Was there ever a trio of sisters like the Soong sisters, Eling, Chingling and Mayling? They married the three most powerful Chinese of their day, the financier H.H. Kung, Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese saw famously said that they should be named Aiqian (loves money, Eling), Aiquan (loves power, Mayling), and Aiguo (loves her country, Chingling). Now for the first time in English, Laura Tyson Li has written a definitive biography of Mayling Soong, Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
This is a wonderful book, impeccably researched, beautifully written. It paints a detailed and vivid picture of one of history’s most remarkable women. She was born in about 1898 in the Shanghai suburb of Hongkew, youngest daughter of Charles Jones Soong, one of the first Chinese to become a Southern Methodist missionary in China. Her mother Ni Guizhen was a direct descendant of Xu Guangqi. Xu, a prime minister of the Ming Dynasty, was the first prominent Chinese to be converted to Catholicism by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Mayling grew up in a household redolent of high politics and the Christian religion. Both of these were to be fundamental influences in her life.
Above all she was an American. She was educated in America from the age of nine, first in Macon, Georgia, and subsequently in Massachusetts at Wellesley College. The author comments that she was “a seamless alloy of Southern belle, New England bluestocking and Chinese tai-tai”. If you are lucky enough to be able to fight your way through the crowds of Chiang Kai-shek fans at his villas in the former summer capital of China, Lushan, or at its wartime capital, Chungking, this rapidly becomes clear. Her light reading matter, which is still on display at these villas, was exclusively American, from Louisa May Alcott through Poe to Melville. This is a critical aspect of her personality because her greatest success was in wooing America—some said vamping America —and ensuring its support for the Chinese cause during the darkest days of the Second World War.
Devoutly Christian, the daughter of home-grown Chinese missionaries, utterly fluent in English, she personified China as Americans wished it to be. She had even converted the President of China to Christianity. For those who weren’t so fussed about Christianity, she preached democracy and called China the bulwark of democracy. Perish the thought that China was a oneparty state; that the Kuomintang had been organised by Comintern agents along Leninist lines; that its rhetoric was of revolution; that it had a brigade of blueshirts modelled on Hitler’s brownshirts. The list goes on. America didn’t see the KMT in its true colours. They saw a beautiful Methodist minister’s daughter speaking to them in a language they understood perfectly, albeit with a southern accent. Reality? Who cares? Has anything about the China–America relationship changed?
It becomes clear throughout the book that the Chinese saying that she was the sister who loved power and that Chingling was the one who loved her country isn’t as clear-cut as one might assume. Mayling loved power as much as anybody who has too much of it. But she also loved China with a great passion. The place where this becomes clearest is in the book’s treatment of her romantic life.
Mayling Soong was considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful and desirable women. Many men in power were in love with her from afar. And yet she chose to marry Chiang Kai-shek and, it appears, remain virgo intacta for life as far as he was concerned. What was her motivation?
Although Laura Tyson Li does not directly address this issue, the reason seems to have been religious. When he proposed to Mayling, Chiang’s marital status was unclear. He had had an arranged marriage to Mao Fumei, the mother of Jiang Jingguo. It was uncertain whether he had ever formally divorced her. Additionally, in keeping with Chinese casualness about the institution of marriage, he had a secondary wife, Chen Jieru, known in English as Jenny, with whom he appeared to be deeply in love. An added complication was that the Southern Methodist Church, to which the Soong family belonged, was opposed to marriage after divorce. Indeed the Southern Methodist bishop in charge of the Far East Missions refused to officiate at the wedding.
CHIANG’S MOTIVATIONS were obvious. As well as acquiring a stunningly beautiful, highly educated “new woman” as his consort, he killed three important political birds with one stone. First, he gained privileged access to Mayling’s brother T.V., who was already one of the financial tsars of China. Second, he gained access to Eling’s in-laws, the Kung family. This brought both money and respectability. The Kungs were also leading financiers and were direct descendants of Confucius (Kung was Confucius’ surname). Third, he neutralised the influence of Chingling Soong. Chingling had married Sun Yat-sen in scandalous circumstances. She was seen as not only his widow but as the bearer of his political legacy. And she was way too close to Stalin. Stalin effectively ruled most of China at this time through his envoy Borodin (the Soviet “adviser” to the KMT) and any path to power for Chiang Kai-shek would necessarily involve eliminating Stalin’s influence.
Mayling’s motives were less clear. As one of the few university graduates in China, not to mention female graduates, she was frustrated. She had great ideas for dragging China out of its historic weakness, but couldn’t see any path to applying her ideas practically. Above all she wanted a Christian China. Mayling could see before anybody else that Chiang, who, thanks to Soviet assistance and training, had just won a string of military victories, was a winning horse. But taking this path to power and applying her ideas for the salvation of China required serious sacrifices, as her religion laid down.
It was always rumoured that the Chiang family’s marital relations lacked passion, but for the first time, via meticulous research, Tyson Li has added some meat to the bones. Paradoxically, this arises out of Mayling’s affair, always rumoured and now practically confirmed, with Wendell Willkie, the wavy-haired US presidential hopeful and Roosevelt’s 1942 round-the-world envoy. It appears that after a tryst with Mayling in a secret apartment in Chungking, Willkie unburdened himself to Gardner Cowles, the founder of Look magazine, who had accompanied him on the trip. According to Cowles, Willkie was so smitten with Mayling that he seriously asked her to drop everything and fly back to Washington with him.
Now this is of prurient interest and will titillate Soong fans, but of more direct historical interest is Cowles’s report of a subsequent interview with Mayling. During a visit to New York in 1943, she summoned Cowles to her suite at the Waldorf Astoria and told him details of her marriage to Chiang. It had been arranged by her mother, she said. Chiang believed in sex only for procreation and since he already had a son, this would be unnecessary. All this is highly dubious and probably a justification of her affair with Willkie but there seems no reason to disbelieve the basic premise that there was no sex between her and Chiang. It seems a difficult path to achievement for a highly talented woman, but what other path was open to her to bring prosperity and the Christian religion to her beloved China?
Tyson Li’s book unveils a passing parade of fascinating characters. Let me mention a couple of my favourites. W.H. Donald is now little known in Australia, and more’s the pity. This intelligent, irascible, teetotal Australian journalist was Chiang Kai-shek’s leading political adviser for many years. He had helped draft Sun Yat-sen’s political manifesto, nursed the young Marshal Zhang Xueliang through his opium addiction, and was the only person who would speak with Australian directness to Chiang Kai-shek about his weaknesses. “You are ignorant because nobody dares to correct you,” Donald said to Chiang. “Goddamn it, sir, you’ve become insufferably stupid.” Donald still awaits his definitive Australian biographer, which is intriguing when you consider he is one of modern history’s most influential figures.
Zhang Xueliang himself features large in this book. Zhang became warlord of Manchuria after the death of his father Zhang Zuolin and was thrown out of his lands by the Japanese. Zhang was personally very close to Mayling and acquiesced when she suggested that Donald, who was then Zhang’s personal adviser, should switch his allegiances to Chiang. The book shines in its treatment of Zhang’s, Mayling’s and Donald’s interactions during the Xi’an Incident of 1936, when Zhang kidnapped Chiang and held him ransom against a united front with the communists against Japan. In a very Chinese sequel to this incident, Chiang held Zhang as his personal prisoner for nearly sixty years. Zhang was released only on the approach of his hundredth birthday.
WEAKNESSES? There are very few. I would have appreciated more attention to Chinese sources. Chiang Kai-shek mania is a major industry on the Chinese mainland nowadays and books on him and his family proliferate like flies. But it is legitimate to concentrate on non-Chinese sources because Mayling was basically American and so many of her achievements were in America.
Perhaps a more important effect of Tyson Li’s concentration on non-Chinese sources is her shabby treatment of Chiang Kai-shek. One mention of his clicking false teeth would probably have sufficed. The twentieth repetition was tiresome.
Lots of Americans disliked Chiang Kai-shek and chief amongst them was General Joseph Stilwell, Supreme Allied Commander in the China Theatre in the Second World War. Thanks to Barbara Tuchman’s entertaining biography of Stilwell, most readers are familiar with his contempt for Chiang: he called Chiang “Peanut”. Many probably think that this reflects reality. Actually Stilwell’s attitude reflects a general attitude on the part of on-the-ground Americans at the time to all Chinese. It is interesting to reflect that in the 1930s and 1940s, the only Americans who had anything positive to say about Chinese political personalities were those like Edgar Snow, the leftist author of Red Star over China, who had been told by the Comintern to say nice things about Mao Zedong.
As usual, Chiang’s reality was much more complex. Yes, he was often brutal. Yes, he often did monumentally stupid things. But he brought a level of order and even the beginnings of prosperity to China in the thirties. The big question on the lips of modern Chinese historians of the Republican period is what he might have achieved if the Japanese had not invaded. He would point to his many achievements in Taiwan after he was rid of both the Japanese and the communists. When recently the anti-KMT Taiwanese government removed Chiang’s plaques from his mausoleum in Taipei, the reaction from the other side of the Taiwan Straits was deafening. America may have no respect for Chiang Kai-shek but the people eagerly revising their views of history on the Chinese mainland respectfully beg to differ.
Chiang Kai-shek-bashing leads Tyson Li down difficult paths. She seems to accept the “Loss of China” line that that the communist victory was due to everybody recognising the superior morality of the communists and just laying down their arms. Whilst she correctly identifies hyper-inflation caused by mismanagement of the currency as a cause of the KMT loss, she ignores some important factors. A prime factor was the Soviet handover to the communists after the Soviet occupation of Manchuria of the entire well-equipped Japanese Guandong Army and its Japanese-staffed air force. The Soviets provided whole battalions of Korean “volunteers” from North Korea and stationed the Soviet Minister for Railways, Kovalev, in China to supervise the rebuilding of supply lines. They assisted the communists in establishing people’s governments in occupied Manchuria. The catalogue goes on. Failure to mention the Soviet role in the communist victory in China seems to me to be a historical sin of some magnitude because it leaves us with a fundamentally flawed picture of an important historical period.
But Tyson Li’s objective wasn’t to give us the definitive work on Chinese Republican history. She set out to paint a picture of one of history’s most talented and fascinating women. She succeeded admirably.
Ted Rule lives in retirement in the southern Chinese mega-city of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong