Faina Chiang Fang-liang (蔣方良), widow of Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) and first lady of the Republic of China on Taiwan from 1978 to 1988, died yesterday at 12:40pm.
She died of respiratory failure brought on by lung cancer at age 88. But for her title of first lady, most in Taiwan know little of her. Unlike her predecessor, Soong Mayling (蔣宋美齡), who glittered both on the domestic and the international stage, Chiang Fang-liang was always a first lady in the shadows.
Born Faina Epatcheva Vahaleva in Sverdlovsk, Siberia (now Ekateringburg, Russia), Vahaleva was orphaned at a young age and raised by her older sister Anna. An outspoken member of the Communist Youth League, Vahaleva met Chiang Ching-kuo at the age of 16 at the Ural Heavy Machinery Plant in Siberia, where Chiang was working in exile after his father, Chiang Kai-shek (
Vahaleva married Chiang Ching-kuo two years after they met, on March 15, 1935. Their first son, Hsiao-wen (孝文) was born in December 1935. The couple had two more sons, Hsiao-wu (孝武) and Hsiao-yung (孝勇) and a daughter (孝章).
Not long after the couple's marriage, Chiang Ching-kuo's reserve communist party member status was cancelled and he was not allowed to work. Vahaleva became the sole bread-winner for the family of three.
In early 1937, relations between China and the USSR eased. Stalin dramatically allowed Chiang to return to China. Perhaps Vahaleva had thought little of the different language, culture and traditions in China that would no doubt be a great barrier to her, or perhaps her love for her husband gave her all the courage needed. In any case, the Russian bride followed her husband to China.
Chiang Kai-shek was reportedly at first dismayed to have a Communist Russian daughter-in-law. But after the two met, Vahaleva -- who has been described as possessing the virtues of a traditional Chinese woman to a greater degree than a Chinese woman -- soon won the approval of her father-in-law and was given the name Fang-liang.
Chiang Fang-liang stayed behind to live with Chiang Ching-kuo's mother, Chiang Kai-shek's first wife, Mao Fu-mei (
Perhaps it was because of self-consciousness regarding her Mandarin -- with her Russian accent and Ningbo dialect -- that when Chiang Ching-kuo later became president, Fang-liang was often anxious about appearing in public.
If the traditional role of First lady was to be the silent shadow behind the president, Fang-liang filled it perfectly. Throughout her husband's political career, she stayed out of the public spotlight.
Little was ever known of her, except for her modest and simple lifestyle. She even exhibited the habits of a peasant housewife. She was used to doing all the household chores herself instead of employing servants. She would ask for her husband's approval for everything. Private household expenses, such as water and electricity bills, as well as salaries for servants, were all paid directly by Fang-liang from Chiang Ching-kuo's paycheck, instead of being deducted as public expenses.
Once a subordinate suggested to her, "everyone else deducts these as public expenses, why don't you let me handle them?"
Fang-liang replied that she had to ask her husband first, and called back a few days later saying, "No. He said no. We have to pay these ourselves."