Skip to Content


The lady from Shanghai

By the middle of the second world war, May-ling Soong was the world’s most powerful woman, at the centre of events in China’s history and its relationship with the USA.

24 February 2010

12:00 AM

24 February 2010

12:00 AM

The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China Hannah Pakula

Weidenfeld, pp.787, 27.50

By the middle of the second world war, May-ling Soong was the world’s most powerful woman, at the centre of events in China’s history and its relationship with the USA.

By the middle of the second world war, May-ling Soong was the world’s most powerful woman, at the centre of events in China’s history and its relationship with the USA. Hers is an engrossing life which spanned the 20th century and included a cast of extraordinary admirers, from Chinese warlords to Churchill. ‘I think your bark is worse than your bite,’ she cooed at him during the Cairo conference.

Born in 1897, she was one of three sisters whose lives and marriages would dominate Chinese politics during the first half of the 20th century. The Last Empress is a misleading title. May-ling Soong was very much a creature of the moment. She had almost nothing in common with China’s traditional past and she proved irrelevant to its future. But for a brief period she shone as the middle woman between China and the USA.

Born in Shanghai’s International Settle- ment, her power and wealth, like that of a Shanghai comprador, lay in finessing the ignorance between two cultures. Under her fascinating tutelage, Americans believed her husband, Chiang Kai-shek, a leader capable of transforming China into a modern democracy — with just a little more money. It was a con trick on a grand scale. Harry Truman dismissed her and her family as

thieves, every last one of them. And they stole seven hundred and fifty million dollars out of the thirty-five billion that we sent …. And I don’t want anything to do with people like that.

The clue to both her success — and ultimate failure — lies in the house and the city of her childhood. Charlie Soong, her father, was a Shanghai entrepreneur who had started life as a peasant and made a fortune printing bibles. Typical of that international city, his home combined East and West — bath tubs painted with yellow dragons, mattresses on the beds and two kitchens, one for Chinese and one for Western food. Brash, confident and self-made, Charlie Soong believed China’s future lay in what Shanghai represented. That meant breaking with Chinese tradition and educating his daughters. At aged ten, May-ling followed her sisters to the USA to eventually study at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. May-ling, rather like Shanghai itself during this period, returned not quite Westernised but nor wholly traditional Chinese either. She never, for example, had travelled into the interior of China, or, as she herself admitted, ‘lived in an environment so purely Chinese’ until after her marriage. But she spoke American with a charming Southern accent and understood the Americans.

It was this amalgam of East and West, as well as her energy and intelligence, which made her indispensable to her husband. For he did not speak English and was interested in nothing outside China. But the invasion of China by the Japanese in 1937 and the growth of the Communists under Mao meant he was able to demand supplies, equipment and money from America in order to fight — or at least give the impression of fighting.

It was on these fund-raising visits to the USA that May-ling came into her own. Tiny, steely and sexy, she dazzled Franklin Roosevelt (he set a card table between them and begged his wife not to leave them alone together in case she ‘vamped’ him), bedded Wendell Willkie, a Presidential candidate, and seduced the American public. This was no mean feat. Americans were notoriously anti-Chinese and had the Chinese Exclusion Law in place to prove it (repealed due to the success of May-ling’s visit). May-ling’s own sister had been stopped by immigration officers when she first arrived in the States. Yet here was May-ling on the cover of Time magazine, and the first private citizen and only the second woman invited to address the Senate and the House of Representatives — not to mention the production put on in her honour at the Hollywood Bowl. ‘I have shown the Americans that China is not made up entirely of coolies and laundrymen!’ declared May-ling triumphantly on her return.

Nor was it just image. Chiang Kai-shek relied on May-ling to translate for him. It left many wondering who they were actually dealing with — the Generalissimo or Madame. The Cairo Congress in November 1943 was the first time that Roosevelt, Churchill and their generals had to deal with Chiang in person. In an effort to distract the men from her husband’s ‘terrible performance,’ May-ling, dressed in a black satin sheath dotted with yellow chrysanthemums and split to the knee, was driven to crossing and re-crossing her ‘most shapely’ of legs. Even that performance did not stop General Brook from dismissing Chiang as ‘a broken reed’ with ‘no grasp of war in its larger aspects’.

At over 700 pages long, this is a gob- stopper of a book. I could have done with less Chinese history — available elsewhere — and more on May-ling. Indeed for whole sections of the book, she disappears. Here was a one-woman-show that netted nearly a billion US dollars. Nowadays public figures enjoy a wealth of stylists and image-makers to advise them. Her speeches, for example, were masterly in their choice of subject and even the ‘slow, deliberate tones’ of her voice and the clothes she chose. Yet Pakula remains reticent on one of the most successful image makers of the 20th century. She tells us what May-ling did but not how. The book is full of fascinating detail, but I would have appreciated the occasional overview from an author who has immersed herself in the subject for ten years.

In the end China’s future lay with Mao and the Chinese peasant rather than Shanghai and the Soongs. May-ling merely enriched her family and propped up a cruel and inadequate leader. General Brook noted in his diary that May-ling was ‘a queer character’ driven by sex and politics, ‘both being used indiscriminately individually or unitedly to achieve her ends.’ It is a pity for China that those ends proved so paltry.

Show comments