Winberg CHAI

Eleanor Roosevelt and Soong May-ling, wife of Chiang Kai-shek. Madame Chiang was one of the most public proponents of the New Life Movement, which was designed by Chiang to improve the customs and social habits of the dispirited Chinese people. As the threat of Japanese invasion loomed in 1936, and the movement was in decline, Chiang turned over the day-to-day activities to Madame Chiang and the U.S. missionary reformer George Shepherd.

Soong Mei-ling, whose life spanned three centuries, was one of the most influential women in twentieth-century China, becoming an indispensable advisor to her husband, Chiang Kai-shek, on foreign affairs. Serving as a de facto liaison between Chiang’s wartime government and the United States during World War II, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, as she was known, was the first Chinese person ever to address both houses of the U.S. Congress.

Soong Mei-ling was born into a wealthy Cantonese family in Shanghai in 1898. Her father, businessman Charlie Soong (Song Jiashu, 1866–1918), made his fortune publishing and selling Chinese-language bibles. He insisted all his children be educated in America, so Soong Mei-ling left for America in 1907 to attend a private school. She graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1917. Her fluency in English and profound understanding of American society and politics would enable her to play an essential role in China-U.S. relations after her marriage to rising political star Chiang Kai-shek in 1927.

In China, Soong held numerous political posts. From 1929–1932, she served as a member of the Legislative Yuan. From 1938–39, she was Secretary-General of the Chinese Aeronautical Affairs Commission. In this capacity, she recruited retired U.S. airman Claire Lee Chennault to head the so-called Flying Tigers air force, made up largely of volunteer pilots from the U.S., to help China fight Japan’s air forces. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 caused the U.S. to enter World War II, Chennault was officially appointed as a General by President Roosevelt.

During World War II, Soong served as Chiang’s interpreter and confidante as America sent many military advisors to his war-time capital in Chungking (Chongqing). While Chiang knew little about the West, Soong felt that the Republic of China’s fate would depend on good relations with America. In 1942–1943, Soong toured the U.S. extensively to drum up support and funding for the Nationalist government’s war effort as an ally against the Japanese. She formally addressed both houses of Congress, becoming the first Chinese and only the second woman ever to do so.

At the same time, with the help of her long-time friend, Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, she organized the now infamous China Lobby as the Nationalist’s support base in the U.S. Time magazine published many glowing reports of Soong and her husband. (They had appeared jointly on the January 1938 cover of Time as “Man and Wife of the Year.”)

However, by the late 1940s, reports of gross corruption under Chiang sullied their reputations in America. Members of Soong’s family, including her brother T. V. Soong, and her brother-in-law, H. H. Kung, were both members of Chiang’s government and were reportedly embezzling great sums of money that America had sent for the war effort. When Soong Mei-ling embarked on another trip to the U.S. in November 1948, she was not invited to speak before Congress. And President Truman pointedly refused to allow her to stay at Blair House, as she had under Roosevelt.

After the Communists won the Civil War in 1949, Soong fled with her husband to Taiwan. After his death in 1975, she moved to New York, where she lived until her death in 2003 at the age of 105. She was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, where her oldest sister, Ai-ling was also interred. (Her middle sister, Qing-ling, was the widow of Sun Yat-sen and had been buried in China.)

Soong’s will stated her intention to be re-buried, along with husband, on the Chinese mainland once the political differences between the People’s Republic and the Republic of China on Taiwan were resolved.

Further Reading

Chai May-lee, & Chai Winberg. (2007). China a to z. New York: Plume.

Chai May-lee, & Chai Winberg. (2001). The girl from purple mountain. New York. St. Martin’s Press.

Faison, S. (24 October, 2003). Madame Chiang, 105, Chinese leader’s widow, dies. New York Times. Retrieved March 4, 2009, from

Li Laura Tyson. (2006). Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China’s eternal first lady. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Stilwell, J. W. (1948). The Stilwell diaries. T. H. White (Ed.). New York: W. Sloane Associates.

Tuchman, B. W. (1970). Stilwell and the American experience in China, 1911–1945. New York: Macmillan.

Source: Chai, Winberg. (2009). SOONG Mei-ling. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2049–2050. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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