Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

The Last Empress

First published: 2010
Found: In a bargain bin with this book and this book
Pages/read time: 816, a month


We become what we do.

– Soong Mei-ling

Soong Mei-ling, better known to many as Madame Chiang Kai-shek (1898-2003) was First Lady of the Republic of China from 1848 to 1975. Famously the wife of Chiang Kai-shek and sister-in-law to founder of the ROC, Sun Yat-sen, Soong was also a significant political force in her own right. Hannah Pakula does this public figure  credit with a thoughtful but even handed assessment of her life’s journey.

Born in Shanghai, but educated in the US, Soong was the fourth of Charlie Soong’s six children. She graduated from Wellesley College with a major in English literature and philosophy. Both disciplines she would call on in her later political life. Her American-English accent also helped her connect with international audiences int he years to come. In 1927 she married Chiang Kai-shek, a recently divorced, recently converted Christian eleven years her elder and bent of political ladder climbing. Within ten years her husband had risen to power, Soong had started her international campaign for the plight of rural orphans and underprivileged, and Republican China was at war with Japan and in an uneasy truce with the Communists. During this time Soong was variously Chiang’s translator, secretary, political advisor,  chief international diplomat and main publicity manager. She was also a patron of the International Red Cross, appeared on the the cover of TIME magazine three times and outlived her husband by three decades. She had also been head of the ROC air force.

Of all the inventions that have helped to unify China perhaps the airplane is the most outstanding. Its ability to annihilate distance has been in direct proportion to its achievements in assisting to annihilate suspicion and misunderstanding among provincial officials far removed from one another or from the officials at the seat of government.

– Soong Mei-ling

She was also extremely found of expensive clothes, large houses and big cars in a time when millions of Chinese were starving. With her husband, Soong escaped the Communists to Taiwan in 1949. But not before being the first woman to address both houses of the US congress. In my humble opinion, Soong appears a far more interesting character than her husband. Pakula presents a confident appraisal of China’s ‘last empress’: a competent political tactician, devout Christian and fairly incredible person.

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