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The last empress : Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the birth of modern China /
Hannah Pakula.
1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed.
New York : Simon & Schuster, 2009.
xix, 787 p., [32] p. of plates : ill., maps, ports. ; 25 cm.
1439148937, 9781439148938
More Details
New York : Simon & Schuster, 2009.
general note
Map on lining papers.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 751-761) and index.
A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
First Chapter


Along with business leaders and foreign policy advisors, Protestant evangelicals looked to Asia as a vast, untapped opportunity for the conversion of souls to Christianity, while their secular counterparts from commerce, finance, and the government saw a market for America's rapidly expanding industrial production.
-- T. Christopher Jespersen

Charlie Soong, whose original name was Han Chiao-shun, was born in 1866 on the teardrop-shaped island of Hainan off the south coast of China. What was once known as a refuge for gangsters and is now a place for entrepreneurs was, in the middle of the nineteenth century, an undeveloped tropical expanse second in size only to the island of Taiwan, six-hundred-plus miles to the east. Charlie's father seems to have been a fairly well off trader from W ench'ang who owned boats that "go from Macow to Hanhigh about 6 days water" -- i.e., west across the Gulf of Tonkin to modern-day Vietnam and east through the South China Sea to the Portuguese colony of Macao near Hong Kong. These trading boats were three-masted, oceangoing junks, known as "big-eyed chickens" for their red sails and the huge pairs of eyes painted on their bows, put there by the sailors who believed that these magic oculi could spot pirates lying in wait up ahead. Murder and robbery flourished in these waters, where pirates were particularly bloodthirsty, as were those who captured them. It was not uncommon for captors to cut the hearts and livers out of pirate corpses and eat them, and it was even said that in one case they ate the entire man so he could not be reembodied as a pirate.

When he was nine, Charlie and an older brother were taken to the island of Java (modern-day Indonesia) and apprenticed to an uncle. The younger boy was apparently not happy there. When a relative who owned a silk and tea shop in Boston appeared and offered to take him to the United States, he sailed off happily in the spring of 1878. Short and sturdy, he was twelve years old at the time.

There were not many Chinese living in Boston when Charlie, still known as Han Chiao-shun, arrived to work in his uncle's tea shop, but he soon made friends with two boys from wealthy Shanghai families, Wen Bing-chung and New Shan-chow. Wen and New, who had come to study the progressive ways of the West, convinced Charlie that he too needed a Western education. But when Charlie asked his uncle if he could go to school, his uncle said no. He had not brought Charlie halfway around the world to study, but to work. After nearly a year in his uncle's shop, Charlie ran away. He slipped down to Boston harbor and stowed away on a cutter, the Albert Gallatin. He was not found until the ship was already out to sea.

The captain of the cutter, a Norwegian named Eric Gabrielson, was a staunch, God-fearing Methodist, admired for his skill as a mariner. When Charlie was discovered, he was brought before Gabrielson, who asked him his name. "Chiao-shun," Charlie replied, giving his first name only. Which is how, at the age of fourteen (Charlie lied and said he was sixteen), Han Chiao-shun became Charlie Soon, ship's boy of the Albert Gallatin, which patrolled the waters between Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Edgartown, Massachusetts, "one of the roughest stretches of coast along the Atlantic." The man who would become Madame Chiang Kai-shek's father was now employed -- and paid -- by the Revenue Service of the U.S. Treasury Department, precursor of the U.S. Coast Guard. When Captain Gabrielson was transferred to Wilmington, North Carolina, Charlie went along as his mess boy.

A religious man, the captain had started to talk to the Chinese boy about Christianity, and he decided to help Charlie get the education he wanted as well. He arranged for his mess boy to be discharged from the service and introduced to several people in Wilmington, among them Colonel Roger Moore, who ran a Bible class at the Fifth Street Southern Methodist Church. In young Charlie Soon, the first "Celestial" (as the Chinese were known in the United States) to appear in those parts, Moore seized his chance to contribute to the great Methodist missionary movement of the day: the exporting of Christianity to China. Nor did it take long for the Reverend T. Page Ricaud, pastor of the church, to recognize opportunity when he saw it, and he soon inculcated in the boy a fervent belief in Christ the Savior. Ricaud explained to the eager teenager that he could be educated in Western ways and Western religion, prepared as a missionary, and sent home to China to save his people. On November 7, 1880, Charlie Soon became an official convert and was baptized Charles Jones Soon -- the name Jones being chosen by Ricaud, who had to supply three names for converts. A short announcement in the Wilmington Star informed the town's citizens that a baptism was to take place during the morning service -- "probably the first Celestial that has ever submitted to the ordinance of baptism in North Carolina."

To support himself, Charlie worked in a printing shop, where he acquired skills he used with great success in later life, and also sold rope hammocks, which he had learned to make on board ship. Meanwhile, his Wilmington friends looked around to see how they were going to help him go to school. Trinity College, the forerunner of Duke University, was then a Methodist institution in Randolph County, North Carolina, and Ricaud wrote to T rinity's president to ask if he would take his first Oriental student. Either he or Moore then contacted General Julian Shakespeare Carr of Durham, philanthropist and millionaire owner of Bull Durham tobacco, to ask if he would fund the boy's schooling. "Send him up, and we'll see that he gets an education," said Carr.

When Charlie arrived in Durham, he so impressed Carr with his intelligence and politeness that Carr took the boy into his own home, "not as a servant, but as a son." Although Charlie's cheerful nature delighted the five little Carr children, his Chinese face made the Carrs' white neighbors and black servants open their eyes in astonishment. But Charlie, who was used to people looking at him oddly, had learned how to ingratiate himself with Americans. It also helped to have one of the leading businessmen in town as his sponsor. Within a very short time, he was an accepted member of the tight little southern community. In June of 1881, Charlie sent a letter to the head of the Southern Methodist Mission in Shanghai, Dr. Young J. Allen:

Dear Sir:

I wish you to do me a favor. I been way from home about six years and I want my father to know where I am and what I doing, they living in South East China in Canton state called monshou father name is "Hann Hong Jos'k" in Chinese. I hope you will be able to it out where they are. I was converted few months ago in Wilmington, North I am a great hurry to be educated so I can go back to China and tell them about our Saviour, please write to me when you get my letter, I ever so much thank you for it, good by.

Yours respectfully,
Charlie Jones Soon

With this, Charlie enclosed the following letter to his father:

Dear Father:

I will write this letter and let you know where I am. I left Brother in East India in 1878 and came to the United States and finely I had found Christ our the Durham Sunday School and Trinity are helping me and I am a great hurry to be educated so I can go back to China and tell you about the kindness of the friends in Durham and the grace of God, he sent his begotton Son to died in this world for all sinners. I am a sinner but save by the grace of God. I remember when I was a little boy you took me to a great temple to worshipped the wooden Gods. Oh, Father that is no help from wooden Gods. If you do worships all your life time would not do a bit goods. in our old times they know nothing about Christ, but now I had found a Saviour he is comforted me where ever I go to. Please let your ears be open so you can hear what the spirit say and your eyes looks up so you may see the glory of God. Soon as you get my letter please answer me and I will be very glad to hear from you. give my loves to mother Brother and Sisters please and also to yourself.... Mr. and Mrs. Carr they are good Christian family.... W ill good by Father, write to Trinity College, N.C. Yours Son...

Charlie Jones Soon

Charlie's father never got the letter. Dr. Allen said he couldn't find him. He probably didn't try very hard.

Three months later, Charlie Soon entered Trinity College along with twelve Cherokee Indians. Even after he left the Carr home, however, he remained under the influence of Julian Carr, addressing him as "Father Carr" and picking up a great deal of business sense from him. Charlie got along well with his fellow students and began to notice girls, particularly Ella Carr, the daughter of Professor Carr, a poor cousin of Julian who taught Greek and German at Trinity. But the adolescent attraction between Charlie and Ella caused deep concern among the worthy members of the Board of Missions of the Southern Methodist Church, who said that the boy must be shipped off immediately to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Charlie didn't want to leave Trinity and his friends, but when he was told that he would meet people who could help him in his chosen path, that he would continue to receive Carr's financial support, and that he could return to the Carr home for his vacations, he agreed to go. Vanderbilt records show that in 1882 he entered the Biblical Department, where he studied for a certificate in theology.

Popular with most of his fellow students, Charlie was remembered by classmate Reverend John C. Orr with affection: "At first the boys paid little or no attention to Soon. He was more of a curiosity than anything else. He was just a Chinaman. But this soon changed. He fell into the classes of the writer, and they became...intimate friends. He had a fine mind, learned to use the English language with accuracy and fluency, and was usually bubbling over with wit and humor and good nature." Charlie's good humor was partly a veneer, painted on in order to maintain acceptance by his peers. A friend recalled his joining a group of fellow students who met on Sunday mornings in the chapel to pray and talk about their religious experiences: "One morning Soon (as we called him) got up and stood awhile before he said anything. Then his lips trembled and he said: 'I feel so little. I get so lonesome. So far from my people. So long among strangers. I feel just like I was a little chip floating down the Mississippi River. But I know that Jesus is my Friend, my Comforter, My Savior.' The tears were running down his cheeks, and before he could say anything more a dozen of the boys were around him, with their arms about him, and assuring him that they loved him as a brother. Soon broke up the meeting that morning." A short boy -- one classmate describes him as "rather low of stature, probably about five-feet-four or six inches" -- his closest friend at Vanderbilt was a six-foot-two, blue-eyed student of Irish descent who weighed more than two hundred pounds, named William B. Burke.

When Charlie announced he wanted to study medicine before going home to China, the chancellor of Vanderbilt, Bishop Holland N. McTyeire, who was also head of the Southern Methodist Mission in China, vetoed the idea, even though Carr had offered to pay for Charlie's further education. Claiming that there were "too many" medical missionaries in China already, McTyeire was clearly moved by other factors in rejecting Charlie's request. A little over a month after the young man's graduation, McTyeire sent the following letter to Dr. Allen in Shanghai:

My Dear Doctor Allen:

We expect to send Soon out to you this fall.... I trust you will put him, at once, to circuit work, walking if not riding. Soon wished to stay a year or two longer to study medicine to be equipped for higher usefulness, etc. And his generous patron, Mr. Julian Carr, was not unwilling to continue helping. But we thought better that the Chinaman that is in him should not all be worked out before he labors among the Chinese. Already he has "felt the easy chair" -- and is not averse to the comforts of higher civilization. No fault of his. Let our young man, on whom we have bestowed labor, begin to labor. Throw him into the ranks: no side place. His desire to study medicine was met by the information that we have already as many doctors as the Mission needed, and one more. I have good hope that, with your judicious handling, our Soon may do well. It will greatly encourage similar work here if he does. The destinies of many are bound up in his case...

Yr. Bro. In Christ,
H. N. McTyeire

Meanwhile, Charlie continued to make and sell his hammocks. He also began to preach and hold revival meetings -- an experience that improved his English. On May 28, 1885, he graduated from Vanderbilt, and seven months later joined Dr. W. H. Park, a medical missionary, on a transcontinental train bound for San Francisco, where they boarded a steamship for Yokohama and Shanghai. Charlie Soon, who had left China when he was nine and turned twenty the year he sailed back, had never before seen the Chinese mainland when his ship docked in Shanghai in January 1886.


On his arrival, Charlie called on Dr. Allen, director of the activities of the six missionaries who composed the Southern Methodist Mission in China. An elitist, Allen had no use for oral evangelism among the Chinese peasants, who were often illiterate. To put it in his own words, Dr. Allen served God and the Methodist Church as missionary to "an empire ruled by an aristocracy of intelligence, to whom the sole appeal is through the printed page." The insignia on his home in the international section of Shanghai announced that his was an official residence, and except for members of the government, special scholars, and his servants, whom he dressed in immaculate white, no Chinese was ever invited to enter.

In a letter written just before Charlie's arrival, Allen had complained to his board about the new missionary and his salary: "He will be here in two days now and I have no information as to how the Board expects to treat him.... T he boys and young men in our Anglo-Chinese College are far his superiors in that they are -- the advanced ones -- both English and Chinese scholars.... And Soon never will become a Chinese scholar, at best will only be a denationalized Chinaman, discontented and unhappy unless he is located and paid far beyond his deserts -- and the consequence is I find none of our brotherin willing to take him."

The one who was not willing to take him on was Dr. Allen, who immediately packed Charlie off to live with his traveling companion, Dr. Park. He was there only a few weeks before being ordered to move in with an ignorant native preacher in order to learn the local Shanghai dialect. Before being given his first assignment, Charlie asked Dr. Allen if he might go to Hainan to visit his parents, whom he had not seen for ten years. Allen refused, saying he must wait over six months until the Chinese New Year, when the other missionaries would take their vacations. The refusal itself was not unreasonable, but the spirit in which it was delivered wounded Charlie's ego. Allen was not the only one who looked askance at the young Chinese convert. His countrymen regarded him as a "denationalized Chinaman," a native who did not speak their dialect and shared none of their customs. There was only one group in the mission that practiced the kind of populist evangelism Charlie had learned in America, and, like Charlie, resented Dr. Allen's dominion over their lives. The members of this group opened a mission in Japan not long after Charlie's arrival, but Charlie's application for a transfer was turned down. Instead, he was sent to a village outside Shanghai, where he was told to preach to a congregation of Chinese who had already been converted to Christianity and to teach their children -- twelve unruly little peasant boys with not much interest in learning.

Among Charlie's charges was a boy named Hu Shih, who eventually graduated from Cornell University, became one of China's important philosophers, and served as China's ambassador to the United States. According to Dr. Hu, the boys in his class took special pleasure in taunting their English teachers. "One day," Hu recalled, "a short, stocky man, rather ugly, appeared on the teacher's platform. They immediately began to laugh at him and created such hullabaloo that I thought the teacher would leave the room for shame. Instead, Charles Soon waited for the hubbub to subside, then he opened his books and began to talk." Although Dr. Hu could no longer remember what Charlie said, he recalled that all the boys had grown quiet, realizing that they had someone who understood them because he had once been one of them. He said that Charlie Soon became the most popular teacher in the school, which, because of him, began to attract more students.

During the Chinese New Year, Charlie took a steamer to Hainan, arriving at the home of his parents without previous notice. Not too surprisingly, they did not recognize the man whom his father had left as a nine-year-old apprentice in Indonesia. During the family reunion Charlie learned that Dr. Allen had never bothered to forward the letter he had written his father from America.

Charlie Soon's second assignment was as a circuit preacher in Kunshan, an old walled city of about 300,000 inhabitants, where he lived in a little house by himself. Although he replaced his Western dress with native clothing, he was still shunned by the locals. One day, on a trip to Shanghai, he ran into New, his old friend from Boston. New thought that Charlie's lonely life would be helped by a wife. He suggested his eighteen-year-old sister-in-law, Ni Kwei-tseng, as an ideal mate for a Chinese man who had been educated in the West. Not only was she related to New, but she was also related to Wen, because the two friends had married the two older sisters in the Ni family.

The Nis were descendants of a famous scholar and government minister of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who had converted to Christianity. Like upper-class Chinese girls, Kwei-tseng's feet had been bound when she was a toddler. Foot binding, which had existed for a thousand years among the upper classes, was the procedure by which the feet of female children were wrapped tightly in bandages in order to bend the toes into the sole and bring the sole and heel as close together as possible. The resulting tiny (as small as three inches), deformed appendages, termed "golden lilies" or "orchid hooks," were believed to increase a woman's attractiveness by forcing her to sway her hips in an erotic way, deter her from running away, and provide particular sexual delights to her husband. Chinese erotica and descriptions of famous courtesans always included detailed descriptions of these deformed feet. But Kwei-tseng had run a high fever each time the bindings were tightened. Deciding that marriage was not so important for their third daughter, the Nis had loosened the bindings and allowed Kwei-tseng's feet to grow normally into what upper-class Chinese referred to disdainfully as "big feet."

Kwei-tseng had also shown signs of high intelligence and curiosity, which encouraged her father to provide her with a tutor, who had taught her Chinese characters and classics from the age of five. At nine, she had been enrolled at a missionary school. From there she had gone on to high school, where she had developed a passion for religion, discovered mathematics, and learned to play the piano. Lacking the looks and graces of the traditional Chinese female, she was regarded as the inevitable spinster of the Ni family.

New and Wen arranged to take Charlie to church, where he could observe Miss Ni singing in the choir. She was small like Charlie, not particularly pretty but lively. Most of the traits that rendered Ni Kwei-tseng unmarriageable in Shanghai society made her attractive to Charlie Soon, but he still had to get the permission of her mother, who took her duties as a descendant of one of China's fine families very seriously. One of these was making sure that her children's marriages were arranged by a matchmaker. New offered himself, shuttling between the two parties, extolling their virtues and glossing over their failings. Although he was rather common-looking, Charlie Soon was deemed acceptable, and the two young people were married by a Southern Methodist missionary in the summer of 1887. It was a small wedding, but the reception was attended by important businessmen, military leaders, and people with connections at court. Kwei-tseng brought Charlie not only a substantial dowry but a bridge into a world he had never known. After the wedding, the young couple returned to Kunshan.

A few months later, Charlie's friend from Vanderbilt William Burke arrived in China to serve in the Southern Methodist mission. Welcomed enthusiastically -- in sharp contrast to Charlie's grudging reception -- Bill was invited to attend the Second Annual Conference of the China Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in the city of Soochow, where he was greeted with great warmth by Dr. Allen. There were seven missionaries in all. One was Chinese. Bill met him as he entered the churchyard with Allen. Neither recognized the other until Allen introduced them:

"Brother Burke, I'd like you to meet Brother Soon, our first native conference member."

"Well, sakes alive, Charlie," Bill responded, grabbing hold of Charlie's hand and pumping it enthusiastically, "it's mighty good to see you again! It's been over two years!"

"I'm glad to see you too, Bill!" Charlie said. "I didn't know you with that beard."

"Well, I didn't know you in that Chinese getup of yours either." Charlie was wearing a long Chinese gown with a black skullcap. "Makes you look considerably older, I think."

The conference at Soochow gave the former classmates a chance to catch up on each other's lives. On the last day, the mission assignments were announced. Charlie was sent back to Kunshan, while Bill, a newcomer who spoke almost no Chinese, was assigned to open a new mission station in Shanghai. This was a particularly sensitive post, as during the previous year, a Presbyterian missionary who had been trying to sell religious tracts there was stoned, and a student mob had set fire to the property of the Catholic mission. The violence was China's answer to a wave of anti-Chinese barbarism swirling through the western United States, where rampaging gangs of unskilled white workers slashed, scalped, and hung by their pigtails Chinese laborers, whose willingness to work for lesser wages threatened their jobs. The industrial boom following the American Civil War had brought in millions of immigrants, including Chinese contract laborers, many of whom helped build the transcontinental railroads. They were said to be excellent workers, "because, as a medical book of the era claimed, their poorly developed nervous system made them immune to ordinary pain!" But with the completion of the railways, the American Congress, determining that the country no longer needed Chinese coolies to do its hard work, had passed laws to keep the Chinese out of the United States.

A few months after his arrival, Burke visited Soon in Kunshan. It was the fourth night of the New Year, the biggest festival of the Chinese calendar. Gongs rang and firecrackers exploded in the narrow, winding streets as they walked to Charlie's house. Soon informed Burke that this celebration was dedicated to the god of wealth, for whom there would be feasts the next day. Chinese traditionally paid their debts three times a year -- on the Dragon Boat Festival, the Harvest Moon Festival, and the New Year, "the great day of reckoning." If a man was unable to pay his debts that day, he hid himself until the following morning, which was technically a holiday when monetary transactions were forbidden. On that day no one ever used a broom, lest he sweep away his good luck, and no water was ever poured on the ground in case the year's riches would be poured away with it. Employees invited to dinner by their boss would know they could keep their jobs for the following year. Those who did not receive invitations knew, in the Chinese way of saving face, that they were fired.

Charlie and his wife lived in the mission parsonage, a two-story row house. "Please enter my humble dwelling," Charlie said, mocking the typical Chinese greeting and leading Burke across a little court into a room that served the Soons as living and dining room. When Charlie's wife came in with cups of green tea, Bill was delighted to see that she walked easily like an American, not like a Chinese woman on golden lilies. "I think my mother was really happier than my father to stop binding my feet," Kwei-tseng told Bill when the subject came up. "She knew as much as anyone how painful it was." Charlie then told his friend the story of how his mother-in-law had once been forced to flee for her life, hobbling on her tiny feet over a distance of six miles from her home. On the way she had been forced to abandon the family pearls, which had been passed down from an ancestor, the daughter of the commander of the Imperial Forces. The gems, which made up a pearl-encrusted ceremonial coat and headdress, a gift from the emperor, were simply too heavy for her to carry that far.

Bill was delighted to see that Charlie appeared genuinely in love with his wife but distressed when his friend said that he thought he might "do more for my people if I were free of the mission." No matter how hard he worked, Charlie Soon was paid only $10.00 a month, the salary of a native preacher. "But please believe me, Bill," Charlie assured his friend. "If I do happen to leave the mission, it will never mean my giving up of preaching Christ and Him crucified. I will continue to work as much as I can for the mission always."

Soon thereafter, Charlie took a part-time job selling Bibles for the American Bible Society, a group that published and subsidized inexpensive editions of the Bible in many languages. Promoted to circuit preacher in the Shanghai district, he continued to work part-time as a salesman. His next appointment -- as a "supply" preacher, who filled a vacancy but was not required to devote full time to his ministry -- was made "at his own request," and in 1890, he left the Southern Methodist Mission altogether, explaining to his American friends that "I could not support myself, wife and children, with about fifteen dollars of United States money per month." What Charlie did not say then but told his family in later years was how humiliated he was by the white missionaries, who required that he stand before them to give his reports on his mission, while they all sat. Treated "more like a servant than a colleague," he finally quit working for the mission. His daughter Madame Chiang came to agree with him in later years about the racist prejudices of Americans toward Chinese. As she told one of her husband's American advisers, she had always felt that the subtext of the Americans was "Oh, yes, she is clever, of course, but after all she is only a Chinese."

Although he left the mission, Charlie continued his connection with the American Bible Society, which had been publishing Bibles for thirty years in literary "classical" Chinese, translated for the scholarly elite. It was not long before he took his knowledge of printing, gained in the United States, put it together with what he had learned at the Bible Society, and started publishing his own Bibles. Chinese labor was cheap, as were Chinese paper and cardboard bindings. But where Charlie got the capital to invest in presses is not known. One source guesses that he must have asked his old benefactor Julian Carr for backing; another assumes that the money was supplied by various Western missionary groups that needed Bibles for their converts. Wherever it came from, it was speedily repaid. Charlie's Sino-American Press was a success from the beginning -- a fact attributed to its proprietor's acquired knowledge of Western business methods and inborn sense of baroque, Chinese courtesies.

To conduct his business, Charlie had calling cards printed, using the last name of Soong. It was not unusual for Chinese to change their names to reflect a new state of mind or a new life. To go with his advanced social status, Charlie chose the name of a dynasty (Song) that had ruled China from the tenth to the thirteenth century. He added Western textbooks to his list and soon purchased an old warehouse in the French Concession for his presses. A few years later, he was approached by two brothers named Sun, descendants of one of the richest families in China, who asked him to accompany them to the United States. Charlie, who understood Western commercial practices and spoke English, helped the Suns purchase a flour mill from Allis-Chalmers, incorporate the company in Shanghai and negotiate mill rights. Appointed corporate secretary of Fou Foong Mills, Ltd., Charlie contributed to the success of the company, which grew to be one of the largest in the Orient. For this, he was given shares in Fou Foong and was well compensated for the rest of his life.

While Charlie was moving up in business circles, Kwei-tseng was producing children. There were six in all, three girls and three boys. The first four -- three girls and a boy -- were all born before 1900. The eldest, a girl named Ai€‘ling (Loving Mood), was born in 1888; Charlie gave her the Christian name of Nancy in honor of Mrs. Julian Carr. Following Ai€‘ling into the nursery two years later was Ching-ling (Happy Mood); her Christian name was Rosamond, in honor of the daughter of Reverend Ricaud. Then in 1894 came the first son, Tse-ven (Hardworking Son), always referred to as T.V. And in 1897, May-ling (Beautiful Mood), the third and last girl, who became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, was born; her Christian name, seldom used, was Olive. Two younger brothers, Tse-liang, known as T.L., and Tse-an, known as T.A., were born a few years later.

Business success enabled Charlie to build a new home, located on the outskirts of the city's International Settlement. Standing in the middle of fields, surrounded by exotic trees, it was designed in a common Shanghai style, half Chinese, half foreign. The first courtyard was surrounded by a wall, erected to keep the Soong children from falling into a stream that ran by. But the children soon learned to scale the wall and climb the trees, and Charlie had to bribe the nearby villagers to allow them free rein of the neighborhood. The house itself was divided into four large, airy rooms downstairs: a Chinese parlor, a Western-style parlor with a piano, a dining room, and Charlie's study. Behind these public spaces were smaller rooms with a bathroom and a staircase, both of which were highly unusual in Chinese homes of the period. The staircase led to four bedrooms -- one for the parents, one for the girls, one for the boys, and one for guests. There were two bathrooms with green-glazed bathtubs, painted on the outside with yellow dragons. Another unusual feature was the use of Western-style beds with mattresses instead of the decorative hard wood couches used by most Chinese. Neighbors who came to examine them stuck their fingers into the soft mattresses and declared them unhealthy for children.

There was a second house in back of the family quarters. Situated behind a small courtyard, it contained servants' quarters, storerooms, and the kitchen. Since her husband could never really get used to Chinese cuisine, Kwei-tseng had learned to prepare Western dishes for him on a stove in a pantry behind the dining room. It was in this pantry that her daughters also learned about American cooking. The main kitchen was the province of the family chef, a man who would not have tolerated girls in his workplace.

One of the interests the Soong parents shared was music. Madame Soong had studied piano, and her husband had a passion for singing. He was apparently blessed with a rather nice voice, as was Ai€‘ling, to whom he taught songs he had learned in the United States. As the eldest child in the family, Ai€‘ling was particularly close to her father. On her tenth birthday, he gave her a bicycle. They biked together regularly, and their outings included trips to Charlie's publishing office and the flour mill, where Ai€‘ling, wily beyond her years, stood silently, observing the workings of the business world.

Charlie was the parent who encouraged his children to learn, to dare, to believe in themselves. Taught by their father that they could do anything they wanted to do -- hadn't he raised himself from peasant to entrepreneur? -- they were kept in tow by their mother, who was less of a dreamer and more of a disciplinarian. Card playing was forbidden in the household. As was dancing. Pious and severe in her piety, Kwei-tseng spent hours in a room on the upper floor of their house that she kept solely for the purpose of prayer. These sessions often began before dawn. When one of her children asked for advice, she would inevitably answer, "I must ask God first." As Madame Chiang later recalled, "we could not hurry her. Asking God was not a matter of spending five minutes to ask him to bless her child and grant the request. It meant waiting upon God until she felt his leading."

Religion had made Charlie Soong's life. The Methodist Church had educated him and given him a place in the world. This was not necessarily the case with his third daughter. Required to live up to the behavior of her three older siblings, May-ling found daily prayers "tiresome" and "hated the long sermons" in church on Sunday. Family prayers were little better, and she often pled thirst in order to slip out of the room. "I used to think Faith, Belief, Immortality were more or less imaginary," she wrote in 1934. "I believed in the world seen, not the world unseen. I could not accept things just because they had always been accepted. In other words, a religion good enough for my fathers did not necessarily appeal to me." Copyright © 2009 by Hannah Pakula


When China moves, she will move the world.
-- Napoleon Bonaparte

Colonel Frank Dorn was nobody's fool. Chief aide and confidant of General Joseph Stilwell, commander of the U.S. Army in China, Dorn arrived in the Chinese wartime capital of Chungking in March 1942. Known as Pinky -- "for his complexion, not his politics" -- he was a big, handsome man of forty-one, a quality that endeared him to Madame Chiang, who was known to call on Dorn during periods of military crisis to vent her frustrations with the British, the Americans, and her husband, Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Chinese government.

In one of their conversations, May-ling complained to Dorn that she could not understand why he and other American officers called her Madame, with the accent on the first syllable, instead of Madame, as it is pronounced in France. After all, she fussed, it was common knowledge that this was the term for the head of a house of prostitution. Dorn replied that he and his fellow officers certainly had no intention of insulting her. As a matter of fact, he added, she was surely aware that the queen of England was always called "Madam" to indicate royalty. "You never saw a facial expression change so fast in your life!" the colonel commented when he recounted the incident, delighted with his own quickness of wit.

In trying to explain why a woman fathered by a Chinese peasant found it both soothing and appropriate to be compared to the queen of England, I have tried to take into account the special characteristics of May-ling's family, a clan that benefited from the disappearance of centuries-old societal structures and helped push China into the modern world. I have started my story with Madame's father, a man named Charlie Soong, whose life journey mirrored the upheavals taking place in his nation. In doing this, I have hoped to put the reader in a position to understand the woman called Soong May-ling Chiang, how she came to be the way she was, and how she charmed the United States out of billions of dollars. More important, I have tried to show how she managed to influence if not change the history of the twentieth century. Copyright © 2009 by Hannah Pakula

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2009-09-07:
Pakula, an experienced biographer of royal women (An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick), looks at the imperious (if not imperial) wife of the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, presenting a richly complex account of 20th-century China that, despite its length, remains thoroughly engrossing to the end. Born May-ling Soong (1897-2003) and educated in America, Madame Chiang and her five Soong siblings were wealthy, Christian, fluent in English and major players in Chinese politics. Marrying Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, the strong-minded and hot-tempered, shrewd and ruthless May-ling quickly became a partner in his efforts as Chinese leader until the Japanese invaded, and then in 1945 when Mao's Communists drove him to Formosa (modern-day Taiwan), which he ruled until his death in 1975. From the 1930s to 1950s, Americans idolized Madame Chiang as a symbol of Chinese resistance to the brutal Japanese and as an anticommunist stalwart. But critics of her and Chiang's ineffective, authoritarian, corrupt leadership soon became the majority. Pakula draws a vivid if often unflattering portrait of a charismatic Chinese patriot, her husband and family, in tumultuous and tragic times. 16 pages of b&w photos; maps. (Nov. 13) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2010-09-01:
Historians seldom consider biography part of serious historical research. When the occasional biography defies this treatment, it is usually because the biography is successful in weaving discussion of historical themes into the account of the person's life, situating the individual's actions within the context of larger historical forces instead of reducing them to character flaws or strengths. Unfortunately, this biography of Soong May-ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek) does not qualify as a piece of serious historical writing for several reasons. First, it offers no insight into the gender politics that governed 20th-century Chinese politics. Second, the sociopolitical history of 20th-century China that Pakula sets as background to Soong's story is not based on current scholarship, and the author's treatment of Chinese society, politics, and culture is too simplistic. Last, apart from the diaries and correspondence of Soong and her husband, Pakula did not utilize any Chinese-language primary source materials, which might explain the book's Western-centric narrative. For those interested in the elite politics of 20th-century China, Jay Taylor's The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China (CH, Feb'10, 47-3337) is a better bet. Summing Up: Not recommended. L. Teh University of Chicago
Appeared in Library Journal on 2009-09-01:
Biographer Pakula (The Last Romantic) presents an engaging study of one of the most intriguing but misunderstood characters of modern China, Soong May-ling (1897-2003), most famous as Madame Chiang Kai-shek. This fascinating biography contrasts with Sterling Seagrave's classic but rather cynical The Soong Dynasty. In examining Soong May-ling's contributions to modern China, Pakula argues that despite being overshadowed by her husband, "the Generalissimo," Soong's own legacy was arguably more significant to Chinese politics. Well educated and thoroughly Americanized (she was educated in the States from girlhood), Soong possessed the intelligence and social prowess to play an important role in politicking with Western nations, serving as her husband's translator and offering him a cultural understanding of American politicians. Through her subject's letters and diaries, Pakula also reveals details of Soong's personal life: her indifference toward her husband, her battle with depression, and her personal ambitions even as she was cloistered in a patriarchal society. Verdict Readers, both general and specialized, interested in modern Chinese and international history will enjoy this book immensely. Highly recommended.-Allan Cho, Univ. of British Columbia Lib. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews,
Library Journal, September 2009
Publishers Weekly, September 2009
Booklist, October 2009
New York Times Book Review, November 2009
New York Times Full Text Review, November 2009
USA Today, November 2009
San Francisco Chronicle, December 2009
The Times (London), January 2010
Choice, September 2010
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