domingo, 12 de maio de 2013

She Who Must Be Obeyed By JONATHAN MIRSKY



She Who Must Be Obeyed

By JONATHAN MIRSKY



THE LAST EMPRESS
Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China
By Hannah Pakula
Illustrated. 787 pp. Simon & Schuster. $35

There is a bull market these days in Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and his wife, Soong Mei-ling (1897-2003), usually called Madame Chiang Kai-shek. When I was studying in Taiwan in the late 1950s, then-President Chiang was regarded by most of the Western students on the island — and many of the Chinese as well — as the remote, cruel man who lost China; his wife was the austere, once-glamorous Dragon Lady who had helped him lose it. Although Chiang alone, or both Chiangs, had appeared numerous times on the cover of Time magazine, those illustrious days seemed over. But now that Jay Taylor has written his comprehensive book “The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China,” we are able to see Chiang as a man of considerable cunning, brutality and patience who skillfully played a weak hand against the Japanese and Mao’s forces while extracting huge sums from the Americans. Similarly, in her latest biography, “The Last Empress,” Hannah Pakula presents Madame Chiang as far more complex, awful and brilliant than we had imagined.
Pakula writes biographies of royal women. Her previous ones were “An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick, Daughter of Queen Victoria, Wife of the Crown Prince of Prussia, Mother of Kaiser Wilhelm” and “The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Roumania.” Madame Chiang, although not strictly a queen or empress, certainly behaved like one from her earliest years, so “The Last Empress” is not an overblown title.
Soong Mei-ling came from a rich Shanghai family, which was started on the path to usually ill-gotten riches by her father, the American-educated ex-missionary Charlie Soong. His other two daughters were Ai-ling, who married H. H. Kung, one of the most venal men in China, and Ching-ling, who married Sun Yat-sen and later became one of the Communists’ most able propagandists. Charlie had three sons of whom the most famous was Tse-ven, always known as T.V.; over the years he served his father in top positions.
This is a doorstop of a biography, so ample that Madame Chiang often disappears. Pakula has combed through many English-language archives and secondary materials and conducted some revealing interviews, though she uses no sources in Chinese and offers little evaluation of the ones she does use. In a book this size, furthermore, there are bound to be mistakes and inadequate explanations. Lu Xun, China’s most famous fiction writer of the 20th century, was not “buried alive” at Chiang’s order; he died in his bed in 1936. Pearl Buck did more than win a Pulitzer; in 1938 she became the first American woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. It is too simple to say (especially without citing a source) that “like Chiang” the Chinese Communist Party “did not hesitate to enrich itself through the sale of narcotics.” As others have shown, when Mao was in his guerrilla headquarters in Yanan, the Communists did a thriving business in opium, but once the party came to power, it conducted repeated campaigns against the trade.
Nonetheless, Pakula’s biography is often absorbing. Madame Chiang emerges as more than just her husband’s wife; we see a brilliant, scheming, deliberately alluring, brave, corrupt chameleon of a woman who was Chiang’s main weapon in playing the Americans for nearly all they were worth. Harry S. Truman despised Chiang and the Soongs. “I discovered after some time,” he told one of his biographers, “that Chiang Kai-shek and the Madame and . . . the Soong family and the Kungs were all thieves, every last one of them, the Madame and him included. And they stole $750 million out of the $35 billion that we sent to Chiang.”
Franklin Roosevelt avoided getting “too close” to her so as not to be “vamped.” ­Eleanor Roosevelt was dazzled at first but recalled that when the president asked Madame Chiang what she would do with a troublesome labor leader like John L. Lewis, “she never said a word, but the beautiful small hand came up and slid across her throat.” This was not mere drama; the Chiangs did not hesitate to murder their adversaries.
She was also incredibly sexy. Pakula convincingly argues that she had a one-night stand with Wendell Willkie in 1942 when the defeated presidential candidate was touring China (though Jay Taylor doubts the story). The pair disappeared for several hours to one of her hideaway apartments. The generalissimo himself, accompanied by three tommy-gun-toting bodyguards, ransacked Willkie’s guesthouse searching for them.
Willkie gave his traveling companion Gardner Cowles, the publisher of Look, a “play-by-play account of what had happened between him and the Madame” and said he wanted to take her back to Washington with him. But the next day, Willkie had Cowles tell Madame she could not travel to Washington with him after all. “She reached up and scratched her long fingernails down both my cheeks so deeply that I had marks for about a week,” Cowles wrote. At the airport, as Willkie was leaving, she “jumped into his arms,” Cowles said. “Willkie picked her up and gave her a terrific soul kiss.”
T the Cairo summit meeting in November 1943, when Chiang met Roosevelt and Churchill for the first time (and where Madame managed the interpreting), Gen. Alan Brooke, Churchill’s military adviser, surmised that she was exposing her legs through her long-slitted skirt to shift attention away from her husband’s lackluster performance. “I even thought I heard a suppressed neigh come from a group of some of the younger members,” Brooke said.
Still, it was not her sexiness that enabled her to address a joint session of Congress in 1943, the second woman ever to do so, and the first private citizen. Rather, it was, as Pakula shows, her intelligence, understanding of Americans (she was a Wellesley graduate), eloquence and charisma. Eleanor Roosevelt, who later changed her mind, described her as “a great person, receiving the recognition due her as an individual valiantly fighting in the forefront of the world’s battle.”
There is much in that. Although Madame Chiang had a mighty publicity machine, described well by Pakula, she was a brave woman as well as a persuasive one. She traveled throughout dangerous Chinese war zones. An American was amazed to find her regularly visiting an airfield during World War II to encourage Chinese pilots, though it was “a major Japanese target.” It was the kind of determination she had displayed all her life.
When she married Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, he was not yet a Christian, had already been married twice, and had a son and at least one concubine, but he was the making of her. Although Pakula says that Madame Chiang later lied about when and why she was attracted to Chiang, and that their marriage was sometimes a rocky one, Madame Chiang doggedly played her part as his spokeswoman, interpreter, explainer, representative and excuser, until the ­generalissimo died in Taiwan in 1975. Then “the G-mo’s widow realized that she was politically superfluous and left the island.” She rarely returned.
Christopher Isherwood, traveling in China with W. H. Auden, met Madame Chiang in the late 1930s. He caught her aura exactly: “She could be terrible, she could be gracious, she could be businesslike, she could be ruthless. . . . Strangely enough, I have never heard anybody comment on her perfume. It is the most delicious either of us has ever smelt.”

Jonathan Mirsky is a London-based journalist and historian specializing in Chinese affairs.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/books/review/Mirsky-t.html?nl=books&emc=booksupdateema3
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