Follows the last empress of China, as Empress Orchid copes with tragic personal losses as she struggles to save her crumbling empire.
Wartime China’s Elegant Enigma
“The only thing Oriental about me,” Soong Mei-ling once wrote, “is my face.”
Soong Mei-ling, better known to history as Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, was exaggerating only slightly. Chinese by birth, American by education and cultural inclination, she was a seductive blend of both societies; for a time, no woman in the world was more powerful.
Mme. Chiang led a long, vastly complicated life, one that is richly detailed in “The Last Empress,” Hannah Pakula’s long, vastly complicated new biography. Ms. Pakula’s book is a yeoman work of historical research, with fact grinding against fact. It is also a monotonous piece of storytelling, one that has little pliancy or narrative push. Its 681 pages of text are at times as grueling as a forced march across the Mongolian steppe.
The story of Mme. Chiang’s life has lost none of its strange, piquant appeal, however. Born in Shanghai in 1898, she was the daughter of a peasant who had gone to America at age 12 and found work on ships and in printing shops. Her father, Charlie Soong, eventually graduated from Vanderbilt University and returned to China at 20, where he had six children and became rich publishing Bibles. He raised Soong Mei-ling and her siblings to appreciate almost everything Western, including mattresses (soft), food (American) and religion (Methodist).
Cutting against the grain of a staunchly patriarchal society, Mr. Soong expected big things from his daughters as well as from his sons. Soong Mei-ling’s two older sisters traveled to the United States to attend Wesleyan Female College in Macon, Ga. Soong-Mei-ling arrived in America at age 10, studying at a boarding school in New Jersey and a public school in Georgia before graduating from Wellesley College.
When she arrived at Wellesley in 1913, Ms. Pakula writes, Soong Mei-ling could lay on a “Scarlett O’Hara accent” she’d picked up in Georgia. (“Ah reckon Ah shan’t stay aroun’ much longer,” she reportedly told the freshman dean.) She was also, Ms. Pakula writes, “short, chubby, round-faced and childish in appearance, with a short haircut and bangs over her eyes that did nothing for her looks.”
By the time she left Wellesley, however, there was a sense of destiny about Soong Mei-ling. “She had not been given a Western education,” Ms. Pakula observes, “in order to spend her afternoons at the mah-jongg table.”
The Soong sisters married well. One, Soong Qing-ling, married Sun Yat-sen, China’s first president after the last emperor was overthrown in 1911. In a lavish ceremony in 1927, Soong Mei-ling married one of Sun’s former military aides, Chiang Kai-shek, a man who would become the head of the Nationalist government in China from 1928 to 1949, and later its leader while in exile in Taiwan.
He was a hardened soldier who “dressed simply in a plain cotton uniform with straw sandals,” Ms. Pakula writes, and neither drank nor smoked. Mme. Chiang was by now thin, glamorous and wore form-fitting clothes. Barely five feet tall, she had, Ms. Pakula declares, “a near-hypnotic effect on men.”
Because Chiang Kai-shek spoke virtually no English, Mme. Chiang became his de facto translator and the face China turned to the Western world. She wrote articles about China for The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly in the early ’40s. She appeared on “Meet the Press” in 1958. She was Chiang’s closest adviser and she constantly buffed his — and the country’s — rough edges.
The pair were seen as a modernizing influence in China; Time magazine named them Man and Woman of the Year in 1938. The peak of Mme. Chiang’s fame arrived in 1943, when she toured America in support of the Nationalist Chinese cause against Japan.
During that tour she was the first private citizen to address the Senate and the House of Representatives, and in Los Angeles she gave a speech to a packed Hollywood Bowl. (While in America, Ms. Pakula suggests, Mme. Chiang continued a romantic involvement she had begun earlier with Wendell Willkie, the Republican who had lost the 1940 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
Chiang Kai-shek’s government, increasingly besieged by China’s Communist Party as the 1940s went on, was also rotting from within. He was a ruthless, petty man and a dismal leader. As Theodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby observed, “The manners of the Kuomintang” — the Nationalist Party — “in public were perfect; its only faults were that its leadership was corrupt, its secret police merciless, its promises lies, and its daily diet the blood and tears of the people of China.”
Eleanor Roosevelt got a chilling glimpse of Mme. Chiang’s own dark side when Mrs. Roosevelt asked her how she would deal with a difficult labor leader like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers. “She never said a word,” Ms. Roosevelt wrote, “but the beautiful, small hand came up and slid across her throat.”
Chiang Kai-shek and his wife were forced into exile in Taiwan after the Communist victory in 1949; he presided for decades over Nationalist politics from there. After his death, in 1975, Mme. Chiang moved to New York City, where she led a reclusive life, dying in 2003 at 105. She had no children. Her husband had contracted venereal disease before their marriage, Ms. Pakula writes, and was probably sterile.
“The Last Empress” bogs down in overly long discursions into the intricacies of China’s political history. Indeed, Mme. Chiang’s own story often recedes far into the background. But Ms. Pakula’s book comes alive in its pepperings of telling detail about Mme. Chiang’s chaotic life.
Ms. Pakula notes the way Mme. Chiang loved to deploy esoteric words (“indehiscence,” “ochlocracy”) in her speeches in English, sending reporters scrambling for their dictionaries. She observes that President Harry S. Truman, tired of Mme. Chiang’s appeals for money, began to refer to her husband as “Cash My-check.”
She details Mme. Chiang’s final years at 10 Gracie Square, an elegant apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There she kept three dogs (two bichons and a Yorkshire terrier) and employed 24 servants. There were reports that neighbors complained about the cooking odors and cockroaches in her 18-room apartment, and that Mme. Chiang kept a closet filled with gold bars.Ms. Pakula is also the author of “The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Roumania” (1985) and “An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick: Daughter of Queen Victoria, Wife of the Crown Prince of Prussia, Mother of Kaiser Wilhelm” (1997). She views Mme. Chiang’s life with interest and occasionally, when warranted, with sympathy. She is clearly in agreement with Eleanor Roosevelt, who summed up Mme. Chiang’s striding performance on the world stage by remarking that while she could “talk beautifully about democracy,” she did “not know how to live democracy.”
The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the Birth of Modern China
作者 ／ Pakula, Hannah 漢娜．帕庫拉
出版社 ／ SIMON & SCHUSTER INC.
出版日期 ／ 2010/11/16作家簡介
Hanna Pakula( 漢娜‧帕庫拉)為知名傳記作家，擅長為王室及權貴女性作傳。作品有《 An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick》描寫維多利亞女王之女，腓特烈皇后，以及《The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Roumania》，《最後的浪漫主義者：羅馬尼亞的瑪麗皇后傳》，她以同為女人的感性、傑出的文筆以及收集史料的功力，完成了這本《The Last Empress》蔣宋美齡傳，被辛季吉評為蓋棺論定之作。
由專為權貴女性作傳的知名作家 Hanna Pakula( 帕庫拉) 新出版的蔣宋美齡傳記《The Last Empress》受到全球矚目！這本傳記中作者描寫出一位才華洋溢、迷人、勇敢及謀略甚深的女人，也寫活了二十世紀的半個中國！
宋美齡，這位來自顯赫的宋氏王朝、說著流利英語、美麗且冷漠、在動亂時代中影響20世紀中國的奇女子，縱使拒寫自傳，但卻無法阻擋世人對她的好奇， 這部以「如何影響20世紀歷史」的角度，採訪許多當事人，也閱讀許多史料，經過10年時間完成此書，全書是客觀事實的編年體敘述，自宋美齡的父親宋耀如在 海南島出生寫起，直至2003年宋美齡病逝紐約為止，橫跨3個世紀，正文700多頁，加上註釋多達800頁，著實為「巨作」。
無論是世界 大戰、國共內戰，許多重要的歷史關鍵，宋美齡都是親歷者，但關於她個人故事常常退為背景；作者通過對政治歷史的研究，抓取宋美齡生活中的細小點滴，以講故 事的口吻，生動地敘說了宋美齡的一生。是一部被美國前國務卿季辛吉評為「蓋棺論定」（definitive biography）之作。