The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China
No one will fail to notice this giant red book on your bookshelf. Nearly 800 pages long, containing two sections of photographs and spanning 137 years, Hannah Pakula’s biography of Soong May-ling, The Last Empress, better known to the world as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the most famous wife of Chiang Kai-shek (the nationalist general who briefly united China before losing it to the communists organized under Mao Tse-tung) is a formidable conglomeration of information about many of the characters who had a hand in moving China from imperialism to communism. Readers looking for a concise, tightly organized, strategically written account of Madame’s life should look elsewhere: this book is dense with the stories of those whose lives and histories were entangled with the Chiang-Soong families and is as much a story of China as it is of Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
Unfortunately, Pakula’s style is not well suited to explaining concisely the complexities of Chinese political history in the early part of the twentieth century to the average, educated reader. This is not to say that Pakula obscures what is otherwise and elsewhere perfectly clear; the events and attitudes that initiated and characterized China’s shift from imperialism to nationalism to communism are difficult to outline cleanly.
Pakula takes a chronological approach to this biography, dividing the work into nine sections, each covering a span of several years. These sections, which are titled only according to the years they cover (which may be as few as two or as many as twenty-plus), are further broken down into chapters, the titles of which are only numbers. This chronological division is the only explicit structuring move Pakula makes, and she rarely offers her readers authorial ‘anchoring points’, which help the reader to orient her- or himself within the narrative structure. Certainly there is an overarching narrative—the intertwined trajectories of Madame Chiang Kai-shek and modern China—however, Pakula repeatedly interrupts her overarching narrative in order to insert interesting and gossipy anecdotes which can only be (thinly) justified by their chronological placement. This has the effect of flattening much of the narrative movement—important events don’t anchor the narrative or push it forward when surrounded by so many non-essential tidbits.
The story, whatever the flaws in the storytelling, is an enthralling one. Even when I grew frustrated with Pakula’s prose, I continued to read on... and on... and on. Pakula, who is carefully sympathetic to Soong May-ling, sometimes portrays her as a kind of feminist sympathizer, reinforcing May-ling’s articulate recognition of the political implications of women’s subordinate status. At other times, there are revelations of Madame’s hardness and cruelty: asked how China would respond to a difficult union leader, Madame remained silent and simply slid her hand across her throat. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, whose political speeches charmed billions of dollars in U.S. loans to China; whose translating work for her husband helped to delay world recognition of some of his personal and political shortcomings; whose sex appeal was the subject of some amusingly purple journalism (“her teeth are visual symphonies of oral architecture.” Wow. Just wow.); who worked to improve conditions in hospitals and orphanages but spent thousands of dollars on furs and shoes and wore diamonds the size of buttons; who lived to be 105 and whose life spanned the entire twentieth century was a fascinating woman whose story could well fill several books. Pakula’s The Last Empress makes for a sometimes juicy, sometimes frustrating, but always eventful read.