Madame Chiang Kai-Shek

At about the point that Hu Jin-Tao was subtly making his House of Representatives case for Captain Cook being a Johnny come lately, news came through that the formidable Madame Chiang Kai-Shek had passed away. It was a timely interruption because I’d just started daydreaming about how things might have been had Bob Brown – rather than Gough – made that groundbreaking visit to Beijing back in 1971.

Given the inevitability of formal complaints about the amount of MSG in the state banquet, not to mention secondary smoke violation notifications relating to the Chinese leadership’s uniform nicotine addiction – “it’s just not the Australian way” – the relationship between Our Two Great Nations might have taken a very different course. But I digress….

My initial reaction to Madame Chiang’s death was surprise that it hadn’t already happened. She was 106 and I guess I’d just assumed that she was no longer with us.

Her husband, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek had died in 1975, a quarter of a century after he’d fled to Taiwan following Mao’s final victory over the Kuomintang. She left Taiwan after Chiang’s death and lived on in the U.S. for nearly 30 years; her glory days – when she rivalled Eleanor Roosevelt for the role of world’s most influential political wife – long behind her.

In her day, she rocked. Born Soong Mei-Ling, one of her sisters married Sun Yat-Sen – China’s first President – and another married H.H. Kung an enormously influential banker. She married Chiang Kai-Shek and spent the 1930’s and 40’s as his charm-filled, propaganda right-arm, albeit that theirs was – from all acccounts – a tempestuous relationship.

She was also seen as manipulative, imperious and “vicious” as the NYT obit recounts.

It struck me that this less than flattering epitaph might also be applied to the two other internationally-renowned, Chinese female founts of influence over the last century or so – the Dowager Empress Cixi and Mao’s fourth (and surviving) wife, Jiang Qing – the dreaded “white-boned demon” and leader of the Gang of Four.

So, confining the question to an Asian context: why does India produce Indira Gandhi? Why do Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Phillipines (and latterly, Indonesia) produce female leaders whilst China only seems to produce “flawed consorts?”

Just thought I’d ask.

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Alan
Alan
2021 years ago

Empresses have had a bad press in China since Empress Wu tried to supplant the Tang dynasty.

Part of the reaction to Wu’s efforts was to restrict the education of women. Certainly Cixi, an illiterate, exemplifies the problems, not of empowering women but of empowering people without any education at all. I’m not sure if that works for Madam Chiang but I think it does for Jiang Qing.

Female rule was often associated with eunuch rule, where palace staff restricted the flow of information to the White House, I mean the throne.

roop
2021 years ago

So, confining the question to an Asian context: why does India produce Indira Gandhi? Why do Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Phillipines (and latterly, Indonesia) produce female leaders whilst China only seems to produce “flawed consorts?”

related question: why have so many asian female prime ministers / presidents been either the wife [as in bangladesh-bandaranaike] or the daughter [as in india-indira, indonesia-sukarnoputi, pakistan-bhutto, phillipines-arroyo etc] of a former prime minister / president? it’s weird: i can’t off-hand think of any female leaders [in asia] for whom this isn’t true.

also, speaking of flawed consorts [or maybe you’d prefer your history self-satirised].

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

Roop – My guess is that it has something to do with the primacy of clan-based socio-political organisation in many Asian societies. Widows are perfect sympathy-garnering legacy keepers (a construct not exactly unknown in the Western political context either) and daughters are thought to be a more voter-empathetic prospect given the no doubt sexist assumptions about women being generally less personally rapacious Keepers of the Flame. Benazir Bhutto may have pretty much disposed of that theory, however.

Indira was an extraordinary political talent and might well have made it on her own ability (it’s also interesting to speculate on what might have happened had Jawaharlal Nehru had a son) but given the obvious obstacles to a woman so doing in the India of the 1960’s, it’s pretty doubtful. It’s pretty clear however that Megawati wouldn’t have got within a bull’s roar of the Indonesian presidency had she not been able to trot out a dazzling array of photographic imagery of her late dad. In fact, her election tactics – standing in inscrutable silence in front of pictures of Bung Karno – was quite brilliant. How can you go wrong if you say absolutely nothing? That strategy, allied to Suharto’s unpopularity coupled with Suharto’s historic role in Sukarno’s downfall, wrapped up in Indonesian nostalgia for their deeply flawed first Prez, made her a winner.

In the Phillipines the Presidency kind of circulates amongst a handful of great landed families – as it does in Pakistan when the Generals care to let them have a go – and Gloria Arroyo is the current Macapagal clan incumbent.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

Let’s see….Gro Harlem Brundtland was the PM of Norway for 10 years – and around 60% of the Norwegian legislature is female. Helen Clark is the second female NZ PM. National Party leader, Jenny Shipley, preceded her and of course the NZ Governor-General, Chief Justice and about half the cabinet are women. Maybe it’s countries that start with N….yes! Violet Chamorro(?) was the President of Nicaragua and what about Turkey? Tansu Ciller was their first female PM from 93-97.

It’s actually probably harder for women to succeed politically in the West where it’s individual ability rather than clan allegiances and loyalties that tends to be the deciding factor. “Individual ability” in our political system is still pretty much assessed on male models of same. For instance, parenting ability doesn’t usually rate highly on potential PM CV’s but women tend to have to spend a lot of their time doing it. And if they don’t – like Helen Clark – it can actually count against them. Clark is frequently disparaged as some sort of unnatural woman – whatever that is…

wen
wen
2021 years ago

It’s interesting isn’t it, that post-suffrage, and even post-liberation, western countries haven’t had many female leaders (who is there? MT, Helen Clark. Is that really all? Surely I’ve missed someone). Is this universal suffrage at work?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

Dame Enid! God bless her! And I’d forgotten Jean Carnahan. There was also Lindy Boggs, congresswoman from Louisiana who succeeded her husband Hale. A number of influential female US Senators spring to mind – Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein from California and that woman from New York – what’s her name?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

If people are puzzled by the slightly out-of-sync nature of the comments it’s because the comments facility has decided – for reasons unknown – to post them out of sync. It’s kind of cool/wacky – sort of reads like a bunch of people second-guessing what the next person is going to say…..:)

Alan
Alan
2021 years ago

Britain, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, New Zealand (twice), Norway, Poland, Portugal, and France have all had women prime ministers or presidents.

The wife-as-successor thing is also not completely unknown in the West. The first women MHR succeeded her husband and as recently as 2000 in the US, Jean Carnahan was appointed to her husband’s seat in the Senate. The hsuband, btw, had defeated the odious John Ashcroft by getting elected after his own death.

Alan
Alan
2021 years ago

I was not counting women governors-general but Canada has had 2. Another asynchronous comment.

Tiu Fu Fong
Tiu Fu Fong
2021 years ago

whilst China only seems to produce “flawed consorts?”

Chinese mothers over 30 = crazy harpies (with few exceptions). Simple as that. Don’t try and understand it.

wen
wen
2021 years ago

I understand it .

Alan
Alan
2021 years ago

Argentina has not done a bad job in the flawed consorts department. Ditto Romania. I’d google ‘flawed consort’ but it might be a tad extreme.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

“I’d google ‘flawed consort’ but it might be a tad extreme.’

I did that yesterday. Google came up with, “Ants of West Africa and the Congo Basin” – for some reason.

mark
2021 years ago

No porn then?

[tries not to look disappointed]

Alan
Alan
2021 years ago

Just antic porn, evidently.