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Madame Soong Mei-ling's Life in Her Old Age

Madame Soong Mei-ling, one of the most influential Chinese women of the 20th century, died at the age of 106 in her apartment in Manhattan, New York Oct. 23, 2003.


Madame Soong was born in Shanghai in 1897. Both her marriage to Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) and her life experience as well as her longevity are characterized with romance. At her birthday party in her Manhattan apartment in 2001, Madame Soong asked, "Why has God given me such a long life?"


Madame Soong, speaking fluent English in oriental cheongsam, was an international celebrity in her own right. Like her two sisters Soong Ching-ling (1893-1981) and Soong Ai-ling (1890-1973), each of whom played a vital role in China during the first half of the 20th century, Madame Soong was known for her beauty, her American education, and of course her powerful family background. Madame Soong's charisma and political adeptness were among the driving forces of the KMT leadership of her husband Chiang Kai-shek.


Before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Madame Soong had been active on the political stage with the status of China's "First Lady," said Prof. Jin Guangyao from the History Department of the Shanghai-based Fudan University. Her passionate speech to the US Congress on February 18, 1943 left a deep impression on the American public. Owing to her very fruitful diplomatic activities and her personal friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Madame Soong successfully drummed up the American support for China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945).


Actually, Madame Soong remained a powerful figure in Taiwan until the early 1970s. She moved to the United States in 1975. However, despite that she had lived in Taiwan for almost 30 years, Madame Soong's death can hardly produce any substantive impacts on Taiwan's present politics, Prof. Jin said. Since Chiang Ching-kuo (1910-1988) took power following his father Chiang Kai-shek's death in 1975, Madame Soong had faded out of Taiwan's political arena.


Both Chiang Ching-kuo and Chiang Kai-shek's coffins were temporarily placed in Taiwan. Actually, a couple of years ago, how to bury the two touched off a dispute on the island. Long ago Madame Soong had announced that she would not be buried together with her husband. Now her remains will not be sent back either to Taiwan or to the Chinese mainland, but will lie in a cemetery in New York. It's hard to imagine the centenarian's feeling when she made the decision to have her own remains buried in an alien land. Probably, as a once political figure, Madame Soong had foreseen the political implications no matter to which side of the Taiwan Straits her coffin would be returned. Indeed, in her old age, lonely Madame Soong would not like to get drawn in any political whirlpools, Prof. Jin said.


After moving to New York in 1991, Madame Soong initially lived at the estate purchased by her brother-in-law H. H. Kung (1881-1967) in Lattingtown, an exclusive Long Island suburb 56 km east of New York City. Due to the inconvenient location, she moved to her Manhattan apartment three years later, and dwelt there until the last moment of her life.


During her 28 years' sojourn in the United States, Madame Soong returned to Taiwan only three times, in 1976, 1991 and 1994 respectively, and had never expressed nostalgic longing for the island. Regrettably, she had refused to write recollections, which is an irrecoverable loss to China's history of the 20th century.


When Madame Soong still lived on Long Island, she often drove to Manhattan to visit art museums and galleries there. Reading remained her favorite pastime. Besides her close relatives, a few American friends were the only ones who got the chance to enter her residence.


Living abroad, Madame Soong's life in her old age was peaceful but somewhat solitary. The Chiang family gradually stepped down from Taiwan's political stage. When Lee Teng-hui was in power, the treating of Madame Soong did not punctiliously observe etiquette as before. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who later took control of Taiwan, further reduced its tribute and courtesy towards Madame Soong. As part of the factual demonstration, Madame Soong's birthday celebration was becoming less warm year by year.


According to statistics, Madame Soong received visitors no more than 10 times a year at her New York home. Generally, she grew flowers, practiced calligraphy, drew pictures, or read to kill time. Attendants helped to deal with correspondences and make arrangements for her daily life. Actually, since 1991, except occasionally meeting with visiting women's delegations from Taiwan, Madame Soong cut herself off from all outside contacts. When Madame Soong died in her sleep, only her niece Kung Lin-yi, Kung's husband and a great-grandson were at her bedside.


Kung Lin-yi said Madame Soong left a deposit of merely US$120,000 after her death. Throughout her life Madame Soong never concerned herself with money. "Since she came to New York in 1991, she asked me only once: 'Is there enough money?'" Kung recalled.


In fact, according to Kung, Madame Soong had no real estate either in Taiwan or in the United States. The only house under her name, a dowry when she married Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, is in Shanghai. Situated on the then Xiafei Road in French Concession, today's Nanjing Road, the house has been well preserved by the local government.


When the sad news came to Wenchang City, Hainan Province, where Madame Soong's father Charles Soong was born, local people deeply regretted that Madame Soong had not been able to return to her ancestral home to visit her relatives.


In 2001, Wenchang hosted commemorative activities to mark Charles Soong's 140th birthday and sent an invitation to Madame Soong, said Chen Zhongwen, the city mayor. Unfortunately, Madame Soong didn't make the visit for health and other reasons at that time.


According to Lian Jiede, vice president of the Hainan Association of Taiwan Compatriots, in the early 1990s, the ancestral hall of the Soong family in Wenchang went through a thorough renovation with funds allocated from the city authorities, and since then it has been put under governmental protection.


(China.org.cn, by Shao Da, November 7, 2003)

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