China’s Eternal First Lady
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A well-balanced biography of one of the most powerful women in Chinese history, Madame Chiang Kai-shek (née Soong May-ling), wife of Nationalist leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

Li, a writer for the Financial Times and the Economist, begins by sketching out the young May-ling’s life. Born into a rich family in Shanghai, May-ling came to America at an early age, studying at Wesleyan College in Georgia before ultimately graduating from Wellesley in 1917. In subsequent chapters, Li carefully examines how the young May-ling’s grounding in American culture and her fluency in English would prove vital for American-Chinese relations. May-ling endured a painful return to China shortly after graduating, principally because she struggled to adjust to the wildly different lifestyle, but by 1926, she had met military officer Chiang Kai-shek. Kai-shek rose to become Generalissimo shortly after, and the couple soon wed, although he had to divorce his first wife, rid himself of a few concubines and pledge his future to Christianity before May-ling’s family would give their blessing. From this moment, Li’s prose becomes increasingly absorbing as she details May-ling’s rise as advisor to and English interpreter for her husband as he trotted the globe to meet with various dignitaries. While Li shows great admiration for May-ling’s staunch opposition to Communism and her enviable oratory skills, which often saw her digging deep into the English language to use words even native English speakers found puzzling, she is also highly critical of her unwillingness to truly break free of her conservative shackles. This criticism is most pointed when Li examines the decadent lifestyle May-ling indulged in, which sharply countered that of her fellow countrymen—a factor that appears to have been frequently overlooked by those infatuated with the glamorous, charming woman. Madame Chiang Kai-shek died in 2003, at the age of 106.

An interesting and detailed account.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-87113-933-2
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2006