- The Washington Times - Friday, January 15, 2010

By Hannah Pakula
Simon & Schuster, $35, 787 pages


Hannah Pakula has done it again. After “The Last Romantic” (1984), her well-received book chronicling the life and loves of the once-famous Queen Marie of Romania, we now have an impressive new work dedicated to a “last empress” — Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the wife and collaborator of the legendary Chinese generalissimo.

Throughout the ages, certain women have achieved celebrity status because of their beauty, brains, exemplary lives or political acumen. Often, they turned the tide of history. Esther, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Catherine de Medici, Catherine the Great, Marie Curie, Indira Nehru Gandhi and Golda Meir come to mind.

In “The Last Empress,” Ms. Pakula has taken great care in presenting the history that shaped the controversial Madame Chiang, her actions and travails. After reading this book, it impossible not to conclude that Soon May-ling, who later became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, deserves to occupy a prominent place among history’s most illustrious women.

In portraying her subject, the author is generous with incident and anecdote. At the 1943 Cairo conference, where Madame Chiang (who was educated in the United States and was fluent in English) acted as translator, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fearing that she would “vamp” him, made sure Winston Churchill occupied a seat between them.

Madame Chiang put her faultless English to good use, displaying a Scarlett O’Hara-like accent acquired at Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Ga., from which she later transferred to Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

Born in 1897 in Shanghai as the youngest of three daughters of a self-made man who had reached the higher echelons of Chinese society by marrying a Methodist from the mandarin class, May-ling (Beautiful Mood) also had three brothers.

The oldest sister, Ai-ling (Loving Mood) married H.H. Kung, a descendant of Confucius, who became China’s minister of finance, while Ching-ling (Happy Mood) married Sun Yat-sen, “the George Washington of China.” As for the three brothers, they were successful in their own careers.

In her voluminous work, the author depicts an ample panorama of Chinese mores and society, providing a nearly bewildering abundance of information. However, she wisely includes a list of principal characters at the beginning of her narrative, thus enabling the reader to better navigate the web of Chinese history.

Regardless of political views, an objective reader can’t escape the conclusion that Madame Chiang, in spite of the many critics who sought to damage her reputation, retains a place in history because of her sharp political instincts and her work as a resolute struggler for democracy and human rights. Alongside her husband, she dedicated her life to the creation of a modern China on the ruins of the antiquated, imperial Manchu dynasty.

However, two American presidents were uneasy - or, some would say, downright incompetent - in handling China during a time of momentous change. Influenced by their advisers, other politicians and members of the press as well as by strong opposition from the Soviet Union, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman virtually abandoned Chiang Kai-shek in favor of Mao Zedong and his communist executioners.

Ms. Pakula vividly and compellingly documents the Chinese communist corruption of that time, including the draconian suppression of political rights. The record she presents underscores the importance of a modern China in the world and offers a wistful reminder of what might have been. Even more than India and Taiwan, China could have become a free and democratic society, a gigantic but friendly economic powerhouse and a huge market for U.S. products. Unfortunately, Madame Chiang, who relentlessly fought for this cause, was defeated.

Nevertheless, with this book, Ms. Pakula brings to life her heroic subject’s resolute commitment to a free China.

Justin Liuba is a freelance journalist.



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