Mon, May 17, 2010 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: ROC’s first ladies play varying roles

By Ko Shu-ling  /  STAFF REPORTER

In the US, the role of first lady is something of an institution. In Taiwan, however, there is little to compare with, in part because there have not been as many first ladies.

During the authoritarian regimes, first ladies held the role for a long time.

Soong Mayling (宋美齡), also known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, was the Republic of China on Taiwan’s (ROC) first lady for 27 years.

Former dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) became the president of the ROC in 1948 and he kept the position until his death in 1975. He stepped aside in 1949, but soon resumed power in 1950, one year after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the civil war in China and fled to Taiwan.

Dubbed “the most powerful and most beautiful woman in China,” Soong was most widely known at the time as a spokesperson for the Chinese cause against the invading Japanese Imperial Army between 1937 and 1945.

She was the first Chinese national and second woman to address both houses of the US Congress in 1943. Through the late 1960s she was included among the US’ 10 most admired women. Her international prominence won her the nickname of the “permanent first lady of China.”

Following Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975, then-vice president Yan Chia-kan (嚴家淦) was sworn in as president. During Yan’s three years in power, his wife Liu Chi-chun (劉期純) played the traditional role of a Chinese woman, that is, subdued and invisible.

Compared with her mother-in-law, Faina Chiang Fang-liang (蔣方良), the Russian-born wife of Chiang Kai-shek’s son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), was also a remarkably low-key figure during her husband’s 10 years in office.

She was not interested in politics and never made any public speeches.

Following the death of her husband in 1988 and subsequently those of her three sons, she cut all contact with the outside world.

Since the popular election of the country’s president in 1996 there have been three first ladies.

Tseng Wen-hui (曾文惠) — wife of the country’s first freely elected president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), was like many women educated during the Japanese colonial era — quiet and virtuous.

She followed in the footstep of her predecessors and kept away from politics.

Former first lady Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍) was more involved in state affairs at the beginning of then-president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) first term and conducted trips overseas and accepted international awards on behalf of her husband.

A former legislator, the wheelchair-bound Wu charmed the public with her straightforward attitude and was considered a political asset when Chen was elected in 2000.

However, following her indictment on corruption and forgery charges, she was seen as a liability and questions were raised about her place in government affairs, with some criticizing her for having too much influence on policy.

First lady Chow Mei-ching (周美青) has remained fairly low-key since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office in May 2008. Chow also maintained a low profile when Ma was mayor of Taipei.

The role of first lady can be seen as a strange position. It is not an elected public office, but the public expects the person in the role to perform certain duties. So what is a Taiwanese first lady supposed to do?

Hawang Shiow-duan (黃秀端), a professor of political science at Soochow University, said it would be good for the country if whoever is first lady took her role seriously and had a pro-active approach.

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