Chen Jieru, the wife whom Chiang Kai-Shek had sent to the United States under false pretenses and abandoned there in order to clear the way for his marriage to Soong Mei-ling, fled from mainland China to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover in 1949. In the early 1960s, in a poor way in terms of both her finances and her health, she decided to cash the golden ticket she had been holding onto for so many years: the full story of her marriage to Chiang and her final treatment at his hands. She enlisted an old friend, a Hong Kong banker named James Lee, to help her translate her diary entries from those times into a book-length English narrative, filled with such juicy tidbits as Chiang infecting her with syphilis on their wedding night. James Lee then gave the manuscript to his brother William Yinson Lee, a retired physicist living in New York, and asked him to find an American publisher for it. William Yinson Lee hired a literary agent named Lawrence Epps Hill, who in April of 1964 successfully negotiated a contract with Doubleday.
As soon as word of the forthcoming book hit the street, Doubleday was hit by an avalanche of threats from lawyers working for Soong Ai-ling, who was still living in New York and still ferociously protecting the Soong family’s interests in the United States. Doubleday quickly dropped the book, with the public justification that it feared it to be “libelous.” Undaunted, Lawrence Epps Hill continued to beat the bushes in search of another, braver publisher. He was subjected to relentless intimidation for his efforts. According to a newspaper account, he was “assaulted and beaten up twice; his hotel room and office have been broken into three or four times; he has received many suspicious phone calls at early hours of the morning; he has been threatened by two major New York law firms and he has been investigated by the FBI. Somehow, Hill feels someone is trying to tell him something, and he thinks he knows what it is.” None of the publishers he talked to, constituting the cream of the American journalistic and literary establishment, dared to make the deal, despite the money the scandalous memoir stood to generate; such was the degree of fear Soong Ai-ling inspired in New York. With all other avenues closed to them, Chen Jieru and her compatriots finally agreed to accept $170,000 from the government of Taiwan for all extant copies of the manuscript — said government’s purpose being to bury it rather than to publish it. One can only hope that the money made her twilight years more comfortable.
By mistake or by deliberate deception on the part of the manuscript’s peddlers, at least one copy of it did survive. It would resurface and be published at long last in 1993, well after the deaths of both Chen Jieru and her ex-husband, by which point the passage of time had rendered it of merely historical interest. In the context of the 1960s, by contrast, the book was as politically explosive as they come, as Soong Ai-ling’s determination to prevent its publication amply attests. For at that time Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling were still alive and well on Taiwan, still leading a government there which, according to the stated diplomatic policy of the leading nation of the free world, was the one and only legitimate government of all of China. It was right there in the country’s official name: Taiwan did not call itself the Republic of Taiwan, but rather the Republic of China. To appreciate the absurdity of this, consider that at this time mainland China had a population of over 700 million to Taiwan’s not quite 13 million. Taiwan had as much chance of retaking the rest of China as Hawaii did of invading and conquering the rest of the United States.
The People’s Republic of China, the most populous country in the world, was for decades frozen out of virtually all international institutions in favor of its tiny neighbor. When the United Nations had been set up at the end of the Second World War, Chiang’s mainland regime had, in recognition of the sheer quantity of people it claimed to govern, been granted one of the five permanent seats on the body’s Security Council, its elite inner circle. Fifteen years after the Chinese Communists had taken over on the mainland, Taiwan still held that seat, on an equal footing with the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France. Meanwhile the People’s Republic was without any United Nations representation whatsoever. This was a flagrant breach of the very principle on which the United Nations had been founded: that dialog is always better than the lack thereof, even — indeed, especially — dialog between countries whose values and strategic priorities appear to be mutually antithetical.
It wasn’t as if Taiwan was some beleaguered outpost of democracy fighting the good fight against tyranny. Chiang’s government remained what it had always been, an unsparing military dictatorship gilded in Soong Mei-ling’s overwrought rhetoric of “freedom” in the abstract. If anything, Chiang had become even more heavy-handed since moving to Taiwan; the constrained geography of the island made its citizenry that much easier to coerce and control. But at the same time, the Soong family’s reach extended well beyond the island too. The China Lobby in the United States, still alive and well in the mid-1960s, conducted business like the Mafia, as such enemies of its interests as Lawrence Epps Hill learned to their cost. It held immense sway over the more conservative end of the Washington political spectrum in particular. For example, it was a major donor to Senator Joseph McCarthy, the instigator of the notorious domestic-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. The Washington journalist Marquis Childs wrote that “no one who knows anything about the way things work here doubts that a powerful China Lobby has brought extraordinary influence to bear on Congress and the Executive. It would be hard to find any parallel in diplomatic history for the agents and diplomatic representatives of a foreign power exerting such pressures.” Through a mixture of bribery and intimidation — no American politician at the height of the Cold War wanted to be accused of being soft on communism — the China Lobby kept the question of granting diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic as far off the table as it did any discussion of the reality of life on the ground in Chiang’s Taiwan, the place it was so eager to hold up as the morally superior alternative to Mao Zedong’s China.
Sometimes it takes the most unlikely of suspects to effect real change. In November of 1968, Richard Nixon was swept into the White House by the votes of a “silent majority” of conservative Americans who were as appalled by the Chairman Mao badges being sported by the hippie generation as they were by the rest of their peace-and-love worldview. Nixon was a complex man, as capable of the pettiest sorts of corruption as he was of truly visionary thinking. Luckily, his thinking about China was marked more by the second quality. Within days of his inauguration, he scribbled a note about mainland China in his journal: “Short range — no change. Long range — we do not want 800 million living in angry isolation. We want contact.”
There were many motivations behind Nixon’s rapprochement with China, an event that has become so legendary in modern political folklore that there has even been an opera written about it. In the realm of the strictly temporal and practical, the United States had become embroiled during the previous administration in another endless war in the name of containing communism, this one taking place in Vietnam, and Nixon had been elected partly thanks to his promise to find some way of making an “honorable peace” that would stop the bleeding but not force the country to admit outright defeat. Odd as it may sound, he hoped that Mao Zedong might be able to broker such a thing. Alas, he didn’t realize that, although China had supplied the communists of North Vietnam with much invaluable advice and military equipment earlier in the decade, the friendship had grown strained by 1969 for a variety of reasons, and thus Mao’s words would carry limited weight in Hanoi even if he did choose to intervene in the unwonted role of peace broker.
In the bigger picture, Nixon and his unusually powerful national security advisor Henry Kissinger believed that their most dangerous communist enemy was the Soviet Union, whose own nuclear arsenal — not to mention its ability to deliver its warheads to North America and Western Europe — still dwarfed that of China. Knowing that relations between the two communist giants had been anything but cordial in recent years, they were eager to splinter the bloc further.
But in addition to these considerations born of realpolitik alone, there was the sense inside the Nixon State Department that it was silly, unfair, and ultimately dangerous to the world to keep Communist China, a nuclear power since 1964, perpetually on the outside of international respectability looking in. Nixon, a dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warrior, was ironically far better placed to break the grip of the China Lobby on American politics than a president with less impeccable conservative credentials would have been; accusations of harboring secret communist sympathies just couldn’t find much traction when it came to him. “Asia, not Europe or Latin America, will pose the greatest danger of a confrontation which could escalate into World War III,” he said. “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations. The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim should be to induce change. For the short run, this means a policy of firm restraint. For the long run, it means pulling China back into the world community.”
The rapprochement began as a series of baby steps, back-channel communications and non-binding public gestures. In the spring of 1971, the American table-tennis team was invited to visit Beijing for a series of friendly matches with its Chinese counterpart. Just a few weeks later, Henry Kissinger became the first American diplomat to visit China in an official capacity since the Communist takeover. He came dangling such carrots as eventual full diplomatic recognition, a seat in the United Nations, and even intelligence on the Soviet Union: “We tell you about our conversations with the Soviets; we do not tell the Soviets about our conversations with you.”
Then, on July 15, 1971, President Nixon announced that he himself would soon travel to Beijing, sending shock waves through every one of the world’s capitals. Mao being Mao, he couldn’t resist gloating a bit at the ostensible leader of the free world coming to pay homage to him in his Middle Kingdom, just as if he was a Chinese emperor of old. He cackled to his advisors that the United States was “changing from monkey to man — not quite a man yet, the tail is still there.” Back in Washington, the China Lobby screamed and raged and accused Nixon of “consorting with the enemy.” But now that Nixon had dared to break with the Soong dynasty, all but the most uncompromising right-wingers seemed to feel empowered to do so as well. For it was becoming obvious to everyone that the American government’s current position vis-à-vis China simply had to change. If the past two decades had proved nothing else, they had shown that one couldn’t wishful-think away the reality of a Communist China.
The first of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic carrots ripened even before Nixon’s visit. The United States withdrew its longstanding objection to the People’s Republic of China’s membership in the United Nations, and on October 25, 1971, it was finally voted in, taking Taiwan’s place on the Security Council. Indeed, the United Nations voted to consider the mainland’s government “the only legitimate representative of China” from that point forward, expelling Taiwan from the body entirely — a stunning reversal of fortune for Chiang Kai-shek. (The United States voted against this latter resolution, but it was only a symbolic protest, taken primarily for the purpose of appeasing Nixon’s most conservative domestic supporters; most Western nations voted in favor of it, as the Americans were well aware they would before the vote was taken.)
Chairman Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon met one another in person for the first and only time on February 21, 1972, on the first day of Nixon’s seven-day visit to China. Now 78 years old, Mao was not in good health; for this reason, his ever-reliable lieutenant Zhou Enlai did the majority of the welcoming and the talking. Zhou went to amazing lengths to make a positive impression. Anti-American posters and Cultural Revolution graffiti were whitewashed away everywhere the visitors were to go; trees were planted, buildings were painted, soldiers in the streets stood guard without the usual bayonets affixed to their rifles. Zhou even managed to convince the famously slovenly Mao to get a rare haircut and to trim his fingernails for the occasion. The American delegation departed with little in the way of concrete agreements, but with a firm promise from both sides to continue to communicate. After more than twenty years of complete radio silence, that was a momentous step in itself.
It is difficult to convey today just how much of a black box China was to the West circa 1972. Since 1949, the country had been closed to all but avowed revolutionaries and a handful of other left-wing worthies like Edgar Snow. What was life really like in Communist China? Had things gotten better since the sad spectacle of the country’s Second World War-era incarnation? Nobody could say with any certainty.
In the wake of President Nixon’s visit, the Communist Party invited some prominent Westerners who were not unskeptical ideological fellow travelers to visit China and see for themselves. Among them was Barbara Tuchman, a highly respected American historian who had recently written a landmark book about China’s role in the Second World War. Like all such visits, hers was carefully stage-managed. Nevertheless, she divined the beginnings of a tacit social contract that many others have since remarked when observing modern China, between an unabashedly authoritarian government and a citizenry who had been cruelly mistreated and exploited for centuries, and were now willing to give up a fair amount of personal rights and freedoms in return for a measure of political and economic stability.
In a country where misery and want were the foundation of the social structure, famine was periodic, death from starvation common, disease pervasive, thievery normal, and graft and corruption taken for granted, the elimination of these conditions in Communist China is so striking that negative aspects of the new rule fade in relative importance. The dominant fact is that for China’s working class, which is to say over 80 percent of the world’s most populous country, the lid of exploitation has been lifted. While visible betterment varies widely between the major cities and provinces, it is probably true to say of all areas that the working class, in whose interest China is now governed, have found a sense of purpose, self-confidence, and dignity in the knowledge that they are the object of the state’s concern, not, as in the past, society’s victims.
The most obvious negative in the process is the mental monotone imposed upon the country. All thought, all ideas past, present, and future, not to mention the historical record, are twisted, manipulated, rolled out, and flattened into one, expressed in half a dozen slogans dinned incessantly and insistently into the heads of the public. As far as the life of the mind in China is concerned, its scope has rigid limits and its sound is a blaring, endlessly repeated single note, with effect (at least upon a Westerner) like the drip, drip, drip on the victim’s head of the ancient Chinese water torture — if it had made a loud noise. The message is that “the People” are the motive force; that Marxism-Leninism is universal truth, and that propelled by its principles and Chairman Mao’s thought, China’s working class can ultimately build Socialism, meaning well-being for everyone. The goal lies ahead and can only be reached by keeping the Revolution green, that is by continually renewed contact with the masses.
Despite the undeniable progress that had been made since the Second World War, Tuchman and other visitors like her discovered a country still decades behind their homelands by most metrics of human development, a country so sealed off from the wider world that the merest glimpse of a real live foreigner could become a story told by its citizens around the dinner table for years to come. The bookshops the visitors saw stocked only The Little Red Book and other communist tracts, perhaps along with, if one was lucky, the Six Classic Novels (each provided with a new introduction to slot it into the framework of history as class struggle). With her usual keen insight, Tuchman wrote that “the people are being educated in a conspiracy theory of evil. It leaves Party and leaders unresponsible for error or failure.” In the decades to come, the Party’s methods of indoctrination would grow more sophisticated than the pummeling slogan-chanting of the Cultural Revolution, but its goal of inculcating in the people a quasi-religious belief in its all-seeing, all-knowing infallibility would never change.
That said, the years after Richard Nixon deigned to confer legitimacy upon Communist China on the world stage were marked by a changing of the guard, as the figures who had dictated the course of Chinese history for a long, long time left the stage, making way for some comparatively fresh perspectives. It seems poetically apt that Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, those two implacable enemies whose struggles against one another had defined the last 50 years in the life of China, died within eighteen months of one another. Both of their passings came as a relief to the rest of the governments they headed, for both of these old men had become more of an obstacle to progress than an instrument of it.
Chiang was the first to go, dying of heart disease at age 87 on April 5, 1975, in the midst of a raging thunderstorm which Soong Mei-ling inevitably read as God’s own tears. Her bathetic description of the public mourning which followed on Taiwan — a place that had been wracked ever since 1949 by intermittent protests against Chiang’s rule, which were always put down in brutal fashion by the latter’s police and military — is less than believable.
It was actually the people’s indescribably intense and inconsolable grief which forced me to regain something like a routine life. Literally millions of them were out of their homes, many riding buses, scooters, motorcycles, and their own cars overnight from one end of the island to the other to pay their respects to the president — tearful, kneeling, wailing, prostrate, stricken respects. My heart went out to them, to these generous, magnificent people whom I must serve as I have always served. And on the whole route to Tsu Hou [Chiang’s burial place], over 2 million people were lined up solid, some places ten deep. Unless you have seen this with your own eyes, I cannot quite describe the feeling and ethos to you.
The other members of the family which had propped up Chiang’s regime through wealth and tireless foreign lobbying had already begun passing from the world one by one by the time the figurehead left the scene. H.H. Kung had died of a heart attack in New York in 1967, whereupon he was accorded a short obituary in The New York Times, acknowledging that he was “a controversial figure.” T.V. Soong died in 1971 after choking on a bit of food at a dinner party in San Francisco; his assets were so well distributed around the world that his obituary said that his estate was worth just $1 million in the eyes of the American tax authorities, prompting much hilarity among his banker friends back in Hong Kong. Soong Ai-ling died of cancer in 1973. The cursoriness of her public obituary was entirely out of keeping with the influence she had wielded with such ruthless effectiveness for so long among New York and Washington insiders. It was left to the Soongs’ biographer Sterling Seagrave to remedy the newspapers’ failings with a more substantial eulogy years later: “A woman of enormous financial accomplishment, whose wealth was exceeded only by her brother T.V.’s, perhaps the wealthiest woman ever to put it all together with her own cunning, the broker of Mei-ling’s marriage to Chiang Kai-shek, the principal contriver of the Soong legend, and the true architect of the dynasty’s rise to power.”
Those who were hoping that the deaths of Chiang Kai-shek and so many others from the Soong old guard would lead to liberalization in Taiwan were doubtless disappointed by the generalissimo’s successor: his only legitimate child, Chiang Ching-kuo, the fruit of a marriage that had ended in divorce before even his union with Chen Jieru. Still, Ching-kuo was more than just the chip off the old block typical of dictators’ offspring. He was far more venturesome and intellectually curious than his hidebound father, from whom he had in fact been estranged for a considerable portion of his life; he had even dwelt for twelve years in the Soviet Union, his father’s sworn enemy, where he had married a Belorussian woman. With excruciating slowness, Chiang Ching-kuo began to relax the Kuomintang Party’s stranglehold on Taiwanese politics, paving the way for the very thing that his father and stepmother had so often spoken of but never expended any real effort on delivering: a genuine democracy.
That project was still in its earliest stages on September 9, 1976, when Mao Zedong died of a panoply of old-age- and smoking-related ailments at age 82. The people of mainland China engaged in massive public outpourings of grief and tribute whose sincerity is hard to gauge, given that most of them had long since become adept at just this sort of performance, which was something of a prerequisite to living a trouble-free life in Mao’s China. One woman who was a little girl at the time remembers being “confused by the adults’ expressions — everybody looked so sad in public, while my father was so happy the night before.” Which isn’t to say that there weren’t plenty of true believers whose sorrow was very, very real. One of them was Jan Wong, a daughter of Chinese parents who had fled to Canada after the Communist takeover; steeped in the student activism of the hippie era, she had returned to her ancestral homeland as one of the first foreign students to be admitted to a Chinese university after President Nixon’s visit had opened the door to such cultural exchanges ever so slightly. But even she writes in her memoir how surprised she was that “most of my classmates remained dry-eyed” in private.
Hovering over all of the public lamentations, however real or feigned, was the existential question of who was to lead Communist China now, following the passing of the only head of state it had ever known. Zhou Enlai, the second most revered and authoritative figure in the Communist Party, had himself died nine months before Mao. Thus a vicious power struggle was taking place behind the closed doors of the halls of state even as an ornate mausoleum, self-consciously bigger than Vladimir Lenin’s in Moscow, was being constructed on Beijing’s Tienanmen Square for the permanent display of the chairman’s embalmed body. The internal debate put two factions who had been sniping at one another for years into direct conflict: the pragmatists, who felt that China could reach its full potential only by allowing some private enterprise and private initiative and moderating its stance toward the rest of the world, and the ideological hardcore, whose only beef with the Cultural Revolution was that it had never gone far enough. The leading representative of the former was Deng Xiaoping, the great survivor in Chinese politics, who had been purged not once but twice for his failure to get fully onboard with the radicalism of the Cultural Revolution, but whose cool competency had made him too useful to leave in a work camp or a prison cell for long. The chief representatives of the latter were Mao’s old Gang of Four, who had been along with the late chairman himself and the equally late Lin Biao the original orchestrators of the Cultural Revolution.
By the summer of 1977, Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism had largely won the day; the Party was exhausted with constant revolution and the turmoil it brought with it. Always a cautious operator, Deng never attempted to claim Mao’s title of Communist Party Chairman for himself; he left that to Mao’s preferred successor, a devoted sycophant named Hua Guofeng. Nonetheless, everyone inside the Party and, soon enough, outside of it as well knew who really steered the ship of state.
Deng saw a major problem as he contemplated charting a new course for China. As I noted above, he was among those who thought that the only way to improve the country’s still-woeful standard of living and awaken its latent potential was to introduce a carefully circumscribed form of market economy — what would later be labelled “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” one of the Communist Party’s more indelible neologisms. This was by definition a rejection of the radical collectivism of the Cultural Revolution. Yet Deng saw enormous danger in rejecting Chairman Mao himself, whose cult of personality had underpinned so many of the Party’s projects and communications since the mid-1960s especially. He saw the recent history of the Soviet Union as a warning in this respect; he believed that nation had never fully regained its own sense of unity and purpose after Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Joseph Stalin, repudiating the legacy of the man who had been the people’s unchallenged exemplar and savior for decades. With the people’s faith in their government’s infallibility thus undermined — if the Soviet Communist Party could foist one bad leader upon them, it stood to reason that there could come more — the Soviet Union had become a sclerotic shell of its vigorous old self, sustained only by inertia and by its deadly nuclear arsenal. Deng didn’t relish condemning Communist China to a similar fate by denouncing the only leader its people had ever known.
His solution to the dilemma was and is a classic strategy from the authoritarian playbook. Chairman Mao had always been great and wise and good, he said; it was others — most especially Lin Biao and the Gang of Four — who had distorted his directives and led the nation astray. This claim didn’t stand up to even the most cursory independent scrutiny, of course, but it provided Deng with a way of repudiating much of Mao’s legacy without having to repudiate Mao himself, whilst also dispatching his own most threatening political enemies. The Party’s histories of the last two decades or so were thus duly rewritten to cast the Gang of Four in the role of the villains. Jan Wong has vividly described the head-snapping about-face of officially sanctioned thought in China which followed close on the heels of her graduation from Peking University, and the sense of bewilderment and disillusionment it unleashed in her young and idealistic ilk in particular. Like Bob Stein, the American Maoist we met in the previous chapter, she remains to this day unable to shake the conviction that there was a core of something noble about the Cultural Revolution, whatever the horrors it unleashed.
A month after my worker-peasant-soldier class graduated, the Chinese Communist Party formally declared an end to the Cultural Revolution. One announcement, and we were consigned to the dust heap of history. That, I suddenly realized, was how dictatorships worked. Overnight, every single person I knew made an abrupt ideological switch. Now, everyone told me, the Cultural Revolution had been a bad, bad thing. They said they had been waiting for years for the madness to end. And unlike before, they assured me, they meant it.
I felt betrayed, like the victim of a massive practical joke. Everyone had lied to me — my classmates and teachers, my friends and relatives. I knew it was not personal. They had had no choice. But it didn’t alleviate my sense of being suckered.
For a long time, I had been living inside a real-life propaganda movie. I loved it because I thought it was reality. I felt so lucky to reside in utopia. I took seriously Boy Scout-like slogans such as “Serve the People.” I remember squeezing onto buses where young PLA soldiers would spring to their feet and offer their seats to an older comrade or anyone with a child. Only gradually did I realize that the sets were fake and people were just speaking their lines with less and less conviction. After Mao’s death, when everyone stopped play-acting, I rarely saw anybody help anyone else, not even to hold a door for someone with a baby.
In November of 1980, with his absolute control over all levels of the Communist Party now an incontrovertible fact, Deng Xiaoping drew a line between a century of broiling revolution in China and a more stable, prosperous future by holding a very public trial of the Gang of Four. The proceedings were broadcast live on the recently established state television channel. With a television set costing five to eight months pay for the average worker, the devices were still all but unknown in private homes, but they were set up on factory floors, in school auditoriums, and in gymnasiums for the edification of the people. The people watched as the Gang of Four and a handful of co-defendants were charged with crimes both real and fictional, including attempts to overthrow the government and assassinate Chairman Mao. A nation was given permission to loose the pent-up vitriol generated by the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution upon the heads of the Gang of Four, looking hapless and helpless as they sat there manacled to their chairs, scapegoats in the Old Testament sense for their people’s sins. Only Mao’s widow Jiang Qing could muster much defiance, becoming in the process the woman all of China reveled in hating. “I was Chairman Mao’s dog,” spit this woman who had first come to prominence in the 1930s as a beautiful screen actress, looking positively feral now in her dark prison garb and crudely chopped-off hair. “Whoever he told me to bite, I bit.”
Needless to say, the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. In February of 1981, Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao received death sentences that would later be commuted to life imprisonment (praise the mercy of a benevolent state!), while Wang Hongwen and Yao Wenyuan received sentences of twenty and ten years respectively. A fiery fanatic to the last, Jiang would contrive a way of hanging herself in prison in 1991. “Chairman, your student and fighter is coming to see you,” she wrote to her husband in her suicide note.
Shortly after the Gang of Four’s trial concluded, the Party issued its final verdict on Chairman Mao, via a missive that bore the typically long-winded name of “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.” It lauded Mao Zedong as the revolution’s one indispensable man. At the same time, though, it admitted that he had made “mistakes” in his later years, had become “divorced from reality,” lost sight of “the objective laws” of history, and “overestimated the role of man’s subjective will and efforts” — a subtle accusation of megalomania. Yet it judged Mao to have been 70 percent right and just 30 percent wrong when a full tally was taken, and thus eminently worthy of ongoing veneration as the founding father of modern China. This has remained the Party’s official position on Mao Zedong to this day.
Just as this finely parsed resolution was being finalized, with hours upon hours of debate going into its every word, China suffered another sort of break with its revolutionary past. On May 29, 1981, Soong Ching-ling died at age 88. She had been less visible during the 1960s and 1970s than she had been during the 1950s, devoting herself mainly to the raising of two daughters she had adopted, the children she had never had a chance to have earlier in life. (In recognition of her special status, the Party had granted her the rare indulgence of sending one of her girls to attend university in the United States, in keeping with the old Soong family tradition.) When it became clear that the end was near, she was named an honorary President of China. And after she died, the Party made one more magnanimous gesture on her behalf, inviting her last surviving sibling, Soong Mei-ling, to visit the mainland for the first time since 1948 in order to attend the funeral.
Mei-ling haughtily refused. She would return to China, she said, only when it was once more in the hands of her stepson’s government. In the meantime, she had moved to New York, where she would live on as an historical anachronism until 2003; in reaching an age of no less than 105, she would become one of the vanishingly few people in the history of the world who have gotten to see parts of three separate centuries. That said, her old age wasn’t ideal for someone who loved the spotlight as she did. She spent those final years isolated and forgotten, as much an avatar of a China that was no more in her palatial Long Island mansion as was Jiang Qing in her dank Beijing prison cell.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)