Throughout her 105-year life span, Soong Mei-ling never held elected office or any official government position. Yet few individuals exerted a bigger influence on 20th century Chinese history. As the wife of Chiang Kai-Shek, the man who ruled the Republic of China for nearly a half-century—first on the mainland and then in Taiwan—Soong served as a vital liaison between her country and the United States—a role she was uniquely suited for.
Born into a prosperous Shanghai family in 1898, Soong spent much of her childhood and early adulthood in the United States, where she attended boarding school in Georgia and later studied at Wellesley. Following her return to China, Soong eventually married Chiang, a military general who had assumed leadership Republic of China in 1927 following the death of the Republic's founder, Sun Yat-sen. Beautiful, Christian, and fluent in English, Madame Chiang compensated for a husband, who, despite great military prowess, was relatively provincial and unsophisticated.
Sino-American relations came to a head during the second World War, when the two sides fought together against Japan. Yet despite their common enemy, China and the United States were uneasy allies; China felt that the U.S. devoted insufficient resources to their cause, while in Washington the Roosevelt Administration distrusted the corrupt and ineffectual Chiang. During these years, Madame Chiang served as a translator and spokesman for her husband, whose tempestuous relationship with the American General Joseph Stilwell threatened the effectiveness of the alliance.
But her greatest influence would occur outside of China. In order to shore up American support for the Chinese cause, Madame Chiang barnstormed the U.S. during the 1940s, charming Americans with her excellent, Southern-accented English and oratorical skill. Madame Chiang's tour brought her to the pages of The Atlantic, where in the May 1942 issue she penned an article entitled “China Emergent.” Among other subjects, Madame Chiang's essay discussed what form of government an independent China would take:
While as a nation we are resolved that we will not tolerate foreign exploitation we are equally determined that within our country there be no exploitation of any section of society by any other section or even by the state itself. The possession of wealth does not confer upon the wealthy the right to take unfair advantage of the less fortunate. But neither, as a nation, does China believe in communism or wish to obtain it in our land. We have no use for most -isms which pose as panaceas for all the ills of the human race. In fact all forms of authoritarianism adopted by some European countries, Japan, and certain Latin American republics (which in late years have flirted a little, discreetly perhaps, with dictatorship) leave the Chinese people cold.
Madame Chiang's argument fell kindly on American ears, as Washington then envisioned an alliance with China as a centerpiece of its post-war world order. But Madame Chiang's blithe dismissal of communism proved premature. Just three years later, following Japan's surrender in World War Two, a civil war between Mao Zedong's Communists and Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists engulfed China, leading to enormous human casualties in a country already devastated by occupation and war. When the Communists appeared near victory in early 1949, Chiang and the Nationalist leadership fled to Taiwan, where the Republic of China established an authoritarian government. Madame Chiang never set foot in mainland China for the rest of her life.