Taiwan's Madame Chiang Kai-shek dies at age 105

Saturday, October 25, 2003

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the glamorous, U.S.-educated "eternal first lady" of Taiwan, has died at her New York City home. She was 105. After battling cancer and other illnesses for years, she caught a cold Wednesday and died the next day, a relative told reporters Friday in Taipei.

Her husband, President Chiang Kai-shek, and his nationalist government ruled China during World War II when the Japanese occupied much of the country.

Fluent in English, Madame Chiang served as her husband's diplomat, successfully persuading the U.S. Congress to help China fight the Japanese.

On Friday, Taiwanese TV stations replayed grainy black-and-white footage of Madame Chiang speaking to Congress.

"I can also assure you that China is eager and ready to cooperate with you and other peoples to lay a true and lasting foundation for a sane and progressive world society," she said.

Washington answered her call. But there was far less sympathy when Madame Chiang returned after the war to ask for U.S. help in a civil war with the Communists. The corrupt Nationalists squandered large amounts of aid, and America lost faith in them.

The Nationalists lost the war in 1949 and retreated to this tiny island 100 miles off China's coast. President Chiang ruled Taiwan with an iron grip, jailing dissidents and opposing democratic reforms that came after his death.

Although her last visit to Taiwan was in 1995, Madame Chiang stirred strong, clashing feelings in many Taiwanese.

Her detractors call her an evil empress who helped prop up her husband's corrupt, repressive Nationalist Party government.

"She was part of an era I don't want to remember. Taiwan was not a democracy then," said Mark Hwang, 39, a motorcycle salesman in Taipei.

Her admirers praised her intelligence, energy, patriotism and determination to fight communism.

At Nationalist headquarters in Taipei on Friday, party spokesman Alex Tsai described Madame Chiang as a woman "beloved by the people of Taiwan, who bridged the turbulence of three centuries."

She was born Soong Mei-Ling on Feb. 12, 1898, into a family whose story could stand as a brief history of modern China as seen through revolution, efforts to unify and modernize, and the split between the communist People's Republic of China and the Nationalists' Republic of China.

The Soong family had deep ties to the United States. Her father, Charles, was educated as a Christian missionary at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Mei-Ling was the youngest of three daughters known for their beauty and their marriages to some of the most influential men of pre-World War II China.

Ai-Ling, the eldest, married China's finance minister H.H. Kung. Ching-Ling married Dr. Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Nationalist revolution that overthrew China's last emperor in 1911 and a close associate of her father.

Mei-Ling's wedding completed the picture, inspiring a famous saying in China about the Soong sisters, "One loved money, one loved power and one loved China."

The one who loved power was Madame Chiang.

Educated in America between the ages of 10 and 19, she started college at her sisters' alma mater, Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., but transferred to Wellesley College near Boston and graduated with honors 1917.

She married her husband in 1927 and later converted him to Methodism. But the marriage was full of friction, in part because of President Chiang's infidelities. The couple never had children.

As President Chiang's health deteriorated, the Nationalist government's leadership eventually passed in 1972 to one of his two sons by a previous marriage, Chiang Ching-kuo, who had rocky relations with his step mother.

Madame Chiang's influence in Taiwan quickly faded as the island went through drastic political changes and became one of Asia's most vibrant democracies.

In March 2000, the Nationalists lost their five-decade control of Taiwan's presidency to the Democratic Progressive Party, once banned during the martial law era. Current President Chen Shui-bian has no enthusiasm for the Chiangs' dream of unifying with China.

Madame Chiang endorsed Nationalist candidate Lien Chan, but her support received little attention. Lien finished a distant third in the vote.

Since the 1975 death of her husband, Madame Chiang had spent much of her time in semi-seclusion in her Manhattan apartment. She is survived by the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Chiang Ching-kuo. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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