History Friday: The Missimo

Chiang Kai-shek, Soong May-ling and Marshall
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In the Hutong
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After living on the Mainland for a decade and a half, I was beginning to wonder whether the subtle effects of Party propaganda were beginning to warp my view of modern Chinese history, and in particular the legacy of the First Family of the nationalist Kuomintang government, the Chiangs. They are both portrayed as villains in mainland propaganda and sainted heroes in Taiwan. Where twixt these extremes, between angels and demons, I asked myself recently, does the truth lie?

My timing could not have been more apt. In recent years, two very good biographies of Chiang Kai Shek (whom my 81 year-old mother still calls “Cash My Check”) have been published, and one superb biography of his wife and partner, Song Mei-Ling, The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai Shek and the Birth of Modern China, by Hannah Pakula.

Pakula is no China expert, she is an historian and a biographer of great women, so she comes to her subject refreshingly bereft of some of the prejudices and agendas that have tainted many recent biographies of China’s leaders. She comes as a blank sheet, implores us to do the same, and in the process creates a remarkable addition to the canon of popular Chinese history.

If the sole result of Pakula’s effort was an immersive and multi-dimensional portrait of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century, that would be sufficient reason to read this book. And it is certainly that. Pakula leads us through Meiling’s formative years, letting us watch her evolve from the idealistic scion of a New Chinese family to the dowager of a reactionary regime that sacrificed its ideology on the altar of survival.

On top of all of this, there are hints at little-discussed but critical parts of her personal life, a frank examination of her relationship with her streetwise but rather less sophisticated husband, and an examination of the family coterie that formed around her as she aged.

What lifts this book above that of an engaging character study is how Pakula delicately parallels the evolution of China’s fortunes with Meiling’s. Her spirits, her fortunes, her very personality seemed to wax to their fullest between the early and the mid-1940s, and then wane as events force her and husband further to the periphery of China’s historical mainstream.

Confronted with the complexities of a remarkable character, the temptation to simplify Madame through interpretation must have been incredible. Pakula could have easily slipped into the biographer’s version of Stockholm syndrome, allowing empathy to help her find redeeming qualities in Meiling beyond those actually present. Or she could have gone the other route, inflating Madame’s character failings into a morality tale that would have made the KMT’s weaknesses her own.

Thankfully for us and for history, Pakula takes no such shortcuts. There are no simple, spoon-fed caricatures in Pakula’s account that will allow the reader to get off so easily, to simply file Madame into one of those easy little boxes to which we consign our heroes, our villains, our perpetrators, and our victims. Instead Pakula leaves us with the facts and a charge: to parse for ourselves the rightful place for Song Meiling in the intricate tapestry of Chinese history.