On Sunday I celebrated Hanukkah for the first time–mostly by eating too many hot-off-the-grill homemade latkas. My point is that these days, I don’t tend to adhere to any one particular holiday’s customs. And so with Christmas fast approaching, I’m definitely getting into the spirit of giving and.receiving.
On my own wish list is Hannah Pakula’s recently released title, The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China. Despite some criticism of its length (816 pages) and overload of information, (apparently resulting in ‘chapters-long digressions’), reviews by publications like the LA Times, Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have led me to believe this book is still a good way to get a peek into the life of one of the most interesting women I’ve ever heard of. Reviewers make the same point-despite its shortcomings, The Last Empress is worth the read thanks to its main subject, the late enigmatic Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
Pakula is said to have spent ten years researching this book, and it’s easy to see why. Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s reign as First Lady of the Republic of China was a long one, from 1948 to 1975, and throughout it she was a surprisingly public figure, acting as a translator and oftentimes the ‘face’ of her husband, President Chiang Kai-shek, to the West.
Furthermore, much of what seems to be known about her is simply titillating.
Take for example accounts of when Madame Chiang would stay with the Roosevelts at the White House. The Chinese First Lady would reportedly clap her hands for servants to come and wait on her. In fact it’s this story that Pakula claims first got her interested in Chiang Kai-shek, a ‘tiny woman with a gorgeous body who was flirtatious and funny and spoke fluent American with a charming southern accent.’ The author was mystified as to why an intelligent woman would do something so counterproductive to her own and her country’s image.
For me, it was wondering how at a time when Chinese women were largely uneducated, Chiang Kai-shek herself received a quality overseas education. It turns out that her father was a simple peasant who strove to rise above his rank in Shanghai to provide a future for his daughters by sending them to college in America. Another drawing point was learning that after her husband’s death in 1975, Madame Chiang Kai-shek moved to New York where she lived in a high-end apartment building with 24 servants.and 3 dogs. She lived until the ripe old age of 104, and was very private during her later years, hardly leaving her home. There are even still rumours she may have stored blocks of gold in her closet.