Soong Meiling as a young woman in traditional Chinese dress
Like many women, Soong Meiling is often thought of in terms of her famous and infamous husband, Generalissimo and President Chiang Kai-shek. She is remarkable, however, in that she was an influential figure in her own right, with a unique position as a cultural intermediary between the East and West.
Meiling was born on March 5, 1897/8. Unlike many Chinese daughters, she and her sisters were anything but ignored by their father, Charlie Soong, who had been educated in the United States, returning to Shanghai to bring his Western learning and Methodist faith to China. Owing to their father’s belief in the dignity of women and the tumultuous political climate of the early 1900s, the three Soong sisters, Ailing (1888-1973), Qingling (1893-1981), and Meiling were educated in the United States. In 1908, Meiling and Qingling joined Ailing, who had arrived four years earlier, at Wesleyan College in Georgia. Meiling transferred to Wellesley College in 1917 to be nearer to one of her brothers who was attending Harvard University, as Ailing and Qingling had returned to China.
It seems as though Meiling fully embraced the modern womanhood–and internationalism–her father and American education offered her, gaining a reputation for mischief and wit. The Wesleyan College website includes, among others, this quip:
One of May-ling’s tutors asked her to recount a history lesson on Sherman’s march through Georgia. The teacher was quite unprepared for her response: "Pardon me, I am a southerner, and that subject is very painful to me. May I omit it?"
Upon her return to China, Meiling met Chiang Kai-shek. Qingling had, earlier, married Sun Yat-sen, the first president of China after the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and a social liberal interested in democracy and friendly with the Communists. Chiang Kai-shek, a military man who some feel tended toward fascism, succeeded Sun Yat-sen upon his death in 1925. Qingling was horrified by Chiang Kai-shek’s tactics and the marriage between him and Meiling in 1926. Their ideological differences created a rift between the sisters, and Qingling fled to the Soviet Union as Chiang Kai-shek lead a purge against Shanghai Communists in 1927. As Chiang Kai-shek became the Nationalist leader of China, so, too, did Meiling become the First Lady.
Two First Ladies: Soong Meiling with Eleanor Roosevelt
Meiling was attractive and personable, she had an impressive command of English, and she knew both the United States and China well. She was a sort of spokesperson for her husband and country, visiting the United States multiple times during World War II. She won popular American support with her charisma, Western-friendly modernity, and resistance to the perceived excesses of Maoism (the Communist opposition to Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists). She was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine three times, in 1931 and 1938 with her husband, and in 1943 on her own. Meiling was active in Nationalist politics, participating in many high-level committees and at one point taking charge of the air force. As Chiang Kai-shek’s power grew, Meiling served as translator, secretary, and advisor.
Meiling followed her husband to Taiwan with the Nationalist defeat by the Communists in 1949. She was still active and influential in international politics and humanitarian initiatives. Upon the death of her husband in 1975, Meiling moved to the United States to live in New York. She kept a relatively low profile, with a few exceptions, until her death in 2003. Meiling has a complex legacy as Madame Chiang, often demonized as a conniving, power-hungry sex symbol. Much of this may be more due to her gender and political role than her true character. Putting these interpretations aside, however, she is fascinating to consider in terms of her Eastern and Western personae and ability to navigate between the two as a type of ambassador during a crucial time in world–and women’s–history.