Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, 1898-2003

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Madame Chiang Kai-shek with her husband and Flying Tiger Commander General Clair Chennault in 1942

The fact that 106-year-old Madame Chiang Kai-shek passed away in relative seclusion thousands of miles away from her homeland is testimony to the fortunes of the political project she — and her husband — once represented. Madame Chiang was the widow of the legendary Chinese nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek, who fled China in 1949 in the wake of the communist victory to set up what he envisaged as a Chinese government-in-exile in Taiwan. Chiang, whose U.S.-educated wife was his interlocutor with the West, ruled Taiwan with an iron fist for 25 years, and it was his claim to represent all of China that helped the Nixon administration adopt the "One China" policy recognizing Taiwan and China as part of a single political entity. That policy, which remains the cornerstone of U.S.-China relations today, prevents Washington from recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state, and was crafted as a concession to Beijing's view of the island as nothing more than a rebel province. But it was made palatable to Chiang by the fact that he saw himself as the leader not simply of Taiwan, but of all China.

Oct. 26, 1931

Jan. 3, 1938
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March 1, 1943

Her Husband:
Chiang Kai-Shek Covers

As for Chiang's wife, she was Born Soong May-ling in 1898 on the island of Hainan — site of the spy-plane incident that marked the first foreign policy crisis of the Bush administration — Madame Chiang was raised as a Christian and educated at Wellesley College where she graduated in 1917. Her sister, Ching-ling married Sun Yat-sen, the nationalist leader who created modern China after overthrowing the Qing imperial dynasty in 1911. May-ling married the young Kuomintang (KMT) general Chiang Kai-shek in 1926, a year after he'd taken control of the party and the year before the onset of a bloody civil conflict between the KMT and Mao's communists — a conflict that also marked a parting of ways of the Soong sisters, as Madame Sun Yat-sen made common cause with the communists.

Both sides fought the Japanese who attacked China in 1937, before resuming their civil war once Japan had been beaten. Madame Chiang's heyday came during World War II, when she came to the U.S. as her husband's spokesman and made a rousing address to the U.S. Congress appealing for help against the Japanese. A charismatic intellectual who challenged traditional ideas of silent and subservient Chinese women, she took a leading role in nationalist politics, running Chiang's air force at one point. As icons of Western-friendly modernity and of unbending resistance to the excesses of Maoism, Madame Chiang and her husband were highly regarded in the U.S., and she was even featured three times on the cover of TIME magazine. (See right.) At home, however, some regarded her as arrogant and an apologist for the authoritarian ways of the KMT regime. After her husband's death in 1975, she moved to the U.S. and a life outside of the political spotlight.

And in the ensuing three decades, "One China," and the inexorable shift towards opening the Chinese economy to the West following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, began to change the terms of the relationship between Beijing, Taipei and Washington. Where Chiang had once represented the authoritarian strongman presiding over a booming capitalist economy offering low-cost manufactured goods to the U.S. market and raising the living standards of its people, today that role has been usurped on the mainland by the Chinese Communist Party. The tension across the Taiwan Strait remains high, but its terms have changed. Today, Beijing's claim to Taiwan is an expression of the nationalist mantle adopted by a Communist Party serving as the authoritarian steward of a booming capitalist economy, while the Taiwanese electorate — having attained a democratic voice over their own destiny in the wake of Chiang's passing — demur, increasingly eschewing "One China" in favor of an independence-minded ethnic-Taiwanese nationalism. Madame Chiang and her husband, and the KMT political apparatus they brought with them from the mainland were, after all, exiles. And today's political landscape in Taiwan reflects their declining status relative to the ethnic-Taiwanese who have little interest in KMT claims to the seat of power in Beijing.

The epic political contest that defined Madame Chiang's life has turned a page: the Communists in Beijing have taken the capitalist road and the Taiwanese electorate has eschewed Chiang's nationalism in favor of its own brand, which seeks to break away from Beijing rather than reconquer it.