Recycling Personality Cults: Observations of the Reactions to Madame Chiang Kai‐Shek’s Death in Taiwan

Jeremy E Taylor. Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions. Volume 7, Issue 3, December 2006.

This article explores government, party and media reactions in Taiwan to the death of Madame Chiang Kai‐shek in October 2003. In doing so, it sheds light on the ways in which the rituals, iconography and language of personality cults—a major part of political culture in Taiwan during the years of martial law—have become the main points of reference for many groups when responding to contemporary political events. I suggest that such reactions reveal the longevity of disparate elements of authoritarian personality cults in modern Taiwan, in addition to raising questions about the role of political religions in post‐authoritarian societies more generally.

On 24 October 2003, Madame Chiang Kai‐shek passed away at the age of 105. Her death prompted dozens of obituaries in the pages of the world’s English‐language press as well as expressions of sorrow from diplomatic and governmental sources in numerous countries. For many, Madame Chiang’s passing marked the ‘end of an era’; gone was one of the last actors in a history of twentieth‐century war, revolution and political upheaval in East Asia—an individual who represented a China which had long ceased to exist.

Despite dying in New York, Madame Chiang’s death was felt most widely in Taiwan, the island that had been her home for more than four decades. Although Madame Chiang left Taipei in 1991, playing little part in Taiwan’s politics thereafter then, she remained inextricably linked to the island. Often praised by sections of the Taiwanese polity, she headed charitable bodies and foundations in Taiwan and, at the time of her death, she held a Taipei‐issued passport.

Unsurprisingly then, the Taiwanese media was fixated by her death, with coverage of the event dominating television screens and newspapers in the days immediately following it. Members of the island’s political elite rushed to comment on the event, and to make public their feelings about what Madame Chiang had meant in life and death.

That Madame Chiang’s death occurred in the course of a highly emotive presidential election campaign in Taiwan—and just weeks before a planned transit stop in New York by Taiwan’s President, Chen Shui‐bian—no doubt contributed to the intensity of media and public interest. Yet it can also be argued that this event’s significance was due precisely to the many unresolved political questions it brought to the fore. Was Madame Chiang’s legacy a positive or negative one? Did Madame Chiang belong to Taiwan or China (or neither)? And how was the death of a dictator’s wife to be marked in ‘democratic Taiwan’?

Taiwan’s transformation from an authoritarian, single‐party state into a pluralistic democracy over the course of the 1990s has been lauded by western academics almost as often as it has been by Taiwanese bureaucrats. At the same time, the ‘local’ [bentu] Taiwanese identity promoted by Chen Shui‐bian’s administration has seen Republican Chinese nationalism, once so central to the reign of Chiang Kai‐shek and his Chinese Nationalist Party (or ‘KMT’), increasingly marginalised on the island. Yet reactions to events such as the death of Madame Chiang Kai‐shek suggest that not everything from Taiwan’s authoritarian past has been jettisoned in the course of democratisation and ‘localisation’ [bentuhua]. It also raises questions about the extent to which Taiwan’s conversion to democracy has been absolute. Worship of the nation’s ‘great men’ (and their relatives), for instance, is a practice that many groups in Taiwan continue to observe, and is reflected in the ways in which political figures are commemorated and praised.

In this article, I shall document some of the divergent ways in which different groups in Taiwan reacted to the death of Madame Chiang Kai‐shek. Yet my purpose is not typological. Rather, I hope to illustrate how these reactions were informed, at many levels, by the state‐sponsored personality cults of an earlier era. More importantly, however, I shall try to suggest what such reactions tell us about the fate of personality cults in societies recently emerging from authoritarianism. What happens when state and party no longer control the means of commemorating posthumous leaders, but the infrastructure of single‐party rule, and the veneration of leaders it entails, has yet to be dismantled or discredited? And how can reactions to Madame Chiang Kai‐shek’s death shed light on broader debates concerning the fate of political religions originally born of authoritarian and totalitarian movements, but which have survived in democratic, liberal states?

Personality Cults and Their Legacy in Taiwan

The popular resurgence of the Mao Zedong personality cult in the People’s Republic of China has led to some fascinating scholarship over recent years. Yet it is often forgotten that the organised worship of leaders in Mao’s China was matched, and in some cases anticipated, by an earlier state‐sponsored reverence for men of power. Republican China’s beatification of Sun Yat‐sen—a process commencing with the inclusion of that leader’s image on banknotes in the 1920s, and formally enshrined with his rechristening as ‘Father of the Nation’ in the early 1940s—represented a major part of political culture in early twentieth‐century China, and was clearly influenced by the Soviet cult of Vladimir Lenin. The idea of Chiang Kai‐shek as lingxiu [the leader] of the Chinese Republic has been traced by historians to paramilitary and youth organisations in the 1930s, with such adoration being modelled largely on Italian and German fascist movements of the same era.

The construction of vast memorials to posthumous leaders; the use of official portraiture in public spaces; the commemoration of the birthdays and deaths of national leaders—all were typical products of Republican Chinese personality cults. Such cults legitimised the dynasticism that typified Chiang Kai‐shek’s reign from the 1930s onwards, and constituted an important part of the social control exercised by the Nationalist regime.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the subsequent incorporation of Taiwan into the Chinese Republic, this culture of party‐ and state‐sponsored personality cults was transplanted onto the Republic’s newest province. Such cults were used to promote a particular brand of Republican Chinese nationalism in which ‘Chiang Kai‐shek was not just the state president but the Leader, who personified China and its 5,000 years of history’, resulting in a public culture in which criticism of Chiang Kai‐shek and his family was tantamount to treason, in which Chiang’s face and name were ubiquitous, and in which the nation was identified through the individuals who led it.

The tangible residue of such personality cults can still be found in Taiwan today. Statues of Sun and Chiang are a common sight on university campuses and in public parks. Sun Yat‐sen’s official portrait still hangs on the walls of government offices. And, at the time of writing, the bodies of both Chiang Kai‐shek and his son, Chiang Ching‐kuo, continue to lie in state in compounds administered by the Ministry of National Defense, their bodies regularly treated (though kept from public view) by German‐trained embalmers.

Moreover, although many of the more formal structures of state‐sponsored personality cults have been left to dissolve of their own accord as Taiwan has democratised, the form of such cults—the rituals that they entailed as well as the reverence for leaders that were promoted through them—continue to shape much of the island’s political culture. The KMT still promotes a cult of personality around the figure of Chiang Ching‐kuo—the late son of Chiang Kai‐shek who ruled Taiwan from 1978 to 1987. In recent years, and in a conscious effort to stress an association with the economic growth experienced under the younger Chiang’s leadership, the KMT has revived annual memorial services at Chiang Ching‐kuo’s mausoleum, in addition to arranging conferences in which partisan intellectuals have sought to create an academic discipline out of his writings and achievements. Other political groups have followed suit. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), for example, frequently makes use of the standard tools of personality cults when it feels the need to do so. Its attempts to co‐opt the figure of Sun Yat‐sen into its own agenda have been noted in Taiwanese scholarship, while its propensity for deifying [shenhua] President Chen Shui‐bian (by mass producing Chen Shui‐bian dolls; publishing ‘rags‐to‐riches’ biographies; and organising visits to his birthplace) has led sections of the Taiwanese intelligentsia to describe the island’s current administration as a ‘new dictatorship’.

In Taiwan, the continuing influence of personality cults can also be felt in what social scientists refer to as the ‘public domain’. This is reflected in an unspoken belief that the families, descendents or relatives of powerful leaders deserve celebrity status. Intrigue surrounding the descendants of Chiang Kai‐shek makes for popular news copy, their lives covered by Taiwan’s paparazzi with as much energy as the affairs of the House of Windsor are in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in the absence of a monarchy, the Chiang family has emerged as a kind of de facto royal family in Taiwan, and familial connection to the Chiang name is, of itself, a cause of interest. The birth in July 2003 of Chiang’s Kai‐shek’s great‐great granddaughter was reported in Taiwan in the same manner that the birth of a minor royal might be in the British media. And the many residences, retreats and chalets that Chiang Kai‐shek and his wife once frequented have emerged as tourist attractions over recent years—surpassing, in terms of popularity, the more imposing memorials to Chiang built in the 1970s—their connection to the island’s longest‐serving ‘first couple’ being marketed by municipal and county governments.

‘The Dead are Great’

Reactions to the death of Madame Chiang Kai‐shek in Taiwan must be understood in the context of these personality cults, and the continuing influence that they have had on the political and public life of the island. Yet this is not to suggest that such reactions were uniform. Indeed, although there was an overall tendency to limit public criticism of Madame Chiang in formulating responses to her death, different groups referred to a pool of rhetoric and devices collected during the years of single‐party rule.

In the official response from the Office of the President, for example, the administration made use of hagiographic language, all of it worded in the adjectivally‐heavy classical Chinese usually reserved for national‐day festivities and inaugurations. In summing up Madame Chiang’s life in an official commendation presented to the Chiang family, Chen Shui‐bian described her as essentially a role model for others, who had

lived through three centuries. Her grace was loved by government and opposition parties alike. Her written works are remembered fondly. She set an example for future generations to follow.

Even Vice President Annette Lu—one of the most virulent opponents of the Chiang family’s rule during her career as a political dissident in the 1970s and 1980s—retreated to the language of the personality cult in commenting on the death, describing Madame Chiang as an ‘historic lady of legend […and an…] exemplar of Chinese womanhood.’

Yet it was in ritual that the central government found most of its inspiration. One of the major issues discussed by government officials, for instance, was which public mourning rites would be appropriate for a person of Madame Chiang’s stature. Was she entitled to a state funeral? Was Madame Chiang’s body to lie in state next to that of her late husband? There was even discussion in government ranks about the possibility of flying national flags at half staff for a set period of days, with this suggestion only being dismissed after criticism from the Taiwan Solidarity Union, the Southern Taiwan Society, and other pro‐independence groups. Yet the very fact that such questions were being debated at all reflected a desire on the part of the central government to formalise the death along particular lines.

On learning of Madame Chiang’s death, the Cabinet observed an orchestrated moment of silence and was led by the Premier in a collective bow of respect. In the days following, the President’s Office sought approval from members of the Chiang family for Chen Shui‐bian to personally drape Madame Chiang’s coffin with the Chinese Republican flag during his stay in New York. This he was ultimately unable to do on account of objections from the Chiang family, though Chen was able to personally deliver a flag and written commendation to her relatives during his stay in the United States. These government attempts to transform the death of Madame Chiang into an exercise in public mourning contrasted with the far more private nature of the funeral eventually held in New York on 29 October 2003. Indeed, the funeral service itself, though attended by many members of Taiwan’s political elite, was a markedly small‐scale affair, lacking most of the formal symbols of Republican Chinese statehood traditionally employed in commemorative activities in Taiwan. The Chiang family also shunned attempts by the Taiwanese government to formalise the event, turning down almost all official attempts to partake in or influence the funeral, and preferring to have Madame Chiang buried beside her maternal relatives in the United States rather than in the Taoyuan compound reserved for her husband.

Moreover, as well as formulating its own responses to the death of Madame Chiang, the central government of Taiwan sought to attach itself to commemorative activities that other, non‐state actors were undertaking at the same time. The most obvious examples were the ways in which government officials undertook highly publicised visits to sites associated with Madame Chiang—many of which had been transformed into temporary sites of mourning by organisations that claimed some kind of allegiance to the late widow. This included visits to lingtang [mourning halls]—temporary structures at which members of the public, or of particular organisations, could pay their respects to Madame Chiang in the absence of her body. The first such mourning hall was set up in, and by, the Cheng Hsin Medical Rehabilitation Center, a hospital founded and long funded by Madame Chiang. Other mourning halls were established over the following days in the offices of the National Women’s League (another organisation closely associated with Madame Chiang), as well as in military institutions and at the Chiang Kai‐shek Memorial Hall in central Taipei. Most of these mourning halls were decorated in a manner combining elements of Christian ritual with the more obvious iconography of Republican Chinese nationalism—much as spaces had been used in public mourning rituals for Chiang Kai‐shek in 1975. At the Cheng Hsin hall, for example, a colour portrait of a young Madame Chiang, dating from the late 1930s, was embellished with white orchids and a large floral crucifix (looking remarkably like one that, to this day, adorns Chiang Kai‐shek’s coffin in Taoyuan County). The lingtang at the Chiang Kai‐shek Memorial was attended by the Hall’s staff, clad in black, and was adorned with a banner reading ‘Cherishing the memory of Madame Chiang, Ms May‐ling Soong’.

Despite establishment by independent or quasi‐official bodies, many lingtang were worked into government acts of commemoration by virtue of being visited by members of the Cabinet and delegations from central government agencies. Such visits were widely reported in the media and were at times televised. Foreign Minister Eugene Chien, for instance, led a delegation of officials and diplomats to pay respects at the Chiang Kai‐shek Memorial lingtang.

Such actions could, of course, be explained by a desire on the part of the central government to ‘go through the motions’, to partake in the decorum required of the government so that Madame Chiang could be, literally, buried and forgotten. This process may have also reflected a desire to appear conciliatory in the eyes of moderate voters as an election approached. It might even have represented an attempt by the presidential incumbent, Chen Shui‐bian, to brush over the significant ideological differences between his pro‐independence DPP and the Chiangs’ KMT, and to co‐opt a deceased Madame Chiang into the political agenda of ‘localisation’.

In any case, so keen was the government to formalise the death of Madame Chiang and surround it in state ritual that stauncher elements of the Taiwanese independence movement expressed dissatisfaction. Why was a government claiming to be pro‐democracy and in favour of Taiwanese independence aping the KMT in commemoration of a Nationalist leader’s spouse? The contradiction was not lost on sections of the Taiwanese media either. For instance, Business Weekly printed a satirical sketch of the president attending a memorial service for Madame Chiang, under a sheet marked with the insignia of the KMT.

The government’s response to such criticism was telling. Premier Yu Shyi‐kun, for example, defended the Cabinet’s actions by claiming that ‘the traditional Taiwanese idea is that while there can be enmity in life, there can be no enmity in death; the dead are great’. In Yu’s view, there was no need to challenge the traditions of leader‐worship initially formulated during the years of authoritarian rule. Nor was there anything untoward about a democratic administration that revelled in its ‘Taiwaneseness’, appropriating rituals invented by a dictatorship that had sought the military reunification of China. In a typical case of what Marshall Johnson has astutely noted as Taiwanese nationalism ‘moving in’ to the vacated infrastructure of Nationalist rule, the pro‐independence administration of Chen Shui‐bian was able to justify its appropriation of the tools of personality cults by redefining these as something distinctly local (that is, un‐Chinese). With the stroke of a proverbial pen, state ritual could be transformed into ‘traditional Taiwanese ideas’, and a dead leader—who in life had never tolerated, let alone supported, the idea of an independent Taiwan—could be made to serve the aims of a pro‐independence administration in Taipei.

‘Mother of the Nation’

In government acts of commemoration, we see the use of the very same practices that typified the reign of Chiang Kai‐shek being justified by individuals claiming to oppose Chiang and the Chinese nationalism he symbolised. Yet whilst the ritual of personality cults could be re‐interpreted to promote one particular idea about ‘the nation’ in Taiwan, the phrases and expressions originating in the personality cults of the martial‐law era could just as easily be recycled by other groups who held different opinions about Taiwan’s past, and the place of Madame Chiang therein.

Take, for example, the phrase ‘Jiang Mama‘ [Mother Chiang], which gained currency amongst a wide range of groups in the weeks following Madame Chiang’s death. The journalist and sports commentator, Fu Daren, spoke of how he had always thought of Madame Chiang as ‘the eternal Mother Chiang’, an impression he had obtained when meeting her during his childhood sojourn at an orphanage in China founded by Madame Chiang herself. A retired academic from National Chengchi University in Taipei spoke fondly of the help that ‘Mother Chiang’ had given her by providing scholarships for her tertiary studies. An editorial in the United Evening News described Madame Chiang as a ‘universal paragon of motherhood’.

Verbal references to Madame Chiang as a matriarch were mirrored in much of the visual paraphernalia recycled at the time of her death. Photography that had first been used for morale‐building purposes during Republican China’s ‘War of Resistance’ against Japan in the 1930s and 1940s was reproduced in popular collections that were published by magazines and newspapers. Much of this portrayed Madame Chiang taking on poses usually associated with classically Victorian concepts of motherhood—bandaging soldiers; cajoling children; encouraging students. It also coalesced with Madame Chiang’s very public image as a patron of charitable bodies, especially those dedicated to women and children.

The political scientist Shi Zhiyu has suggested that the idea of Madame Chiang as a matriarch was—like much else in her life—closely linked to her connections with the United States. In Shi’s analysis, the development of this matriarchal persona in the 1930s and 1940s was essentially part of a ‘trade off’ between domestic and international concerns. He argues that an English‐speaking, Christian woman like Madame Chiang was able to act as a palatable representative for Chiang Kai‐shek’s government in Washington. Yet it was only by publicly accepting a far different image at home that Madame Chiang was accepted in Republican China. In being filmed and photographed undertaking what were considered to be ‘motherly’ pursuits, Madame Chiang took on a submissive role toward her husband—the matriarchal balance to the patriarchal generalissimo.

While Shi’s argument is convincing in the context of the 1930s, however, there is nothing to suggest that there was anything submissive about the laudatory labelling of Madame Chiang as a ‘mother’ in the days and weeks following her death. In fact, in being granted a quite new synonym—’guomu‘ [Mother of the Nation]—Madame Chiang was essentially surpassing her husband, joining the ranks of some of the most hallowed leaders in the Nationalist pantheon. Chiang Kai‐shek may have been celebrated as the Republic’s lingxiu [leader], yet he had never been elevated to the position of ‘father’ in official discourse—a role always reserved for Sun Yat‐sen. Indeed, it could even be argued that, as the ‘Mother of the Nation’, Madame Chiang was being raised to a category of an idealised national symbol that scholars have identified in figures such as France’s Marianne or the American ‘Lady Liberty’.

There is also something specific to the traditions of Republican Chinese nationalism in the expression guomu, for this is a phrase clearly modelled on the official term by which Sun Yat‐sen is known in Taiwan: ‘guofu‘ [Father of the Nation]. The origins of this ‘Mother of the Nation’ idea were obvious to observers in Taiwan, too. ‘The KMT had no “Mother of the Nation”‘, argued the columnist Sun Qingyu, ‘and as the real “Mother of the Nation”, Song Qingling [the wife of Sun Yat‐sen], had long since joined the communists, May‐ling Soong was granted the title “Mother of the Nation”‘. By being (unofficially) made ‘Mother of the Nation’, then, Madame Chiang was not only replacing Song Qingling as the female equivalent of Sun Yat‐sen, she was also claiming a title the likes of which her husband had never been able to acquire. In fact, it is noteworthy that attempts to attach phrases such as Jiang Mama and guomu to Madame Chiang came just as wider public debates surrounding the use of the phrase ‘Father of the Nation’, and its applicability to Sun Yat‐sen, emerged in Taiwan. Perhaps by inventing this matriarchal phrase, groups who felt a particular affinity to the Chinese nationalism that the Chiang family had once promoted—that is, supporters of the KMT—were thus making a statement about the rise of independence sentiments in Taiwan.

In any case, such posthumous ‘maternalisation’ betrayed links to a Nationalist tradition of personality cults in which national leaders were conflated with parents, or referred to by ‘terms of affection’. Indeed, Chiang Kai‐shek is still referred to by many of his admirers in Taiwan as ‘Jiang Gong‘ [Uncle Chiang], a phrase that became popular in the leader’s final years, promoted with particular vigour after his death in 1975. Similarly, supporters of another of Taiwan’s former presidents, Lee Teng‐hui, have seen fit to refer to their mentor affectionately as ‘Ahoe be‘ [Uncle A‐hui] since his retirement from office.

In light of such precedents, the reinvention of Madame Chiang as Mother Chiang is neither surprising nor unusual. Yet it does suggest that something rather interesting was happening. The use of this phrase was not, by and large, a state action. Instead, it appears to have been favoured by individuals claiming genuine affection for Madame Chiang, but who were also articulating—through her—an attachment to the early‐Republican Chinese nationalism often centred in the person of Sun Yat‐sen.

The KMT’s Response

For the residents of Taipei, one of the most visible objects of commemoration to appear in the days immediately following the death of Madame Chiang came in the form of a large photomontage canvas draped from the front of the KMT’s party headquarters on Chungshan South Road. This canvas featured a photographic portrait of Madame Chiang, superimposed over an image of her addressing the United States Congress in 1943. It portrayed her in a combative pose—her mouth agape as she spoke from a podium—akin to that a contemporary Taiwanese legislator might make at an electoral rally. So whilst Madame Chiang‐as‐matriarch was the posthumous image that prevailed amongst some groups (particularly those who had received assistance from Chiang‐sponsored bodies), a far different picture emerged from the KMT. For the party once governed by her husband, Madame Chiang represented not simply a loyal wife to the Generalissimo, but a politician in her own right.

The phrase that came to be attached to this image was ‘the eternal First Lady’ [‘yongyuan de diyi furen‘], with many politicians and celebrities close to the KMT and its opposition allies making use of it in statements about her. Indeed, the phrase was adopted for the title of a documentary broadcast on the KMT‐owned China Television Corporation just days after her death. ‘Not only was she an outstanding female politician in modern Chinese history’ lamented James Soong, Chairman of the People First Party and candidate for the Vice Presidency, ‘in the eyes of the people of our country, she was also the eternal First Lady’.

As Taiwan’s (or Republican China’s) ‘eternal First Lady’, Madame Chiang was being lauded primarily for her connections to Chiang Kai‐shek. Yet this also represented a means of stressing the idea that Madame Chiang had not only been a symbol, but had just importantly been a politically‐active agent—a person who had made use of the office she had gained through marriage to achieve political goals. Madame Chiang’s main contributions were said to be those provided in war. Emphasis was thus placed upon her success in garnering American support for the Nationalist war effort in the 1940s, and in her verbal attacks on communism in the 1950s and 1960s. Specific incidents in which she was purported to have displayed courage were highlighted, with the Xi’an incident of 1936 (in which Madame Chiang apparently saved her husband’s life) being particularly popular. Elsewhere, much was made of Madame Chiang in Soviet‐occupied Manchuria, strutting along the ice‐covered streets of Harbin in stilettos and a cheongsam while castigating Soviet troops for occupying Chinese land.

There was nothing particularly new in any of this. As Diana Lary has revealed in her work on the wartime depiction of Madame Chiang as a ‘loyal consort’ of Chiang Kai‐shek, this image has something of a history. Although never attaining a comparable status to that of other dictators’ spouses (such as Elena Ceausescu, for instance), Madame Chiang did claim a peripheral role in the official Chiang Kai‐shek cult, being presented as someone who ‘added luster to the brilliance of the President’s benevolence and virtues’. Moreover, much of the vocabulary that was summoned up in posthumous veneration of the ‘eternal First Lady’ was that which had been associated with Madame Chiang in earlier eras. For example, the concept of ‘furen waijiao‘ [Spouse diplomacy]—diplomacy undertaken on behalf of leaders by their spouses—had been virtually invented by Madame Chiang through her efforts in the 1940s.

Furthermore, the KMT, together with organisations such as the National Women’s League, had already started to reinterpret Madame Chiang along similar lines even before her death. Madame Chiang as fearless patriot, orator and stateswoman was a theme that emerged in a conference held in her honour in early 1999 by the KMT’s Chungcheng Cultural and Educational Foundation and the National Women’s League. Topics covered included Madame Chiang’s work in diplomacy, her role in the ‘national renaissance’ [minzu fuxing] and her ‘thought and beliefs’. In all of this, Madame Chiang was presented as a political individual concerned with issues of national and international importance.

As a party which no longer held power, and had been forced to learn how to campaign for democratic election if it ever hoped to regain power, the post‐authoritarian KMT found this image particularly useful in late 2003. By focusing on the war years and the early postwar period—a time when Madame Chiang was the most influential politically, yet which was temporally distant enough from the present to avoid any risk of controversy—the KMT was choosing a very particular version of Madame Chiang, one which suited its immediate needs. Just months before the 2004 presidential election, a young and aggressive Madame Chiang was precisely the sort of image with which the party sought to associate itself, the implication being that the determination of the ‘eternal First Lady’ was something that Taiwanese polity had lost under the Chen administration. The message was simple: only when the heirs to Chiang Kai‐shek (namely, the KMT) regained power could the dignity and bravery that the ‘eternal First Lady’ embodied finally be restored.

Celebrating May‐ling Soong

The idea of Madame Chiang as the ‘eternal First Lady’ was projected further in an exhibition of artefacts inherited from Madame Chiang by the National Women’s League and shipped to Taiwan in 2004. Held (aptly, perhaps) in Taipei’s National Dr. Sun Yat‐sen Memorial Hall, the exhibition consisted of two separate chambers. In the first, visitors listened to recordings of Madame Chiang’s speeches and admired the honorary degrees, medals and awards she had been presented within the course of her official duties. Yet in an adjoining room, a very different vision of Madame Chiang was displayed. Alongside cheongsams and handbags that she had owned was a re‐creation of her living room as it existed in the Chiangs’ Taipei residence; beside paintings in her name lay cabinets displaying her jewellery. In contrast to the ‘eternal First Lady’, this was a refined yet apolitical wife—one who enjoyed primarily domestic pursuits.

The contrast inherent in the two halves of this exhibition was demonstrative of the two very different ways in which the National Women’s League went about commemorating its mentor. Whilst the League looked upon Madame Chiang as very much a political leader, it acknowledged that she was admired for quite different reasons amongst sections of the Taiwanese public. Indeed, it was apparent that, despite the highly ritualistic ways in which the government, the KMT and other official and quasi‐official groups marked the passing of Madame Chiang, a parallel and popular veneration of Madame Chiang—one that shunned the sombre mood of government and party ritual—was also emerging, much of it played out not merely in the aforementioned exhibition, but on the island’s television networks and in magazines.

Madame Chiang’s death also inspired the production of a plethora of popular television programmes, almost all of which shared a particular idea about what Madame Chiang represented. Take, for example, the documentary‐cum‐talk show, ‘A Secret Record of May‐ling Soong Chiang’, broadcast on the cable news station CTiTV on 1 November 2003. Rather than examining the political role played by Chiang, the programme focused almost exclusively on the private life of its subject. The Chiang family tailor was interviewed, and former ladies‐in‐waiting were asked about skincare techniques they had exchanged with the First Lady.

In this and other accounts, the tone was one of admiration for the style and urbanity that the First Lady epitomised, with the details of her daily life taking precedence over politics. Indeed, the very fact that many of these programmes sought to make use of their subject’s maiden name—May‐ling Soong—rather than ‘Madame Chiang’ was a statement in itself, suggesting that Chiang/Soong was being lauded for her personal merits rather than those she had acquired through marriage. This was not Madame Chiang being mourned, but May‐ling Soong being celebrated. She was praised for her lifestyle instead of her ideas or deeds. Here was a woman who exercised impeccable and educated taste through wealth: the cable news network TVBS reported her habit of drinking coffee worth $37 a cup; the China Times Weekly wrote of her collection of expensive antiques and artworks; ETTV hosted chat shows at which urban myths about her extravagance—such as the theory that Madame Chiang had once had a pair of shoes decorated with precious stones found in the coffin of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi—were discussed.

In the island’s tabloids, May‐ling Soong emerged as a celebrity. Indeed, she was often associated with other wealthy (and westernised) stars from the world of Chinese entertainment. In a bizarre case of life imitating art, actresses who had either played Madame Chiang or had been offered parts in film and television depictions of her, were asked about their reactions to her death. The mainland Chinese actress Gong Li, for instance, expressed regret about having passed up the opportunity of playing Madame Chiang in the film The Soong Sisters. Furthermore, as May‐ling Soong, Madame Chiang’s connections to Republican Chinese or contemporary Taiwanese nationhood were de‐emphasised. Indeed, her affluence was linked to her Americanness (that is, her foreignness) and her physical distance from Taiwan. Television commentators lauded her fluency in English and suggested deficiencies in her spoken Chinese, for example.

Interestingly, prior to her death, these same qualities had often drawn criticism—a point that many of the people involved in the posthumous examination of Madame Chiang have noted. ‘As far as I knew’, wrote the television director Zeng Wenzhen, when pondering what the former First Lady had represented to her earlier in life, ‘May‐ling Soong had been born into a wealthy family of compradors, had studied in the United States from an early age and spoke fluent English’. Yet for Zeng, such qualities had once been a cause for hostility: ‘Looking at this “First Lady”, I could not help feeling that my people had been betrayed’. For Zeng, Madame Chiang, alive and wealthy in New York in the 1990s, had appeared distant, aloof and disloyal to both Taiwan and the Republican China she had once helped defend.

Yet in death, it was precisely this association with wealth, foreignness and aloofness that was lauded by Taiwan’s popular media, and defended by commentators such as Shi Yonggang and Lin Bowen—authors of a popular biography of Madame Chiang published (in Hong Kong) literally days after her death. For these writers, Madame Chiang’s pampered life in New York was something to which she was entitled. ‘The outside world often debated the extravagance of May‐ling Soong’s lifestyle’ they argue,

but her living standard was the least that any wealthy family could be expected to maintain, and she did nothing wrong. Anyone who is able to make money also has the right to eat and dress well. To deliberately describe her [i.e., Madame Chiang] as simply a delicate lady is to do nothing but continue a tradition of discrimination against attractive and powerful women.

For many members of the Taiwanese middle‐class, especially those based in Taipei, it was this image of Madame Chiang that emerged as the most enduring of all—the ‘attractive’ and ‘powerful’ daughter of a comprador, a ‘symbol of the urban, foreign‐educated upper class’. As someone who spoke English fluently, was arguably more at ease in New York than in Taipei and could claim an American education, Madame Chiang represented a way of life currently aspired to by wealthier sections of Taipei society. Indeed, in stressing her links to the United States rather than Taiwan, it can even be argued that this image was being celebrated as a deliberate affront to the Taiwanese nationalism espoused by the island’s current leadership, as well as the Chinese nationalism of the Cold‐War years.

Ironically, this celebration of Madame Chiang as the quintessential westernised and wealthy woman drew partly on war‐time propaganda designed for the American market, one in which Madame Chiang’s sophistication and compradorial roots in pre‐revolutionary Shanghai were emphasised in an effort to attract western support. Madame Chiang’s ‘famous chic’ was celebrated extensively by Emily Hahn, for instance, in her book The Soong Sisters.

Yet I would argue that this must also be understood as a reaction to current trends in Taiwan. Coming in an era when expressions of Taiwanese independence are politically ascendant, Madame Chiang’s incarnation as May‐ling Soong offered a reminder of an alternative vision of what Taiwan (and China) might have become had democratisation and localisation never taken place. Whilst the KMT chose to promote their own version of Republican China through a young and militant Madame Chiang, sections of the Taipei middle‐class instead sought to celebrate May‐ling Soong in the period before her betrothal to the Generalissimo or after her retirement from politics, and since her physical departure from Asia. Markedly, they also chose to base this celebration on class rather than ethnicity or nation, stressing Chiang/Soong’s consumption and possessions as opposed to her nationality. Not only was the commercial media’s May‐ling Soong/Madame Chiang stylish and wealthy, she had also chosen to absent herself from the political debates concerning nationhood and ‘national consciousness’ that have raged in Taiwan since the 1990s.


In the field of Taiwan studies, there is a tendency to view the residual elements of authoritarianism persisting on the island as unimportant in the grander narrative of democratisation. The recent history of the island is dissected into two distinct periods: the martial‐law era under the rule of the Chiangs, and a post‐authoritarian era of democratisation. In turn, Republican Chinese nationalism has been viewed as an increasingly marginal ideology in the face of rising pro‐independence sentiments in Taiwan.

Yet events like the death of Madame Chiang Kai‐shek force us to re‐assess these assumptions. They suggest that the same political symbols forced upon the Taiwanese population under authoritarianism have not disappeared with the advent of democracy. Rather, political reform has seen such symbols dispersed and, in turn, appropriated and recycled by various groups—the government, political parties, the commercial media and sections of society that benefited (or believe they benefited) from state‐sponsored support under the years of the Chiang dictatorship—for their own specific purposes. The result is a situation in which different groups vie for control of the icons and symbols of former personality cults in attempting to make new statements about Taiwan’s past and future. The once monolithic adoration of ‘the leader’ is thus transformed into a series of conflicting narratives. Indeed, the vigour with which different groups have sought to employ the language and imagery of personality cults in contemporary Taiwan would, of itself, suggest that the residue of these cults remain powerful tools today.

This raises questions not only about the ways in which Taiwan is studied, but also about the nature of post‐authoritarian and post‐totalitarian societies more generally. In particular, it challenges the distinction sometimes made between ‘political religion’ (often associated with totalitarian regimes), and ‘civil religion’ (often associated with liberal democracies) in such societies. The recycling of the aesthetic and ritualistic elements of the Chiang Kai‐shek personality cult in the posthumous commemoration of Madame Chiang demonstrate that, as Emilio Gentile has argued, ‘this distinction is not always clear and precise’. By attempting to work elements of Nationalist personality cults into state commemorations of Madame Chiang, Taiwan’s democratic leadership shows how easily elements of a totalitarian political religion can be transformed into something much more akin to the civil religion we are most often accustomed to witnessing in the societies of contemporary Western Europe and North America.

Moreover, the Taiwanese middle‐class’ continued fascination with the domestic habits of a late dictator’s spouse, as well as the substantial amount of commercial news coverage that has been dedicated to Madame Chiang’s extravagance, wealth and general lifestyle, also suggest that charisma—accepted by many scholars as a key element of personality cults and totalitarian political religions—can well outlive the ideology once underpinning it. In Taiwan’s case, it may even be argued that the charismatic image of Madame Chiang as a woman of means and taste has replaced the ideology of Republican Chinese nationalism once espoused by the KMT.

In any case, different interpretations of Madame Chiang and her death tell us more about the organisations and individuals in Taiwan who invent and promote them than they do about the former First Lady herself. For the government, the appropriation of rituals and hagiography represents a means of usurping the expressions of power once monopolised by Chiang Kai‐shek. For the KMT—now in opposition—the war‐time portrayal of a militant First Lady suited electoral needs. For others, the language of veneration that was once compulsory could now be used to express genuine grief. And for the commercial media, the unquestioned fascination that the Chiang family still inspires in Taiwan (and especially in Taipei) is reflected in media portrayals aimed at the Taipei‐based middle class—sections of which are perhaps more concerned with the accumulation of wealth and relocation to the United States than with the contributions their mentor once made to China or Taiwan. Only in death could Madame Chiang be made to say so much.