Be glad in the Lord and rejoice! Psalm 32:11

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Last Empress - the fascinating story of Madame Chiang Kia-shek

I have known of “Madame” since I was a very little girl. My father, who was a member of the elite American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers during World War II, spoke of the diminutive Chinese lady with admiration. So I was very interested when I received the book, “The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and The Birth of Modern China” by Hannah Pukula. At last, I would be able to learn more about the famed “Madame,” the woman who had earned my father’s hard-won respect all those many years ago.

In this epic historical biography, author Hannah Pukula delivers a complex tale about a major historical time in China and the woman who was a central character in the country’s evolution.

The story revolves around May-ling Soong, a fascinating woman and her unique family. Her father was born a peasant, raised himself up into Shanghai society and sent his daughters to college in America in a day when Chinese women were kept purposefully uneducated. May-ling’s siblings were very influential - one was married to Sun Yat-sen, the George Washington of China, the other to a seventy-fifth lineal descendant of Confucius; and her older brother, a financial genius. This was the Soong family, which, along with their partners in marriage, was largely responsible for dragging China into the twentieth century.

Married in 1927 to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, a respected military leader and dogmatic warlord, May-ling soon became indispensable as her husband’s translator, top advisor and main ambassador. Due to her American education, she was able to communicate her country’s and her husband’s plans for the best interest of China.

As the representative of China, a much sought-after Eastern ally for the West during the war with Japan, Madame Chiang Kai-shek was befriended by President Roosevelt and his wife, staying in the White House for long periods during World War II. She was only the second woman to ever address Congress, charming them into giving China billions of dollars in aid.

She was also instrumental in bringing U.S. Army Generals Joseph Stilwell and Claire Chennault to China to evaluate and reorganize the ragtag Chinese Air Force. Chennault became the head of the American Volunteer Group, which would become better known as the Flying Tigers, who were instrumental in assisting the defeat of the Japanese takeover of China.

Although this is a huge volume, “The Last Empress” is important reading to understand the state of modern China, and how the nation got to where it is as one of the two most influential and important countries in our world today. And even as I found myself skipping around to read the parts of interest to me (the Flying Tiger era especially), I was compelled to return to reading about Madame’s upbringing and early days, finding insight to this amazing woman who had earned my father’s admiration and respect.

Although she was dubbed the Dragon Lady by many, Madame Chiang Kia-shek was an icon to her people, always keeping her country’s best interest to heart as best she could. She is certainly one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century, and this biography by Hannah Pakula is a great tribute to the lady known to more than a billion people simply as “Madame.”

My very charming father - Chuck Galligar, Jr.

One of the famous Flying Tiger fighter planes - runway in China

Citation that accompany the medal awarded to my father from the Chinese Government.


Book Bird Dog said...

You might also like The Soong Sisters written by Emily Hahn, who met the sisters in person in China and was commissioned by them to write the biography. Written in the 1940s I believe.

Fascinating history your father must have seen and been involved in.

....Petty Witter said...

What a fascinating post - thanks for that wonderful insight into your family and of course the review of what sounds like an informative book.