Sat, Oct 25, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Madame Chiang dies at 105

TURBULENT HISTORY The widow of former president Chiang Kai-shek died in her sleep at her apartment in New York after developing pneumonia the day before

REUTERS AND AP , TAIPEI

Soong Mayling, seated, speaks at the US Capitol on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995.

TAIPEI TIMES FILE PHOTO

Soong Mayling (宋美齡), also known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, once the most powerful woman in China, has died in her sleep aged 105 in her home in New York, finally bringing down the curtain on one of the most turbulent chapters of Chinese history.

She caught a cold Wednesday and developed pneumonia symptoms "before going very peacefully" at home Thursday night, said Chiang Fang Chih-yi (蔣方智怡), widow of her husband's grandson Chiang Hsiao-yung (蔣孝勇).

She spent much of the time in semi-seclusion in her Manhattan apartment and made her last visit to Taiwan in 1995.

Famed as much for her iron will as for her beauty, Soong lived through a century of turmoil in China and was feared for decades as a formidable force behind her husband, former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).

"She was probably the greatest lady in modern Chinese history," Andrew Hsia (夏立言), director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, said yesterday.

"As an old lady of 104 or 105, she was marvellous, very articulate. She recognized people, so I was impressed," said Hsia, who had met the former first lady twice in recent years.

Hsia said her niece and her niece's husband were with Soong when she died at her apartment in Manhattan, where she had lived with a few nurses and security guards.

Soong was born Feb. 12, 1898, on Hainan island -- but she was thoroughly Western in thought and philosophy. Brought up in a Methodist family, she studied in the US between the ages of 10 and 19, graduating with honors from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1917.

"The only thing Oriental about me is my face," she once said.

Soong met her husband around 1920, and married him Dec. 1, 1927, as he was crushing warlord armies to unify China under Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule.

She later converted him to Methodism. The Chiangs' marriage was often stormy, in part because of her husband's infidelities.

She became her husband's spokeswoman and China's voice to the outside world, charming the American public with her impeccable English, spoken with a southern US accent, elegant silk dresses and extravagant jewelry.

She was also one of her husband's most prominent lobbyists in Washington. He couldn't speak English and disliked dealing with foreigners, so his wife became his spokeswoman, creating an image of an attractive young couple trying to steer China out of war.

During World War II, Soong brought the US congress to its feet with a passionate appeal for anti-Japanese aid. Her political adeptness as a roving ambassador for the war-ravaged country led the foreign press to dub her "the brains of China."

"The Madame fought a beautiful battle and has been received by heaven," said Chiang Fang Chih-yi, at an emotional news conference in Taipei.

The weeping Chang Fang praised the former first lady's humanitarian work, her founding of relief organizations and schools for orphans, and promotion of women's rights.

Those who have met her say Soong's charisma was matched only by her toughness. At a White House dinner with then president Franklin Roosevelt she was asked about a troublesome US union leader and how her government would deal with him.

The diminutive Soong silently drew a delicate finger across her throat.

A mystery over Soong's age was never resolved. The government says she was born on Feb. 12, 1898. But records at her former college in the US show she was born on June 5, 1897.

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