A formidable and feared voice for nationalist Chinese

 

Madame Chiang Kai-shek, one of the world's most powerful, best-known and controversial women during the 1930s and 1940s and a major influence on US policy toward China in those decades, has died in New York.

She was 105. Family members say she had recently caught a cold that led to pneumonia.

Madame Chiang (Song Meiling) was the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of nationalist (Kuomintang) Chinese forces during both the civil war against the Chinese communists and second World War against Japan. In that capacity she was one of her husband's leading propagandists and a vital force in winning vast amounts of money and equipment for his cause.

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. On the island of Taiwan, where the Kuomintang (KMT)party 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 the younger generation, disillusioned by years of KMT misrule, were not as moved by the death as their parents.

Educated in the US, she was a top-honours graduate of Wellesley College - she was said to have observed shortly after her graduation that she was "Chinese only in looks". Since Chiang spoke no English, she became his primary means of communication with the West.

Born Song Meiling in Shanghai, Madame Chiang, the youngest and the last survivor of the legendary Song sisters, was educated until the age of 10 at Shanghai's elite McTyeire School for Girls. All three girls would play a vital role in China during the first half of the 20th century - they even inspired a well-known saying: "Once upon a time there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, one loved China."

Her eldest sister, Song Ailing, married Kung H.H., and was said to have been a figure of immense power and influence during his career as a financier and later finance minister and premier of China.

The third sister, Song Qinling, married Dr Sun Yat-sen, the architect of the 1911 Chinese revolution, and she was one of the leading women in China before he died in 1925. Later she broke with Chiang to side with the communists who also regarded Sun as their inspiration, and won over mainland China in 1949. She became an important figure in Mao's China.

Their brother, Song T.V., was a Chinese businessman and financier who had also been the nationalist government's foreign minister, finance minister and premier and by the late 1940s was thought to have been one of the richest men in the world.

After Sun's death, Chiang took control of the KMT, the party founded by Sun, but he was soon at war against communist dissidents within the party and later with the Japanese. He had married Song Meiling (Meiling means beautiful life) in 1927, and she became a top adviser with the authority to determine high policy in Chiang's war efforts.

She attracted wide coverage, much of it adulatory, in the Western press, especially Time, Life and Fortune magazines, which were founded and directed by Henry Luce, who had been born in China to American missionary parents and who maintained a special interest in China all his life. Supporters of the Chiangs tended to see them as the embodiments of all that was good in China, and the leaders in a valiant struggle against the forces of evil. They appeared on the cover of Time magazine's first issue of 1938 as "Man and Wife of the Year" for 1937.

To their enemies, the Chiangs were the opportunistic overseers of a corrupt and decadent political apparatus that had little or no regard for human life or the well-being of China. Madame Chiang was the "Dragon Lady", imperious, hard-boiled and calculating.

She was widely perceived in the US to have been one of the major figures of the so- called "China Lobby", a loosely knit but influential collection of Chinese nationals and their supporters who enjoyed great success in winning US aid for China.

In the late 1930s, as the war with Japan escalated, Madame Chiang wrote dozens of articles for US newspapers comparing the Japanese invaders to Genghis Khan and attacking the West for standing by while China was being overrun. She made worldwide radio broadcasts pleading for support for a "Free China", and in 1940 wrote two books, China in Peace and War, and This is Our China, to argue her case.

In 1943, with the US by then in the war, she made a triumphal tour of the US, dazzling a joint session of Congress with her call for more aid, then later addressing a cheering 10,000-strong "Free China" rally at New York's Madison Square Garden. Henry Luce once again put her picture on the cover of Time. She spoke English with a southern accent - acquired as a schoolgirl in Georgia - but she dressed and acted like an empress. The media found her enchanting.

At the White House, where she stayed for two weeks, the staff experienced the full weight of the imperial Madame. Ignoring the phone and bells, she summoned servants by clapping her hands. She brought her own silk sheets from China and required that they be changed several times a day, even if she went to bed for only 10 or 15 minutes. She was, White House chief butler Alonzo Fields wrote in a memoir, "a most charming lady to those who did not serve her". Nor did she enchant Eleanor Roosevelt, who observed later in her own memoirs that Madame Chiang "can talk very convincingly about democracy . . . but she hasn't any idea how to live it".

Her father, Charles Jones Song, had come to the US from China when he was a boy. He was befriended by wealthy industrialists in North Carolina who sponsored his university education. He returned to China in 1886 as a Methodist clergyman, and established a business selling Bibles. That enterprise flourished, and Song expanded into other areas. Within a few years he was a wealthy man.

Song sent all of his children to study in the US. When the future Madame Chiang returned to China after her graduation from Wellesley she had been away for 13 years.

She reportedly rejected several wealthy suitors. According to Sterling Seagrave in his book, The Soong Dynasty, she claimed she "would rather be an old maid than just the wife of another Chinese tycoon". She met Chiang Kai-shek three years after that.

In 1927, after his advances to the widowed Song Qinling had been rebuffed, he turned his attentions to Meiling. Initially her mother opposed their marriage, because Chiang was not a Christian and was already married with several concubines. Her opposition softened when Chiang divorced his first wife and promised both to dispatch the concubines and to study Christianity. He was eventually baptised into the Methodist Church.

During the early years of the Chiangs' marriage the KMT was badly divided, and much of China was still under the control of local warlords and bandits. Madame Chiang played a highly visible role in her husband's attempts to consolidate power. In one well-publicised 1936 incident she successfully negotiated his release after he was kidnapped by KMT dissidents.

During much of the second World War she remained in the Chinese wartime capital of Chungking, but she spent the better part of 1943 in the United States. In November of that year she accompanied Chiang to the Cairo Conference where she spoke on his behalf with Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

The end of the war brought a decline in her standing and influence in the US. Truman suspected that much US aid had ended up in Song family coffers and, despite trips to America during the late 1940s, Madame Chiang was unable to persuade US officials to intervene further in China. She joined Chiang on the island of Taiwan after the Communist victory on the Chinese mainland in 1949.

She made additional trips to the US in the 1950s and 1960s in attempts to win support for a Nationalist invasion of the mainland. She never succeeded but still she retained some of her mystique. As late as 1965 Madame Chiang appeared on Gallup poll lists of the 10 most admired women in the world.

After Chiang's death in 1975 she moved to the US, and lived since then in seclusion in a family estate outside New York. There are no immediate survivors.

Song Meiling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek): born 1898; died October 23rd, 2003