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Soong May-ling

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Soong May-ling

Soong May-ling
First Lady of the Republic of China
In office
May 20, 1948 – April 5, 1975
President Chiang Kai-shek
Succeeded by Faina Ipat'evna Vakhreva
Personal details
Born (1898-03-05)March 5, 1898[1]
Shanghai, Qing Empire[2]
Died October 23, 2003(2003-10-23) (aged 105)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality Republic of China
Political party Kuomintang (KMT)
Other political
Republican Party
Spouse(s) Chiang Kai-shek
Relations Charlie Soong (father) and Ni Kwei-tseng (mother)
Children Chiang Ching-kuo (step-son)
Chiang Wei-kuo (adopted)
Alma mater Wesleyan College, Wellesley College
Occupation First Lady of the Republic of China
Religion Methodist

Soong May-ling or Soong Mei-ling, also known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek or Madame Chiang (traditional Chinese: 宋美齡; simplified Chinese: 宋美龄; pinyin: Sòng Měilíng; March 5, 1898[1] – October 23, 2003) was a First Lady of the Republic of China (ROC), the wife of Generalissimo and President Chiang Kai-shek. She was a politician, painter and the chairman of Fu Jen Catholic University. The youngest and the last surviving of the three Soong sisters, she played a prominent role in the politics of the Republic of China and was the sister-in-law of Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Republic of China preceding her husband.

Early life

She was born in Hongkou District, Shanghai, China, on March 5, 1898, though some biographies give the year as 1897, since Chinese tradition considers one to be a year old at birth.[3]

She was the fourth of six children of Charlie Soong, a wealthy businessman and former Methodist missionary from Hainan, and his wife Ni Kwei-tseng. May-ling's siblings were sister Ai-ling, sister Ching-ling, who later became Madame Sun Yat-sen, older brother Tse-ven and younger brothers Tse-liang (T.L.) and Tse-an (T.A.)[4]


In Shanghai, May-ling attended the McTyeire School for Girls with her sister, Ching-ling. Their father, who had studied in the United States, arranged to have them continue their education in the US in 1907. May-ling and Ching-ling attended a private school in Macon, Georgia, to join Ai-ling. However, she could not get permission to stay on campus as a family member nor could she be a student because she was too young.

May-ling as a student at Wesleyan College c. 1910

May-ling spent the year in Piedmont College. In 1909, Wesleyan's newly appointed president, William Newman Ainsworth, gave her permission to stay at Wesleyan and assigned her tutors. She briefly attended Fairmount College in Monteagle, Tennessee in 1910.[5][6]

May-ling was officially registered as a freshman at Wesleyan in 1912 at the age of 15. She then transferred to [7]

Madame Chiang

Chiang-Soong wedding photo

Soong May-ling met Chiang Kai-shek in 1920. Since he was eleven years her elder, already married, and a Buddhist, May-ling's mother vehemently opposed the marriage between the two, but finally agreed after Chiang showed proof of his divorce and promised to convert to Christianity. Chiang told his future mother-in-law that he could not convert immediately, because religion needed to be gradually absorbed, not swallowed like a pill. They married in Shanghai on December 1, 1927.[8] While biographers regard the marriage with varying appraisals of partnership, love, politics and competition, it lasted 48 years. The couple had no children. In 1928, she was made a member of the Committee of Yuans by Chiang.[9]

Madame Chiang initiated the Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang. As her husband rose to become Generalissimo and leader of the Kuomintang, Madame Chiang acted as his English translator, secretary and advisor. She was his muse, his eyes, his ears, and his most loyal champion. During World War II, Madame Chiang tried to promote the Chinese cause and build a legacy for her husband on a par with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Well-versed in both Chinese and Western culture, she became popular both in China and abroad. Her prominence led Joseph Stilwell to quip that she ought to be appointed minister of defense.

In 1931, Soong May-ling had a villa built for her on the east side of Nanjing. Located a few hundred meters east of the Sifangcheng Pavilion of the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the villa still exists, and is commonly known as Meilinggong (美龄宫), "May-ling Palace".[10]


Although Soong May-ling initially avoided the public eye after marrying Chiang, she soon began an ambitious social welfare project to establish schools for the orphans of Nationalist soldiers. The children of Communist soldiers were not welcome. The orphanages were unusually well-appointed: with playgrounds, swimming pools, a gymnasium, model classrooms, and dormitories. Soong May-ling was deeply involved in the project and even picked all of the teachers herself. There were two schools - one for boys and one for girls—built on a thousand acre site at the foot of Purple Mountain, in Nanjing. She referred to these children as her "warphans" and made them a personal cause.[11] The fate of the children of fallen soldiers became a much more important issue in China after the beginning of the war with Japan in 1937. In order to better provide for these children she established the Chinese Women's National War Relief Society.[12]

Alleged tryst with Wendell Willkie

After losing to President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 US election, Republican candidate Wendell Willkie set out to travel the world in service to the US. During his visit to China, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and Willkie took an interest in each other. According to recollections by publisher Gardner Cowles, Willkie's visit to China involved an episode where Soong May-ling seduced Willkie and took him to one of her hideaway apartments in Chungking. At 4 am, Cowles noted
"a very buoyant Willkie appeared, cocky as a young college student after a successful night with a girl. After giving me a play-by-play account of what had happened between him and Madame, he concluded that he had invited Madame to return to Washington with us."
But the next day, Willkie had Cowles tell Madame that 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.[13]

Soong May-ling wasn’t deterred for long, making it to the United States the next year. While in her suite at the Waldorf, she said to Cowles: “You know, Mike, if Wendell could be elected, then he and I would rule the world. I would rule the Orient and Wendell would rule the Western world.” She asked that he use whatever means necessary to secure the Republican nomination for Willkie, even if it required using China's wealth.[14]

Cowles’s account “raises questions,” wrote Jay Taylor in his biography of Chiang. Many Chinese in gossip-hungry Chungking would have known of their time alone and rumors would have spread quickly. In 1974, when a shorter version of the story appeared, a suit was brought on behalf of Mayling, and Cowles testified (perhaps to protect Willkie) that the affair was “impossible.” Taylor speculates that Willkie, who had several drinks when he talked to Cowles, had exaggerated or misled his young friend who had imagined the rest.[15] In any case, none of the biographies mention even rumors of other sexual indiscretions.

Visits to the US

On February 18, 1943, she addressed both houses of the US Congress.
Soong and Chiang on the cover of TIME magazine, Oct 26, 1931

Soong May-ling made several tours to the United States to lobby support for the Nationalist's war effort. She drew crowds as large as 30,000 people and in 1943 made the cover of TIME magazine for a third time. She had earlier appeared on the October 26, 1931 cover alongside her husband and on the January 3, 1937 cover with her husband as "Man and Wife of the Year"[16][17]

Both husband and wife were on good terms with Time Magazine senior editor and co-founder Henry Luce, who frequently tried to rally money and support from the American public for the Republic of China. On February 18, 1943, she became the first Chinese national and the second woman to address both houses of the US Congress. After the defeat of her husband's government in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Madame Chiang followed her husband to Taiwan, while her sister Soong Ching-ling stayed in mainland China, siding with the communists. Madame Chiang continued to play a prominent international role. She was a Patron of the International Red Cross Committee, honorary chair of the British United Aid to China Fund, and First Honorary Member of the Bill of Rights Commemorative Society.

Later life

After the death of her husband in 1975, Madame Chiang assumed a low profile. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1975 and would undergo two mastectomies in Taiwan. She also had an ovarian tumor removed in 1991.[18]

Chiang Kai-shek was succeeded to power by his eldest son Chiang Ching-kuo, from a previous marriage, with whom Madame Chiang had rocky relations. In 1975, she emigrated from Taiwan to her family's 36 acre (14.6 hectare) estate in Lattingtown, New York, where she kept a portrait of her late husband in full military regalia in her living room. She kept a residence in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where she vacationed in the summer. Madame Chiang returned to Taiwan upon Chiang Ching-kuo's death in 1988, to shore up support among her old allies. However, Chiang Ching-kuo's successor, Lee Teng-hui, proved more adept at politics than she was, and consolidated his position. She again returned to the U.S. and made a rare public appearance in 1995 when she attended a reception held on Capitol Hill in her honor in connection with celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Madame Chiang made her last visit to Taiwan in 1995. In the 2000 Presidential Election on Taiwan, the Kuomintang produced a letter from her in which she purportedly supported the KMT candidate Lien Chan over independent candidate James Soong (no relation). James Soong had never disputed the authenticity of the letter. Soong sold her Long Island estate in 2000 and spent the rest of her life in a Gracie Square apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan owned by her niece. An open house viewing of the estate drew many Taiwanese expatriates. When Madame Chiang was 103 years old, she had an exhibition of her Chinese paintings in New York.[18]


Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Madame Chiang sharing a laugh with Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell in 1942, Burma.

Madame Chiang died in her sleep in New York City, in her Manhattan apartment on October 23, 2003, at the age of 105,[19] her life having extended into three centuries. Her remains were interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, pending an eventual burial with her late husband who was entombed in Cihu, Taiwan. The stated intention is to have them both buried in mainland China once political differences are resolved.

Upon her death, The White House released a statement: -Official statement upon her death

Appraisals by international press

The New York Times:

As a fluent English speaker, as a Christian, as a model of what many Americans hoped China to become, Madame Chiang struck a chord with American audiences as she traveled across the country, starting in the 1930s, raising money and lobbying for support of her husband's government. She seemed to many Americans to be the very symbol of the modern, educated, pro-American China they yearned to see emerge—even as many Chinese dismissed her as a corrupt, power-hungry symbol of the past they wanted to escape.[21]

In popular culture


Internet video

  • 1937 video-cast of Soong May-ling address to the world in English on YouTube
  • 1943 Soong Mai-ling address to the American Congress on YouTube
  • (Chinese) Soong May-ling and the China Air Force
  • 1995 US senators held a reception for Soong May-ling in recognition of China's role as a US ally in World War II.

See also


  1. ^ a b While records at Wellesley College and the Encyclopaedia Britannica indicate she was born in 1897, the Republic of China government as well as the BBC and the New York Times cite her year of birth as 1897. The New York Times obituary includes the following explanation: "some references give 1897 as the year because the Chinese usually consider everyone to be one year old at birth." cf: East Asian age reckoning. However, early sources such as the Columbia Encyclopedia, 1960, give her date of birth as 1896, making it possible that "one year" was subtracted twice.
  2. ^ The New York Times gives her place of birth as Shanghai, while the BBC and Encyclopædia Britannica give it as Wenchang, Hainan island (which was then part of Guangdong Province).
  3. ^ Faison, Seth (October 24, 2003). "Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a Power in Husband's China and Abroad, Dies at 105".  
  4. ^ Tyson Li, Laura (2007). Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's eternal First Lady. New York: Grove Press. p. 5. 
  5. ^ "Southeast Tennessee Tourist Association". Southeast Tourist Tourist Association. Retrieved 9 July 2011. 
  6. ^ Chitty, Arther and Elizabeth, Sewanee Sampler, 1978, p. 106; ISBN 0-9627687-7-4
  7. ^ Profile,; accessed July 28, 2014.
  8. ^ "CHINA: Soong Sisters". TIME. Dec 12, 1927. Retrieved May 22, 2011. 
  9. ^ "CHINA: Potent Mrs. Chiang". TIME. Nov 26, 1928. Retrieved May 22, 2011. 
  10. ^ Meiling Villa,; accessed July 28, 2014.
  11. ^ Tyson Li, Laura (2006). Madame Chiang Kai-shek. New York: Grove Press. pp. 87–88. 
  12. ^ Scott Wong, Kevin (2005). American's first: Chinese Americans and the Second World War. Harvard University Press. p. 93. 
  13. ^ Laura Tyson Li, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek : China's Eternal First Lady (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press : 2006), pp. 184–86
  14. ^ Hannah Pakula, The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the Birth of Modern China (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), pp. 410–11.
  15. ^ Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 217–18
  16. ^ TIME Magazine cover
  17. ^ Karon, Tony (October 24, 2003). "Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, 1898-2003". Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  18. ^ a b Hannah Pakula, The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the Birth of Modern China (London, Weidenfeld, 2009). ISBN 978-0-297-85975-8, pp. 659, 670
  19. ^ Faison, Seth (October 24, 2003). "Madame Chiang, 105, Chinese Leader's Widow, Dies".  
  20. ^ "President's Statement on the Death of Madame Chiang Kai-shek". The White House. Retrieved 4 July 2011. 
  21. ^ SETH FAISON (25 Oct 2003). "Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a Power in Husband's China and Abroad, Dies at 105". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-05-20. 
  22. ^ Pakula, Hannah. "Chiang Kai-shek". New York Times. Retrieved 11 November 2014. 
  23. ^ Pakula, Hannah (2009). Last Empress. Simon & Schuster. p. 305.  
  24. ^ a b Kirkpatrick, Melanie (3 November 2009). "China's Mystery Lady". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 11 November 2014. 
  25. ^ Fenby, Jonathan (2009), Modern China, p. 279


  • Laura Tyson Li, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek : China's Eternal First Lady (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).
  • Samuel C. Chu, ed., Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and Her China (Norwalk, CT: EastBridge, 2004).

External links

  • Audio of her speaking at the Hollywood Bowl, 1943 (3 hours into program)
  • Text of her address to the US Congress, 1943
  • Wellesley College biography at the Wayback Machine
  • magazine's "Man and Wife of the Year," 1937Time
  • Madame Chiang being honored by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (left) and Senator Paul Simon (center) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, July 26, 1995
  • Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, 1898–2003
  • Life in pictures: Madame Chiang Kai-shek
  • reportGuardian
  • Voice of America obituary
  • CNN: Madame Chiang Kai-shek dies
  • Song Meiling's Villa
Honorary titles
Preceded by
First Lady of the Republic of China
Succeeded by
Liu Chi-chun
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