Chiang Kai-shek: A Fighter, Not a Lover

One of the more intriguing questions about the history of the Chinese Republic is the amorous exploits or lack thereof of Chiang Kai-shek.

But first the vexed question of his name. There are at least five names that he was known by during his life. Like all Chinese, his name changed as his life circumstances changed. Let’s concentrate on three. For his early life he was known as Jiang Zhiqing but when he went to Japan and edited a military magazine he adopted the pen-name of Jiang Jieshi. When he went down to Canton to join Sun Yat-sen’s government, local Western newspapermen used the Cantonese version of his name in reports. That was Chiang Kai-shek and this has stuck. But when he joined Sun Yat-sen, Chiang felt the need to change his name to one which referenced Sun’s own name. Sun’s name at this stage of his life, and ever after in official documents, was Sun Zhongshan. Chiang adopted the “zhong” element of Sun’s name and called himself Jiang Zhongzheng, meaning “central and upright” or “Chinese and upright”. This is the name by which he is generally known in Chinese. In the mid-twentieth century, when he ruled Taiwan, enormous mile-high characters, zhong and zheng, were cut out of the forest on Yangming Mountain overlooking Taipei and were clearly visible to all on those rare days when the smog lifted. Clearly the Kuomintang learnt many lessons from Stalin, not the least being the pursuit of the cult of personality.

I’m drawn to write about this because of an unusual aspect of Chiang’s life, that is the small number of his natural offspring—officially zero, although there is a reasonable case for raising that number to one, the former Kuomintang president on Taiwan, Jiang Jingguo. Why is this of interest? Because one of the measures of a powerful man in traditional China is the number of his children, especially sons. If he doesn’t have any, he adopts them. Otherwise who will carry on his name and sweep his grave? Take the case of Zhou Enlai. He does not appear to have been particularly interested in women—he played the female “dan” part in Chinese opera. His marriage to Deng Yingchao seems to have been one of convenience and they had no children of their own. But he adopted many children of “revolutionary martyrs”, one of whom turned out to be the stupid and murderous Premier of China, Li Peng.

Chiang’s lack of children was often commented upon. Several explanations for this were inferred, the main one being that he was sterile because of gonorrhoea. It’s difficult to decide whether this was put forward by a friend or an enemy. In traditional Chinese society it was probably less shameful to have gonorrhoea than not to have sons.

So let’s look at his amatory record. On the ledger we have three wives and at least one concubine that we know of (his second wife mentions one in her book). Chiang’s first marriage was in 1901, an arranged marriage to a village woman, Mao Fumei. He was fourteen, she was nineteen. Yes, you do wonder. Mao was described as “stout and strong with an amiable personality”. Her feet had not been fully bound, which is possibly why she had not been successful on the marriage market. Nineteen was almost on the shelf in Chinese villages of that period. Like most rural women, she was illiterate. It is worthy of note that despite both Mao and Chiang’s youth, there was no offspring from the marriage until 1910 when Jiang Jingguo was born. Jingguo’s biographer notes:

in 1909 it seemed Fumei would have no children. But Kai-shek’s mother learnt from a fortune teller that her son’s first wife would bear a baby boy who would become a high-ranking official, This was good news, but some conjugal business would have to be attended to if the prophecy was to be realised.

When Jingguo was born, he was registered as the son not of Kai-shek but of his brother Ruiqing. Now despite how it sounds, this was not unusual. Chiang’s brother had died at the age of four and needed a son for grave-sweeping purposes. What is unusual is registering the first-born son in other than his father’s name when it is far from certain, especially given the record up to that point, that the couple would have further sons. Note that from 1909 to 1911, Chiang was in Japan serving in the Imperial Japanese Army. What we can say is that Chiang Kai-shek was slim whereas Jingguo was short and fat. Jingguo was also diabetic, a disease which he passed to his children, who all died young. There is no evidence of diabetes in Chiang’s family.

Chiang’s second noteworthy liaison was with Yao Yecheng. Although there are suggestions that they were “married”, such things are fluid in Chinese society and she would probably be better described as a secondary wife or a concubine. Chiang met her in 1916 when she was working as a sing-song girl in an establishment in Suzhou called the Soochow Pleasure Garden. He described her as a “petite beauty and very charming” and they became “very good friends”. This might not have mattered much, but at the same time as she was pouring Chiang’s drinks, she was also the property of a “rich businessman” named Pang who had bought her contract. The businessman determined to bring matters to a head. He held a dinner in the sing-song house to which Chiang was invited. Yao waited on table and entertained the male guests by singing. As she was bringing “bubbling hot” sharks fin soup to the table, the businessman demanded that she renounce her friendship with Chiang. When Yao said no, he told her, “I’ve spent thousands of dollars on you and your house and yet you make me lose face repeatedly. Since you prefer this penniless revolutionary to me, then wear his hat.” He upended the boiling soup over Yao’s head, thus disfiguring her and putting an end to her career entertaining men.

Chiang set Yao up in Suzhou for some years and when the time came to trade her in on a new model, her price of settlement was a whopping $5000. However, this was not the end of her relationship with Chiang. In 1916 Chiang adopted another son, Jiang Weiguo, known as Wego Chiang. Wego was the illegitimate son of Chiang’s close associate Dai Jitao. Dai had gone to Japan in 1914 to join the Chinese Revolutionary Party and while there had had an affair with a Japanese woman, Shigematsu Kaneko, who presented him with a son. Dai was married at the time to another woman and did not wish to acknowledge the son, so Chiang adopted the boy as his own and Yao became a mother to him. This caused problems when Chiang renounced Yao as his concubine. He sent the pair back to his house in his native village, Xikou in Zhejiang Province, where they were to live with his legitimate wife Mao Fumei. You can imagine that Mao did not welcome them with open arms.

The historian Jay Taylor interviewed Wego Chiang in 1996, shortly before Wego’s death. Wego told Taylor that Yao and Mao didn’t get on at all well, and that he and his adoptive mother slept in a hayshed where they were tormented by fleas. But in the end Yao did better than Mao, who was killed in a Japanese bombing raid on Xikou. The fact that she was effectively Wego’s mother meant that she was able to follow Chiang to Taiwan, where she lived out her old age.

During the Chongqing period of the Second World War and the civil war that followed, Yao was one of several women rumoured to be connected with Jiang. US diplomat John Service wrote in a despatch, “There is so much smoke that it seems there must be some fire.” But then Service hated Chiang, and his advice on the basically benevolent nature of the Chinese Communist Party suggests that we should look elsewhere for authoritative opinions on Chiang.

Chiang’s next paramour, Chen Jieru, known as Jenny, was the first to be actually described openly as “Madame Chiang Kai-shek”. At this point you might ask yourself why the “Madame” so often with Chinese women. This is because the legal wives of Chinese officials also carried rank. They weren’t simple “tai tai” like ordinary women. They were “furen” or even higher titles.

Chen Jieru was a bourgeois Shanghainese, well educated and known for her calligraphy. We know a lot about Chen Jieru because when she and Chiang parted she wrote an autobiography in English describing in detail her life with him. Jiang Jingguo respected her as a figure from his childhood and found her a home in Taiwan in 1961, but he wasn’t prepared to see the family laundry hung out for all to see, so in 1965 he paid her US$175,000 to suppress her memoirs. They were finally published in 1993 as Chiang Kai-shek’s Secret Past.

Chen and Chiang met in 1918 at the house of a friend. He was thirty-one, she was thirteen, “tall, lanky but well formed”. Chen claims that “most people thought that I was eighteen”. Chiang appears to have developed a passion for her and she claims that some days later he tried to rape her. She naturally became angry and Chiang apologised. A correspondence followed. In 1921, when she was fifteen, a middleman carried Chiang’s proposal of marriage.

This caused some consternation in her family, and not because of the age difference. Chen’s mother employed a private detective who revealed that not only did Chiang have a wife and a concubine but he was unemployed. The middleman assured Mrs Chen that the wife was arranged and of no account and presented a signed document of separation with the concubine, Yao. As for his employment status, he was held in high regard by the revolutionary movement and there should be no concern about that. The couple were married in a civil ceremony in Shanghai on December 5, 1921. On their honeymoon, Chiang infected her with gonorrhoea. The cure made her sterile. As penance Chiang swore never to drink alcohol, tea or coffee again.

Chen followed Chiang through all the upheaval of the 1920s, the constant wars and uprisings of Canton, the tension with the communists and the Red Wuhan government of 1926-27, but their life together seems to have been harmonious. Chen describes his attitude to her as “ardent love” and hers to him as “devotion”: “I shared all his interests and worries as if they were my own.”

Then one evening in the summer of 1926 in Canton, Chiang and Chen received a dinner invitation that changed their lives. Chiang was invited to dinner by Madame H.H. Kung, Ailing Soong. This was a meeting of two sets of ambitions. The Soong family were powerful in the revolutionary movement—Ailing’s father Charlie was Sun Yat-sen’s confidant and financier, her sister Qingling was Sun’s wife, and her brother, T.V., was Sun’s financial genius—but they could see power slipping from their hands and into those of the communists and leftists. They needed a centrist or rightist figure who could command military strength to take their cause further. Chiang, for his part, was ecstatic to get the invitation. “You must be sensible and realise how very important it is for me to get closer to the Soong family,” he told Chen. An alliance with the Soongs would strengthen his identification with Sun Yat-sen’s memory and therefore his legitimacy for power. And present at the dinner was Mayling Soong, the future Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

If you read Chiang’s diaries for the period, they are full of mooning for Mayling but I think we can safely dismiss these as being constructions for future consumption. The real player here was Ailing Soong. Remember that she was T.V’s deputy Finance Minister in the Canton and H.H. was Minister of Commerce and Industry, so the Soongs had a real interest in how the tension between right and left in the Kuomintang would play out. She proposed an alliance to Chiang. She told him she was willing to put all her power and influence with Shanghai’s financiers behind him to get him the funds to defeat the Wuhan government and the leftists. In return, when the Nanjing government was finally established, her husband H.H. should become Prime Minister, her brother T.V. should be Finance Minister, and her sister Mayling should be his wife. At the same time Borodin, the Soviet “adviser” to the Canton government, seems to have developed a passion for Mayling. A servant stole from Borodin’s house a piece of blotting paper on which Borodin had doodled “Mayling Darling Darling Mayling” and handed it over to the Soongs.

Chiang accepted Ailing’s terms in separate letters to Ailing and Mayling. Then he had to break the news to Chen. He described it to her as a “political marriage” and asked her to step aside for five years while he unified the country. Chen packed her bags and went back to her mother’s house in Shanghai and from there to America.

Mayling’s marriage to Chiang was not universally accepted among her circle. In view of Chiang’s dubious marriage record, the Methodist Bishop of Shanghai refused to officiate at the ceremony. Mayling’s mother was appalled at the suggested match, and was only pacified when Ailing assured her that the marriage was purely political and no sex would be involved.

As we know, Mayling stayed with Chiang for the rest of his life and achieved many great things. She ran aviation in all of China (she loved wearing her wings), she founded the Flying Tigers, China’s American-manned air force, and was single-handedly responsible for China getting a permanent seat in the United Nations. But just how “political” did the marriage remain?

We get an inkling of this from events during a 1942 visit to China by the unsuccessful 1940 Republican presidential candidate against Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie. 1942 was the low ebb for the Allies in all theatres of war and Roosevelt felt the need to reassure them that America was on their side and would continue to support them. Accordingly he despatched Willkie on a world trip on an American bomber, “Gulliver”, visiting London, Moscow and Chongqing, China’s wartime capital. Willkie was fifty, tall, wavy-haired, handsome and charming. Roosevelt saw other aspects of him, and christened his dog “Willkie” because it wasn’t house-trained.

On his arrival in Chongqing, Willkie got the full Chinese treatment, cheering crowds all along his route from the airport, flags and banners throughout the streets, beggars removed, slums demolished. Willkie was entranced. He was particularly charmed by Mayling, who appears to have returned his feelings. An American diplomat described her as “exuding charm from every pore … There is little doubt that Little Sister [Mayling] has accomplished one of her easiest conquests.”

Willkie and Mayling appear to have been less than discreet about their mutual attraction. On a couple of occasions during dinner parties, including one where Zhou Enlai had been especially invited, the pair disappeared together, leaving conspicuously empty seats. Then Chiang Kai-shek hosted a reception for Willkie. Seated on a pair of throne-like seats, Chiang and Mayling took a receiving line. An hour into the reception, Willkie summoned his travelling companion, Gardner Cowles, and told him that he and Mayling were going to slip away, and that Cowles should distract Chiang with questions.

Later that evening Chiang stormed into Cowles’s house with three bodyguards carrying machine-guns and demanded to know where Willkie was. When Cowles denied any knowledge of Willkie’s whereabouts, the bodyguards searched the house, even looking under the beds.

At 4 a.m. Willkie arrived home, declaring himself to be deeply in love and saying he had invited Mayling to come back with him to America. There was a suggestion that this had been Mayling’s idea. Cowles told Willkie he was “a goddamn fool” and that his wife and son would be meeting him at the airport in Washington.

By morning, Willkie seemed to have come down from his cloud. Willkie delegated to Cowles the unpleasant task of telling Mayling that she couldn’t go to America with him. It appears that Mayling kept a secret apartment on the top floor of one of her charities, a hospital for women and children. Mayling and Willkie had been there the previous night with Mayling’s bodyguards protecting them. Cowles met her there and told her that she couldn’t fly to America with Willkie on the Gulliver. “Who said I can’t?” she snapped. “I do,” said Cowles, and she scratched his face with her fingernails. On observing Mayling embracing Willkie at the airport as he left Chongqing, the American diplomat John Paton Davies remarked, “It is interesting the influence which enforced celibacy has on judgment—and on the course of political events.”

You may ask how we have all these intimate details of dealings between Willkie and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The reason is that Gardner Cowles, in whom Willkie confided, was the publisher of Look magazine and couldn’t resist the temptation to publish such a juicy scoop. To give him his due, he held off publishing the details until 1983, long after Willkie’s death, but the December 1942 edition of Look carried a story by Cowles which was salaciously suggestive. Titled “Wendell Willkie Calls on Madame Chiang Kai-shek”, the article quoted Willkie as saying, “In the ultimate test of charm—the breakfast table—she still measured up.”

This is the text of one of a series of lectures on Chinese republican history that Ted Rule has given recently on the Central Coast of New South Wales.


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