Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Laura Tyson Li on Madam Chiang Kai-Shek

For five decades, Mayling Soong Chiang, a.k.a Mrs. Chiang Kai-Shek, was the front woman for the Nationalist Chinese cause through World War II, the Chinese civil war and the Nationalist defeat by Mao Zedong, and the resulting retreat to Taiwan. Madame Chiang, with her sharp intellect, towering ego and exquisite English, helped craft Taiwan’s fiercely anticommunist image in the West. After his death in 1975, she fell into obscurity, dying in 2003 at age 105.

In her book, “Madame Chiang Kai-Shek; China’s Eternal First Lady” (Atlantic Monthly Press, $30), journalist Laura Tyson Li has written a masterful portrait of one of the most influential figures in the turbulent story of 20th century China, pulling her out of the dustbin of history and hopefully restoring her to a prominent place in Chinese scholarship. Born in 1898, Mayling Soong was the daughter of Charles Soong, the financier of the Chinese revolution of 1911. Mayling was educated at Christian schools in America, including a short stint studying in Summit, New Jersey. She eventually returned to China and in 1927 married the rising strongman Chiang Kai-Shek. It was a match made in egocentric heaven: two strong personalities with a sense of being martyred for China. Chiang Kai-Shek was an absolute dictator, Mayling’s family indulged in rampant corruption and Mayling became the darling of the Western media, the face of “democratic” China. Disastrous and incompetent military efforts against the Japanese invasion in the 1930s led to millions of Chinese military and civilian casualties, and the Nationalists were no match for the Chinese Communists in the 1940s. After the Nationalist defeat by Mao Zedong in 1949, Taiwan under the Chiangs was a brutal military dictatorship and a personal fiefdom. Mayling Chiang, however, remains a riveting figure in the fast-moving, beautifully written biography. She charmed American congressmen and the Western press for decades, having a profound effect on American foreign policy towards China.

Tyson Li, 43, was raised in Connecticut and educated at Dartmouth. She has been a journalist in Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan, writing for the Financial Times, the South China Morning Post and The Economist. Tyson Li lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters, where she spoke by telephone with freelance writer Dylan Foley.

Q. When did you have the epiphany that Mayling Soong Chiang was an important subject to write a biography about?

A. I wrote an article for the Financial Times on Mayling Chiang in 1997, which was her 100th birthday. I came into it only knowing the stereotypes about her. She was a formidable woman. I was amazed at the cloud of secrecy around her. People seemed afraid to talk about her. There were people who despised her and thought she was the most heinous woman of the 20th century. On the other side, there was a cult-like adoration around her, I was amazed at the passion the woman could provoke, even though she had been out of the public eye for 25 years.

Madame Chiang’s life closely parallels the history of U.S,-Chinese relations over the course of the 20th century. Even now, Taiwan is the remaining knot in U.S.-Chinese relations.

Q. You manage a balanced portrait of Chiang. Was that hard to do?

A. It was tricky, trying to keep the story on the center line. She was so controversial, so colorful. History is not a monolithic thing. It is very nuanced. The views on her were so polarized.

Q. Could you tell us about Madame Chiang’s background?

A. She had a very unique background and upbringing. She was educated in the States, had this strong Christian background and was raised in Shanghai, which was a colonial enclave. She came from this hybrid background, which was an East-West mix. The Chinese rejected her as not being a real Chinese, as too Western. Americans don’t really regard her as American. She was part of both worlds, but belonged to neither.

Q. Mayling Chiang was a formidable influence on her husband. How do you view their marriage?

A. They were really a political partnership. The Chinese especially like to ask, was it a political marriage or a love marriage, as if the two are mutually exclusive. I think they genuinely loved each other, but used each other to achieve their own ambitions.

Q. During China’s war against Japan, Chiang Kai-Shek made Mayling Chiang, who had no military experience, head of the Chinese air force. She was viewed by many to have incredible power in the Chinese government. Why?

A. Loyalty for both of them went above everything else, including capability. They both had strong views and clashed frequently, but he took her views seriously. He was a traditional man, not very well traveled or imaginative, but he didn’t seem to mind being upstaged by his wife. Everyone called her the de facto foreign minister. In terms of military, diplomatic and foreign ministry appointments, she was very important.

Q. The Chiangs were surrounded by profoundly corrupt family members, who stole hundreds of millions of dollars from China and Taiwan.

A. Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kungs (Mayling’s family) have been criticized with a certain amount of justification for having lost China and for being horribly corrupt. They squandered billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Were the Chiangs personally corrupt? That’s a tough question. By any definition, I’d have to say yes, but they were not corrupt in the sense of squirreling away money like other family members. I’ve lived and reported from various Third World countries. If they weren’t corrupt, that would be the surprising thing.

Q. How did your view to Madame Chiang evolve?

It started out with these stereotypes of dragon ladies, the “power behind the throne,” and that sort of thing. She changed over my eight years of research, and I found to my surprise that she was a far more complex and intelligent figure than I had thought and much harder to pigeon hole. She’s a lot more interesting than the depiction of sainthood or demonization would lead you to believe. In some ways, I admire her greatly, and in other ways I don’t like her at all. She was always the public face of so-called “Free China.”

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