A Flower Made of Steel

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Her temperament and the times were well matched. It was early 1943, and the Republic of China was struggling to resist the invading forces of imperial Japan. Soong Mei-ling, then 45 and the wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, happened to be in the U.S. for medical reasons. Seizing the opportunity to champion her country's cause, she summoned all her energy and flashing-eyed eloquence to the task of urging the U.S. to side with her embattled land. For five months Madame Chiang Kai-shek seemed to be everywhere: speaking at Madison Square Garden; traveling to San Francisco; talking on the radio. In an address to Congress, she was what one commentator called "the personification of free China.'' Slim and graceful, clad in a black cheongsam, she wooed, wowed and chastised her spellbound listeners with a blend of compliments, barbs and pungent assertions. "We in China are convinced that it is the better half of wisdom not to accept failure ignominiously, but to risk it gloriously,'' she said. After she sat down, a Congressman confessed, "I never saw anything like it. Madame Chiang had me on the verge of bursting into tears.'' At the age of 105, Madame Chiang died last week in her Manhattan apartment.

A charmed, glamorous destiny seemed to await Mei-ling from the moment she was born into a remarkable family. (Her sister Soong Ching-ling would marry Sun Yat-sen, modern China's founder.) Their father, C.J. (Charlie) Soong, who had been virtually adopted by a group of Methodist evangelists in North Carolina, returned to China intending to be a missionary but became an entrepreneur instead. Mei-ling attended high school in Macon, Ga. She eventually returned home armed with a degree in English literature from Wellesley, the vestiges of a Southern drawl and so little Chinese that she had to be re-educated in her native tongue by a tutor ("The only thing Oriental about me,'' she reportedly said, "is my face''). She was in her mid-20s and the flower of Shanghai's intellectual community when she first caught the eye of Chiang Kai-shek, then chairman of the Supreme National Defense Council. Neither minded that he already had a bride and a son tucked away in the provinces. In 1927 Soong and Chiang were married, and in the years that followed, Madame Chiang became her husband's interpreter, confidant and chief propagandist. Not only did she try to save his soul (by converting him from paganism to Christianity), she also helped save his life. In 1936, on an inspection tour in Xi'an, Chiang was detained by troops of disaffected warlord Zhang Xueliang. Madame Chiang flew to the rescue and challenged Zhang so eloquently that he released his captive and agreed to return to Nanking as a prisoner of the Chiangs. Madame Chiang then devoted her energies to tidying up her disheveled country. In 1934 she joined her husband in launching the New Life movement, which directed the Chinese to be dutiful, disciplined, loyal and clean.


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The campaign drew praise in the foreign press, with one of the couple's biggest fans being Time Inc.'s Henry Luce, who was born in China to American missionary parents. Luce put them on the cover of TIME, separately or together, 11 times, most famously in 1938, when the magazine named them Man and Wife of the Year. But Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others, were more wary. On Madame Chiang's 1943 tour of the U.S., she stayed with the President and his wife at the White House for a week. One night at dinner F.D.R. asked in passing how she would deal with a troublesome labor leader like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers. She drew her hand across her throat. Eleanor later said, "Those delicate, little petal-like fingers — you could see some poor wretch's neck being wrung.''

At home Madame Chiang preserved the same balance, sometimes scrambling over the ruins of heavily bombed Chungking to tend the wounded, sometimes burnishing Chiang's image with her social poise. She remained a central figure in his government even after the Nationalists were driven to Taiwan when the communists triumphed in 1949. Upon the death of her husband in 1975, she returned to the U.S. for medical treatment. Since then, she split her time between her Manhattan apartment and the family mansion on Long Island, N.Y., and twice served as Taiwan's unofficial spokeswoman in rebuffing China's reunification overtures. It seemed only right that she died in the land where she had enjoyed her greatest moments and won her most fervent admirers.