Article and Pictures by M. Maxine George
A sophisticated Chinese lady became a star on the international political stage during the middle half of the twentieth century. Remembering the attractive and intelligent first lady of Nationalist China, who captured global attention throughout much of that century, I was intrigued with the opportunity to travel to Taiwan and visit the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and Library to learn more about the famous Madame Chiang Kai Shek, her life in China and Taiwan, and her impact on both the Eastern and Western world.
Madame Chiang was well known in North America. Believed to have been born in Shanghai, China, in 1898, at the tender age of eight (or ten) she began her education at a boarding school in the United States, following the example set by her elder sisters. She graduated from Wellesley College with honours in 1917, majoring in English literature with a minor in philosophy. Her excellent English was spoken with a charming Georgian accent.
Returning to China she met her future husband, Chiang Kai Shek in 1920. Soong May-ling (or Mei-ling) was the third daughter of Charlie Soong, a Methodist minister, who became wealthy selling bibles to the Chinese. She also had three brothers. The family was successful, intelligent and well educated. The eldest sister, Soong Ai-ling married H. H. Kung, who became Finance Minister of China during WWII. Her middle sister, Soong Ching-ling was married to Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who led the overthrow of Imperialist China. Dr. Sun Yat Sen and his wife Soong Ching-ling are respectfully remembered by all Chinese as the Father and Mother of the new China. On this both Communist China and Nationalist China (Taiwan) agree. However, General Chiang Kai Shek was the army leader who brought down the warlords of the various provinces bringing about the unification of China. Dr. Sun Yat Sen died in 1925. It is believed that General Chiang proposed marriage to the widow of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, but was flatly turned down by that lady. He became Generalissimo and Chief Warlord in 1926.
When Soong May-Ling met the General, he was a Buddhist, already married, with two concubines. When he asked to marry May-Ling, her Christian parents insisted that he could not marry their daughter unless he showed them proof that he was divorced from his wife and concubines, and also became a Christian. He agreed. He was soon able to prove to his future in-laws that he was divorced. Although he promised to become a Christian, he stated that process would have to be digested a little slower. The couple married in Shanghi on December 1, 1927. Chiang was baptized as a Christian in 1929. With Madame Chiang at his side, they moved on to become one of the most influential couples during the middle of the twentieth century. In 1937 they were chosen by Time Magazine as their ‘Man & Woman of the Year.’ Together they led China into world prominence.
During World War II the star of this couple continued its meteoric rise until Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek was considered one of the so-called Big Four Allied Powers. Together Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and Chiang Kai Shek controlled much of the Allied world. Madame Chiang was thought to be the ‘power behind the throne.’ It is not surprising. She was considered to be a brilliant political strategist. She accompanied her husband to the Cairo Conference of the Big Four in 1943, acting as his translator, secretary and advisor. At that conference Chiang negotiated the return of Taiwan to China if and when the Japanese were defeated.. Earlier that same year Madame Chiang became the first Chinese national and only the second woman to address the U.S. Congress. She again made the cover of Time Magazine, as ‘The Dragon Lady’ that year.
At the conclusion of WWII, as had been arranged in Cairo, the Island of Taiwan or Formosa, was formally surrendered by the Japanese to the Chinese Nationalist Government. Although Chiang had achieved global recognition, at home things were not going well. The prolonged war had drained the coffers of the Nationalist Government and the government popularity waned, while the communists guerillas were organizing the villages. Soon a full scale civil war was in progress as Communist armies moved south through the country. Some historians today blame Chiang for losing China to the Communists, by failing to recognize the desire of the Chinese people for change.
In 1949, as the Communists took over Nanking, the Chiangs moved with the Chinese Nationalist Government and the remnants of his army, to the Island of Taiwan (or Formosa), intending to return to the Mainland China ‘when the communists were overthrown.’ Madame Sun Yat Sen (Soong Ching-Ling) stayed behind with the people of Communist China. Most of the western world backed Chiang. Madame Chiang remained prominent in Taiwan and abroad. She continued to play an international role throughout the remainder of her husband’s life. During the sixties, she was considered to be one of American’s ten most admired women in the world. In Taiwan, she helped build their air force and was referred to as ‘Mother of Taiwan’s Air Force’. Pictures often showed her wearing the Air Force Wings.
The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial is centrally located in the city of Taipei. Once through the massive Ming-style arch, three buildings dominated my attention in the beautifully landscaped grounds.
The National Concert Hall to the left is built in traditional Chinese style, with orange-red tiled roof, as is the National Theatre on the right. However, the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial building is what really attracts a person’s attention. This large white, pagoda style building, with royal blue tile Chinese style roof, is dominated on each side by a huge staircase. We went directly up the eighty-nine steps that lead to the entrance of the Memorial Hall. (Eighty-nine being the age of Chiang at his death in 1975.)
Hurrying, we arrived just as the changing of the guard began. Each day, crowds of people come to watch the elite, white-uniformed soldiers, members of a special guard unit, march into the vast, white marble hall. There the huge bronze statue of President Chiang Kai Shek sits looking out over the ceremony while the guards perform their precise drill as their exchange takes place. At the end of the exercise, the new guards assume their positions as guards of honour on pedestals in the huge marble hall, standing at attention, without even blinking an eye, until they are relieved an hour later.
Following our visit to the Memorial Hall, our guide, Dalton asked if we would like to see the Chiang Kai Shek Library or Museum. Just what I was waiting for! I had been looking forward to this segment of our visit. The Library occupies the bottom floor of the building. Stepping into the entrance hall, we found two shiny black Cadillac limousines on exhibit. They had successively been the Chiang’s official cars. The walls were lined with a series of historic paintings depicting the part played by Dr. Sun Yat Sen and General Chiang Kai Shek in the overthrow of Imperialist China.
Moving on I was fascinated as the history of this famous couple unfolded. Their wedding picture hung on the wall, showing Soong May-ling as an attractive bride, dressed in a fashionable white wedding dress designed in the style of the ‘twenties. Theirs was sometimes thought to be one of the great love stories of the century, however on the other hand they both may have had ulterior motives when entering into that marriage.
With their wedding they also became a political team, working together throughout the nearly half-century of their marriage. Continuing our journey through the library, we found the walls of each room are lined with pictures and memorabilia telling the story of those years. Most of the pictures show the couple on various historic occasions, or with famous people of the Twentieth Century; world leaders or war leaders - all the faces were famous. I was fascinated as I continued to identify the procession of world leaders, who were photographed during their visits with the Chiangs: Mahatma Gandhi, all the U.S. presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, General Douglas Macarthur, The Flying Tiger - General Claire Chennault, and so many more famous faces. In front of each picture we discussed the scene with Dalton, who is very knowledgeable regarding their history. As we were standing discussing one picture, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. Turning I saw a slight, little white-haired Chinese lady, hands clasped in front of her face as she bowed slightly toward me. She was speaking to me in Chinese. Turning to Dalton for interpretation, he explained that the lady was saying, " Thank you for being interested in our history." My first thought was that I must speak to her through Dalton, and take her picture. Turning back I found the little lady had disappeared as quickly and silently as she had appeared. We quickly spread out to find her. The three of us searched throughout the huge halls. No luck. She was gone from sight, but my memory of the lady and the mental picture of her gracious gesture warms my heart today.
As I traveled around Taiwan I heard examples of where Madame Chiang's influence can still be seen on the Island. Perhaps the most spectacular is the impressive Grand Hotel, which was said to have been built at her direction. Supposedly meant to be for the Taiwan people, all profits were supposed to go to charity. This most ostentatious and spectacular hotel, built to Chinese architectural design with curving tile roofs and red pillars, is a fitting legacy to her love of art, style and things Chinese. It is certainly a hotel to be remembered! The hotel is situated on a hill overlooking the city. Entering the curved driveway, our vehicle drove through the ornate, triple Ming-style arch, right up to the hotel door. A massive red-carpeted lobby greeted us. Large red pillars abound throughout the room. Glass show cases filled with Chinese art; carved marble, jade, amber and ivory are displayed beside the wide central aisle. An impressive broad, red-carpeted staircase, with carved, white marble railings, leads up to the surrounding mezzanine, also with railings of carved white marble. A massive centerpiece of growing purple orchids dominates the middle of the lobby. Looking up, to the ornate wooden ceiling, I see a golden dragon looking down from the central dome. This hotel entrance and lobby impressed me more than any hotel I’ve seen in many years of traveling, all thanks to the lady once called The Dragon Lady.
Later in the day, we visited the former home of the Chiangs. Dalton told us the Chiangs led a very simple life. From what I could see of the outside of the home, it does not look pretentious. Although the home is no longer open to the public, the fabulous, beautifully landscaped gardens are open during the day, and are a very popular park. Scattered throughout the property we saw a cook house (used to cook for the main house,) a guest house, gazebos, a chapel, a pond with statues and fountains, a conservatory with beautiful flowering plants, greenhouses and an administration building - all in the marvelously decorative Chinese style. We found bridal couples posing for their pictures; young couples strolling with toddlers and children; university students, dressed in costumes for a play also posing for pictures; and others like ourselves enjoying the beauty and serenity of this lovely Chinese garden. I very much doubt that this fabulous park was open to the public in the days of the Chiangs. Fortunately for the people of Taipei, they can now enjoy this beautiful park. It was a wonderful way to end our visit to Taiwan.
One last note about the fascinating Madame Chiang. While in Taiwan I learned that after her husband died in 1975, and his son, by a previous marriage, Chiang Ching-Kuo took over as President, she left Taiwan to spend her remaining years on her family estate in Long Island, New York. She faded from the public eye. Her final years were surprisingly long. She died in a Manhattan apartment in 2003 at 105 years of age - far outliving any of the other big players in the saga of the Big Four! Looking back on her life I realize, Madame Chiang was one of the most influential women of her time. She was the ambassador to the world for China and Taiwan. She and her sisters influenced the politics, economy and history of modern China and thus changed history.
The Chiangs, in death, wait as they did in life, for the reunification of the Chinese Mainland and Taiwan. As is Chinese custom, both have been temporarily buried, while they await their return to the land of their birth, to be buried side-by-side for eternity, as they were in life.
Article and Pictures by M. Maxine George Photos and paintings of the Chiangs during their lifetime are now on the walls of the museum and were taken by M. Maxine George from that source.
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Last Updated on May 18, 2010 by M. Maxine George editor.
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