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  • The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China
  • David D. Buck (bio)
Hannah Pakula. The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. xix, 787 pp. Hardcover $35.00, ISBN 978-1-4391-4893-8.

Although Hannah Pakula invokes an empress in her title, she does not enlarge upon the trope while interpreting Soong Mei-ling’s long life. Mei-ling was not exactly an empress; nonetheless, there are many elements of traditional imperial politics and imperial marriages in the lives of Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Meiling.

Mei-ling grew up after the fall of a strong dynasty during an interregnum marked by conflict and war. When the popular leader of one of the main contenders for the throne died, his chief general succeeded him and proceeded to unite much of the country. Her wealthy family, who was already close to the deceased leader through political, financial, and marriage connections, gave its remaining unmarried daughter, Mei-ling, to the general as his consort. [End Page 362]

This marriage gave the general access to the considerable political skills and financial talents of his wife’s family. Her elder brother and brother-in-law helped raise funds and managed the general’s treasury, enabling him to strengthen his armies and temporarily hold his enemies at bay. Although the general never took the title of emperor, he ruled through autocratic authority and in a cultivated paternalistic manner. His personal conduct became a model of Neo-Confucian rectitude.

The general’s new consort was beautiful, charming, and effective in diplomacy. She and the general became so close that he converted to her religion. When a subordinate kidnapped the general, she fearlessly intervened to save him. Even more important, when under attack by a foreign enemy, she and her family used their connections with a foreign power to gain critical financial and military support. As was so often the case for imperial consorts, her family became more wealthy and powerful during these years.

When the general’s principal foreign enemy was defeated, he appeared poised to crush his remaining domestic rival, but a tragic civil war began in which his rival was supported by another foreign power. Unfortunately, the combined skills of both his consort and her family could no longer retain the decisive monetary and military assistance of their foreign ally. The general lost the civil war and retreated to Taiwan, an island refuge used previously by rulers who had lost control of the Chinese mainland.

Through determination and a firm hand, the general imposed control over his remaining territory. His consort remained loyal and faithful, but her family lost its importance in the general’s counsel. Because his consort never bore any children, the general prepared his son from an earlier marriage to succeed him. The general became feeble but still proudly held on to power with his consort at his side in his last years, while in China his former rival carried out a major social revolution.

When the general died, his son succeeded him and managed to increase the prosperity and political support in the island-state. After his death, his consort left the island and joined her family in their home overseas. She survived another thirty years, still fiercely loyal to her husband’s principles, but she became politically irrelevant long before her death at the age of 105.

One can see how this outline would attract a specialist in royal biographies. Hannah Pakula previously has written two studies of nineteenth-century European queens and clearly saw Soong Mei-ling as a comparable figure. Pakula begins with considerable background on the Soong family and then describes how unsatisfied and frustrated Mei-ling was in the eleven years she lived in Shanghai after returning from her education in the United States. Pakula skillfully uses Mei-ling’s letters to a college friend to relate how Mei-ling honed her skills in raising funds from Shanghai’s foreign community. This talent would serve her well later. Still, [End Page 363] like many important woman in history, Mei-ling gained real access to power only...