THE POWER COUPLE
Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling 1887–1975 / 1898–2003
The husband-wife partnership of Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong Mei-ling (Madame Chiang) achieved that rarest of feats among the people of China in the first half of the 20th century: they made waves on the world stage. In fact, the couple, who dominated Chinese politics for two decades, were among the most prominent nonwesterners on the planet throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Chiang Kai-shek rose to power in the 1920s as a follower of Sun Yat-sen, the great Chinese revolutionary who had spent the final years of the 19th century plotting the overthrow of China’s Qing dynasty. After Sun died in 1925, Chiang took over the leadership of China’s Nationalist (Kuomintang) party through his deft – and often violent – command of military force. He established a fragile new Chinese government in 1928, but only after he had had his former communist allies murdered in vicious purges in Shanghai and Guangzhou.
In the same year, Chiang married a woman whose experience was far removed from his own. He was a product of rural China; she was the daughter of a prominent family with overseas Chinese trading connections, educated at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and someone who was teased that her English was better than her Chinese.
Their greatest test would come in the years 1937– 45, when Chiang Kai-shek led China’s war effort against the Japanese. This was China’s phase of the Second World War, in which more than 10 million Chinese were killed and nearly 10 times as many became refugees. During these years, Chiang became a global political heavyweight, sitting alongside Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Cairo Conference in November 1943, where the future of postwar Asia was debated.
By Chiang’s side was Soong Mei-ling (who, remarkably, would live in three centuries), her husband’s interpreter to the outside world. Earlier in 1943, she had given speeches about China’s war effort to the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington, only the second woman ever to address both houses of Congress.
Chiang’s regime did not last. Corrupted and weakened, it survived until 1945 but was defeated by Mao’s communists in 1949. But during the war years, Chiang and Soong Mei-ling were more visible than any other Asian politicians in the world.
Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling, pictured on their wedding day in 1927. The pair were the face of China on the world stage for two turbulent decades