Third wife of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), leader of Nationalist China. One of three daughters of Charlie Soong. As Madame Chiang Kai-shek, she represented her husband on several trips to the United States, where she gained admiration for her elegant style, brilliant English and persuasive appeals for help in China’s war against Japan. Later, on Taiwan, she helped her husband consolidate the government that had retreated after losing the civil war to the Communists. A professing Christian, she protected and helped foreign missionaries whenever she could, and undertook various charitable activities. Some aspects of her lifestyle raised questions about the sincerity of her faith, but in her last decades, she seemed to have exhibited true piety.
Soong Mayling was born into the home of Charlie Soong, who had studied in the United States and was very Westernized. Mayling was the youngest of three sisters and the fourth of six children. She remained close to her sisters Ailing and Chingling as long as they all lived; her relationship with her brother, “T.V. Soong,” was marked by tension after they became adults.
The Soongs lived in a half-Western, half-Chinese house in Shanghai. Their family life, likewise, reflected both the Western tastes of Charlie Soong and the devout piety of his wife, Ni Kwei-tseng (Guizhen). They attended fashionable Moore Memorial Methodist Church. Charlie Soong became a prominent supporter of Sun Yat-sen, an attachment that profoundly affected the family.
In 1907, Mayling accompanied Chingling to the United States, so that they could join Ailing at Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Georgia. She quickly gained notice as a brilliant student with a precocious intellect and extraordinary command of English. Before graduating from Wesleyan, Mayling went north to join her brother T.V., who was a student at Harvard University. She entered Wellesley College as a freshman in 1913.
While at Wellesley, she again shone academically, but became known also for wild mood swings, which were perhaps precursors of what some think became a full-fledged bipolar condition as an adult. Though identifying herself as an American “Southerner,” she increasingly adopted Chinese ways. Nevertheless, when she graduated in 1917 she saw herself as Chinese only in appearance. This dual identity would characterize her for the rest of her days.
She returned to a China that had gone through a revolution and civil war, and that was about to be plunged into the cultural earthquake of the May Fourth Movement and the huge social, political, and cultural tumult that would eventually lead to the Anti-Christian Movement of 1929 and finally civil war between Nationalists and Communists.
Mayling plunged into a whirl of social, religious, charitable, and civic activities, but these brought her no inner peace. The skin disease and generally poor health that would plague her until her death had begun to disrupt her normal lifestyle.
Mayling met Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) in 1926. He was a rising star in the Nationalist Party and close to Sun Yat -sen, whom Chingling had married over her parents’ objections. Chiang pursued her ardently and finally gained her affection. Her Christian mother’s approval was harder to win, however, both because Chiang was not a Christian and because he was married to Jennie Chen, his second wife. Only after he agreed to divorce Jennie and to read the Bible daily to explore the claims of Christianity did Mrs. Soong give her consent to the match.
She and Chiang seemed to be very much in love. They indulged in public demonstrations of affection, such as strolling hand-in-hand, that violated traditional Chinese etiquette and shocked many. She broke with custom also by accompanying her husband on his military campaigns, and by following him to Nanjing, the new national capital. Mayling quickly became her husband’s interpreter, for he could not speak English; his secretary; and his chief political advisor, especially on foreign affairs. She exerted enormous influence on Chiang and on China in these areas until his death.
In addition, she undertook to guide him spiritually. He kept his promise to read the Bible daily, and eventually expressed full commitment to Christ through baptism. Mayling’s influence grew in this department as well, as she persuaded him to favor Christianity in general and missionaries in particular and to enact regulations and even laws that reflected biblical values.
When the “Young Marshall” Zhang Xueliang kidnapped Chiang at Xi’an in December, 1936, Mayling flew to join him almost immediately and, according to Chiang, essentially saved his life and his political career by her bold, energetic, action combined with persuasion directed towards both her husband and his kidnapper.
Japan attacked China in 1937. Immediately, the Chiangs found themselves at the forefront of a prolonged and desperate struggle for personal and national survival. For eight long years, Mayling served Chiang and China in a number of critical roles, including, for a while, superintendent of the Air Force; organizer of care for wounded soldiers and their families; ceaseless writer of articles aimed at alerting the West to China’s peril and their duty to help; and Chiang’s personal envoy to the United States.
Despite crippling illnesses and ailments, she pushed herself constantly, often braving danger in a way that evoked admiration and praise from seasoned military men. Her personal courage matched that of Chiang, with whom she shared the awful hardships of life in Chongqing under constant Japanese bombardment. In particular, she helped Chiang to deal with the irascible and arrogant American General Joseph Stillwell, whose disdain for Chiang’s supposed incompetence was surpassed only by his own.
Her visit to the United States in 1943 was at first a spectacular success. When she addressed the U.S. Congress, the response was overwhelming. The entire nation was charmed by her beauty and stunned by her brilliant mastery of English. Speeches at Wellesley and other places met with a similar outpouring of praise. She failed to gain all the material and military support from the Americans as she had hoped, however, and her popularity fell as people began to criticize what they considered to be her lavish lifestyle, her arrogance, and her use of arcane words. She made the mistake of overstaying her welcome and returned to China utterly exhausted.
Mayling was at Chiang’s side at the Big Four Conference in Cairo in 1943, serving not only as interpreter but as an active participant in the discussions, to the annoyance of many who wondered why she thought she had a place at the table. Others admired her strength of character and her ability to relate to world leaders as an equal.
After the War
Though the Communists had been building strength and directing their major efforts against the Nationalists during the war against Japan (contrary to their propaganda), civil war resumed in earnest as soon as Japan surrendered. For the next five years, Mayling did all she could to lobby the United States for more help in this life-and-death combat, both by personal visits and through articles and broadcasts. Sadly, however, the perception that she and her family (especially Ailing and T.V.) were getting rich from American aid greatly undercut her heroic efforts. Not even the vaunted China Lobby could persuade President Truman to support the Nationalists, whose regime crippled itself through rampant corruption and irresponsible fiscal policies.
When Chiang retreated to Taiwan with parts of his army and much of his government, Mayling was in the United States. Relatives urged her to remain there, but she vowed to return to be with her husband in his darkest hour.
In the years following, Mayling’s repeated warnings against the Communists’ atheism and rapacious cruelty, and her depiction of the Nationalists as champions of freedom, were only half true. Though he always promoted religious freedom in general and Christianity in particular, and though many members of his government were Christians, Chiang was a dictator who eliminated all opposition, real or perceived, and who allowed little freedom of speech in matters of politics. Mayling’s anti-communist rhetoric undoubtedly reflected her personal beliefs, but her silence about her husband’s authoritarian rule sapped her utterances of persuasive power, at least in the minds of many.
Once she had settled in Taiwan, Mayling again poured herself into a variety of religious and charitable activities. She organized a Bible study for the wives of prominent military and government leaders, and established an orphanage (as she had on the mainland), to which she remained devoted all her life. She and her husband worshiped regularly in a small chapel built on the grounds of the presidential residence outside of Taipei. Missionaries who saw them weekly attested to the genuineness of the Chiang’s piety, though they sensed something different in Mayling.
She wrote that she underwent an “old-fashioned conversion” to Christ in the early 1960s. Previously, her faith had been more external, but now she sensed that Christ had died for her sins, and she responded with copious tears of gratitude. Her Christian life grew markedly after that, but old patterns of life died hard.
After Chiang’s death
After Chiang died in 1975, Mayling tried to retain power within the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), in which she held a high position. Her stepson Chiang Ching-kuo, the progeny of Chiang’s first wife, had gradually been given more and more power by his father ever since he returned from Russia in 1937, however, and she found herself effectively displaced by him. Her close bond with Chiang’s adopted son Chiang Wego (Weiguo) and other conservatives in the KMT was not strong enough to keep more liberal elements from gaining complete control.
She thus returned in 1991 to her apartment in New York, where she lived for the rest of her life, with occasional trips back to Taiwan. As always, she kept a large retinue about her, including her personal physician. As the years passed, she lost none of her intellectual vigor. She read the New York Times and the Bible assiduously and stayed informed about national and international politics. In 1999, after the devastating earthquake in Taiwan, she donated $3 million to relief efforts.
The U.S. Congress gave her a special reception in 1995 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. She read her remarks in a clear, firm voice and impressed everyone with her elegance, alertness and powerful rhetoric.
Like her mother, in her later years, she spent more and more time reading the Bible and Christian books and in prayer. She seemed to become less imperious and more introspective, describing herself as “only a simple Christian.”
Mayling died in 2003 at the age of 106.
Though Taiwan’s Vice President Annette Lu, of the Democratic People’s Party, praised her as a great woman, many more in Taiwan excoriated her for her part in Chiang’s repressive regime and her luxurious lifestyle. Interestingly, reaction from the mainland, where the Chiangs have been somewhat “rehabilitated” for their resistance to Japan and opposition to Taiwan independence, was much more favorable.
Song Meiling was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding women of the twentieth century. She combined traditional loyalty to her husband with a self-styled feminism and a determinism to be her own person as a “New Woman” in a New China. Long before other public women, she earned a place as an equal with men at the highest levels of leadership. Possessed of legendary charm and beauty, she wielded the English language with an artistry and rhetorical power that few could match and none could surpass.
She overcame lifelong physical and mental illnesses through sheer determinantion, perseverance, and raw courage. Despite repeated personal, political, and national defeats, she never gave up. From her youth until her death, through stages of gradual growth punctuated by decisve encounters with God, she never faltered in her profession of faith in Christ. Obvious inconsistencies in her conduct must be evaluated in the light of the pressures under which she lived for decades; the demands she faced as wife of a head of state; traditional Chinese concepts of leadership; what appears to have been the nominal Christianity of her childhood religious environment; chronic and debilitating illnesses; and the personality weaknesses that would challenge any Christian.
In the words of one person who knew her, “She was a grand lady.”
- Lloyd E. Eastman, ed., Chiang Kai-shek’s Secret Past: The Memoir of His Second Wife, Ch’en Chieh-yu. San Francisco, CA: Westview Press, 1993.
- Laura Tyson Li, Madame China Kai-shek: China’s Eternal First Lady. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2006.
- Hannah Pakula, The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
- Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009, 2011.