in New York to see her. He responded that she should join him for lunch with Roosevelt in Washington.

Churchill recalled with some amusement in his history of the war that she turned him down "with some hauteur." "In the regrettable absence of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the President and I lunched alone in his room and made the best of things," he wrote.

Madame Chiang made a splash in Washington soon afterward. She spoke forcefully and passionately to Congress, winning a roaring ovation. She then traveled across the country, appearing at Madison Square Garden and at the Hollywood Bowl.

But she earned the enmity of American G.I.'s when she returned to China's wartime capital, Chungking, with several suitcases, one of which plopped open to reveal luxurious cosmetics, lingerie and fancy groceries.

It was a small sign of the growing corruption within the Nationalists that would speed their undoing. After Japan was defeated in 1945 and the civil war between Nationalists and Communists accelerated, the Communists swiftly expanded their control into the northeast.

The Nationalists received considerable American aid, but as John Service, a longtime Foreign Service officer in China, warned in a memorandum about General Chiang: "He has achieved and maintained his position in China by his supreme skill in balancing man against man and group against group, and his adroitness as a military politician rather than as a military commander, and by reliance on a gangster secret police."

Other American officials in China also warned against the vast amounts of graft among Nationalists. More than $3 billion was appropriated to China during the war, and most of it was transmitted through T.V. Soong, who as China's foreign minister was based in Washington. It later became apparent that the Soong family suffered vicious infighting over the purloined funds.

Madame Chiang traveled to Washington again in November 1948 to plead for emergency aid for the war against the Communists. Yet Congress had recently assigned another $1 billion to China, and President Truman was impatient with the Chiangs and what had become an apparently hopeless effort to shore up the Nationalist Government. Madame Chiang never returned to China.

"I can ask the American people for nothing more," she said. "It is either in your hearts to love us, or your hearts have been turned from us."

In her frustration, she publicly likened American politics to 'clodhopping boorishness." Coming after years of generous American support, that irritated Truman.

"They're thieves, every damn one of them," Mr. Truman said later, referring to Nationalist leaders. "They stole $750 million out of the billions that we sent to Chiang. They stole it, and it's invested in real estate down in S?o Paolo and some right here in New York."

General Chiang resigned as president of Nationalist China in January 1949 and fled to Taiwan that May, taking with him a national art collection that was kept in crates in Taiwan for years as the Chiangs clung to the ever-diminishing hope that they would some day take it back to Beijing.

In the United States, the Chiangs set up what would become one of the most sophisticated lobbying efforts ever in Washington, learning how to distribute millions of dollars indirectly through law firms and public relations companies. The operation continues today.

Madame Chiang made several trips to the United States in the 1950's to oppose efforts by the People's Republic of China to win a seat at the United Nations. Only in 1971 did the United Nations allow the government of the world's most populous country to be represented, a prelude to President Nixon's trip to Beijing in 1972.

After Nixon met Jiang Qing, a radical leftist who was Mao's wife, he wrote that she seemed the opposite of Madame Chiang: severe on the outside, but weak within; Madame Chiang had a soft appearance, but was steely inside.

Madame Chiang's health wavered over the years, and in 1976 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy, and later, a second one.

Even after she moved to permanent residence in New York after Chiang Kai-shek's death in 1975, Madame Chiang kept her finger on the pulse of Nationalist politics. She returned to Taiwan after her stepson died in January 1988. Even though she was nearly 90, Madame Chiang tried to rally her old allies. But Lee Teng-hui, chosen as vice president both because he was Taiwan-born and because he was considered a pushover by fellow Nationalists, proved more adept at politics than expected, and he gradually solidified his control.

Madame Chiang lived out her final years in New York, with a pack of black-suited bodyguards who cleared the lobby of her Gracie Square apartment building every time she entered or left. She returned to Congress for one last appearance in 1995.

Her life gradually grew quiet, as friends preceded her to the grave. She stopped visiting a family estate on Long Island in Lattingtown, where she had often spent time with her younger relatives.


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