"The only thing Oriental about me is my face."
Song Meiling (1898-2003), aka "Madame Chiang Kai-Shek," was by almost any measure one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Indeed, many historians consider Song Meiling's efforts one of the primary reasons why the nation of Taiwan exists today.
When Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Chinese Nationalist Movement, died suddenly in 1925, it was not at all clear who his successor would be. As a minor Nationalist general named Chiang Kai-Shek came to the fore the following year, there were grave doubts about the legitimacy of his claims to leadership of the Kuomintang party. Thus when Chiang married the beautiful Song Meiling, December 1, 1927, he was not only allying himself to the powerful and influential Song family, but he was simultaneously casting himself as the second coming of Sun Yat-Sen, for Sun had been married to Meiling's older sister, Qingling. It was a marriage entirely conceived out of the exigencies of political expedience (with Meiling little more than a pawn), and Chiang would have had little reason to suspect that his new wife would eventually be largely responsible for any measure of political success he would achieve.
Youth, beauty, and brains
Meiling was born to a in 1898 on the Chinese island of Hainan. She was the youngest child of Charles Song, a wealthy entrepreneur and devout Methodist who was influential in Chinese politics and had been educated as a missionary at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Although Meiling was born in the East, she was thoroughly Western in her worldview. Raised as a Christian and educated in America for most of her childhood, she graduated with honors from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1917.
Returning to China upon completing her education, Meiling soon became involved in the reform efforts of the Nationalist movement that her father, brothers, and elder sister had already been working in for many years. Meiling probably first met Chiang around 1920, but there is no evidence that they formed any attachment before Chiang suddenly realized she might be useful to his ambitions seven years later.
The nature of the beast
By all accounts Chiang was an inept leader of men, pompous, petty, vindictive, selfish, and short-sighted. Despite commanding an army that was much larger, better trained, and better equipped than Mao Zedong's ragtag band of peasantry, Chiang was never able to defeat Mao in 15 years of constant efforts, in large part because he utterly lacked any sense of empathy or compassion for the people he was supposed to be leading, and couldn't be bothered to make even the most minimal efforts to improve the daily lives of the common people.
Moreover, Chiang was a horrible politician as well, boorish, sanctimonious, and demanding. Despite the fact that for much of his career he owed his very survival to the support of the United States, Chiang constantly stonewalled and bickered with US envoys, consistently refused to cooperate with the US Military during the war with Japan, endlessly complained he wasn't getting enough supplies, and never launched more than token resistance against the Japanese (against whom he was supposed to use said supplies), while keeping the bulk of his army engaged in a hopeless war with the communists. Indeed, Chiang's tenuous relationship with his American patrons was close to breaking on countless occasions.
Behind every man...
In many ways, it was his wife Meiling who kept Chiang's American support in place, and thereby kept him in power. Charming, well-spoken, and still beautiful well into her 40s and 50s, Meiling became Chiang's spokesperson to the world. Meiling, now known as Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, traveled tirelessly promoting her husband and the Nationalist cause, making speeches, writing letters and articles - anything that would lend support to her husband's increasingly precarious position.
Especially crucial to Madame Chiang's success in America was her flawless English, her Christianity, and her Western outlook, all of which put her in a unique position to craft impassioned appeals to which Americans would be especially susceptible. Although Chiang himself was never really a practicing Christian, he nominally converted in 1930 at his wife's insistence, and thus Madame Chiang was able to present herself and her husband as a virtuous Christian couple facing off against the barbaric hordes of atheistic communism. In many of her writings and speeches, Madame Chiang successfully appealed to some of the most baseless American stereotypes of the Chinese as a weak, infantile, childlike race pleading for the benefits of American Christianity, Democracy, and Capitalism. Madame Chiang likely believed much of this rhetoric herself, and indeed was known to say that, "The only thing Oriental about me is my face."
Winning their hearts and guns
Perhaps Madame Chiang's greatest achievement was her triumphant 1943 speaking tour of the United States, which she shrewdly launched at one of the lowest points of US-Chiang relations. Traveling across America by train, Madame Chiang gave hundreds of speeches, almost to anyone who would listen. But she did it all with such seemingly effortless charm, dignity, and grace that she almost single-handedly swayed American public opinion, which came to ascribe her personal virtues to the cause she advocated and Generalissimo she represented.
In the high point of the tour, Madame Chiang became only the second woman (and the first Chinese of any gender) to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. She had so impressed the American public that they would continue name her as one of the 10 most admired women in the world in polls for another 25 years. For its part, the United States government would staunchly support Chiang for the rest of his life, preventing China from reconquering Taiwan, forcing Taiwan's inclusion in the U.N. Security Council, and securing Taiwan's status as a nation-state. The US would not awake from its delusions and break official diplomatic ties until 1979, four years after Chiang's death in 1975.
Even trophy wives must die
Following Chiang's death, Madame Chiang's influence in Taiwan declined dramatically. She moved to the United States, in many ways her true homeland, where her many supporters and admirers set her up on an estate in the wilds of Long Island, New York. There she remained ensconced for the next quarter-century, her occasional pronouncements on political matters increasingly ignored by the Taiwanese people, who once worshipped her, and her memory gradually forgotten by the American people who once loved her. She died of numerous ailments on October 23, 2003, at the age of 105, and the last link to a tumultuous century of Chinese History went with her.