By Connor Hasegawa

In 1937, TIME magazine named Soong May-ling co-person of the year alongside her husband, Chiang Kai-shek.[1] Seventy-three years later, Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong, was named one of the twenty-five most influential women in the past century.[2] While the recognition of these two Chinese women by an American news magazine highlights their tremendous influence, it also demonstrates the power of nepotism to thrust an individual from obscurity into the upper echelon of politics. Nepotism plays an important role in dictatorship. Family members of dictators are often appointed to political posts, appointed as successors, or possess great influence on government from an unofficial capacity. Despite the power and privilege that nepotism can grant to family members, it alone is not enough for them to remain in power. Just as even the closest advisors of a dictator might fall from grace and be purged, so too can family members see their fortunes reversed. While family connections are important to the acquisition of power in a dictatorship, holding on to power still requires political maneuvering. To demonstrate the complex nature of nepotism in dictatorship, I will examine how scholars have viewed Jiang Qing and Soong May-ling. Though both of these women were able to achieve a great deal of power through their relationship with their husbands, to say that this alone was responsible for the influence they held in the governments of China would be insufficient.

Scholars such as Ross Terrill and Karen Leong have demonstrated that Soong and Jiang were both politically skilled and played important roles in their own rise to power. While they were capable of being trusted advisors helping their husbands rule, they were also capable of challenging their husbands and using them to promote their own interests. Soong and Jiang demonstrate that the placement of family members into positions of political power is neither inherently positive or negative; both women aided and at times antagonized their husbands. Regardless of whether the influence of Jiang and Soong was beneficial to their husbands’ rule, they were able to use their family connections to wield greater power than most women would have been able to and used their influence to impact the history of China and the everyday lives of people.

To understand the role that nepotism plays in dictatorships, it is important to first define it. For the purpose of this paper, I will use the definition of nepotism put forth by Ketan Mhatre, Ronald Riggio, and Heidi Riggio in their article “Nepotism and Leadership,” which defines the term as “unfair displays of favoritism by a leadership source… that are based on kinship.”[3] In their discussion of leadership and nepotism, Mharte, Riggio, and Riggio note that there is “an obvious link” between the two concepts which has existed for thousands of years and despite its negative connotation, it can be advantageous to leaders in a number of ways.[4] The most significant of these advantages is that nepotism allows for a leader to take advantage of an existing relationship of trust without having to find someone to fill a role and develop trust. It is important to note that nepotism is not unique to dictatorships nor is it a thing of the past. Even in modern democratic societies, nepotism continues to occur in politics and business. For example, in the United States a majority of businesses are still family owned, spouses can be appointed to complete the terms of elected officials, and the children of politicians are often fast tracked through the ranks of political parties. Nevertheless, as we will see through the examples of Jiang and Soong, the impact of nepotism on government and the everyday lives of people is greatest in dictatorial regimes.

With this definition of nepotism in mind, I will now use the examples of Soong and Jiang to demonstrate the complex nature of family relationships in authoritarian politics. Though their husbands were political rivals, Soong and Jiang shared a number of things in common. First, both Jiang and May-ling were able to reach a level of political power that only a handful of women in Chinese history had been able to attain. In his book The White-Boned Demon, Ross Terrill states that Jiang “came to wield more power than any woman in the history of Communist politics anywhere,” while Sterling Seagrave argues in The Soong Dynasty that Soong was one of the most powerful women in history and recognized as the “power behind the throne of Nationalist China.”[5] In addition to their power, both women were also faced with what Terrill has described as an “entrenched anti-feminism” that existed in Chinese society.[6] He argues that in China, women who held high political positions tended to be viewed as “a high-class prostitute who had used her feminine charms to get power.”[7] There was similarity in Jiang and Soong’s choice of husband as well. Both women chose husbands who were rising politically but significantly older, and faced opposition to their marriage. For Soong, this opposition came from members of her family, and for Jiang, opposition to her marriage came from Chinese Communist Party. The most significant similarity between Jiang and Soong, however, was their roles as both allies and adversaries to their husbands. As political wives, Soong and Jiang were at times key supporters of their husbands, but were also capable of challenging their husbands to promote their own ideas and further their own interests.

In some ways the influence that Soong held in China’s Nationalist government was beneficial to Chiang. She aided her husband in a number of ways during his reign as leader of the Kuomintang. Before Chiang’s defeat by the Chinese Communist Party, Soong served as Chiang’s confidante, providing him with advice and acting as a trustworthy listener with whom he felt that he could safely discuss sensitive matters.[8] Soong’s American education also meant that unlike her husband, she was fluent in English and thus was able to serve as his translator for his communication with his Western allies. In addition to serving as an interpreter and confidante, Soong also played an important role as an ambassador to the United States. In The China Mystique, Karen Leong argues that Soong’s familiarity with the United States and Christian faith enabled her to gain support from the American public and that her “image as an active and independent woman reflected positively on China’s political transformation.”[9] As a result of her popular appeal, Leong suggests that Soong came to symbolize a number of different things to the American public, including “China’s new womanhood,” the potential for modernization, and even the nation itself.[10] In addition to her addresses to the American public, Soong also met privately with politicians and reiterated the need for American aid and military intervention.[11] The perception of Soong as a westernized Chinese woman who shared power with her husband not only generated popular support for the Nationalists, it also helped to hide the dictatorial nature of Chiang’s rule. This perception was reinforced by Soong’s speeches, such as “To my Alma Mater: to America,” which was broadcast from Chongqing in 1942. In this speech, Soong emphasizes democracy, placing Nationalist China among “the other Democracies” and describing herself as a believer in China’s democratic allies.[12] Regardless of how much power Soong wielded, Leong argues that the popular perception of Chiang and Soong’s relationship “did much to contradict claims that he might be yet another Oriental warlord simply relying on martial law to maintain his power.”[13]

Jiang’s greatest contribution to her husband was her role in the Cultural Revolution. Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s, Mao was forced to share his power with other members of the party who possessed a different vision of China’s future than his own. Faced with challenges to his power from Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, Mao turned to his wife for support and she became a greater influence on him than ever before. In addition to using the Cultural Revolution as a tool to take revenge on those who Jiang felt she had been wronged by, she also targeted Mao’s enemies. Jiang’s targeting of intellectuals and scholars pleased Mao, and through the revolution he was able to force Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping from power.[14] Though Jiang alone was not the sole director of the Cultural Revolution, Terrill argues that without her the event might never have taken place.[15]

While Soong’s Western appeal and knowledge of English made her an invaluable asset to Chiang, she was also capable of being antagonistic toward her husband and using him to express her own political ideas. This can be seen in Soong’s translations of Chiang’s words into English, which often carried with them her own opinions and ideas. For example, in the broadcast of one of Chiang’s translated speeches entitled “Morale Plus Equipment,” Soong followed Chiang’s appeal to the United States for supplies with a speech of her own, which dismissed accusations of the Kuomintang government failing to fully commit its resources to fighting the Japanese and instead hoarding supplies for a future war with the Chinese communists.[16] Though it seems unlikely that Chiang would have disagreed with Soong’s opinion, she nevertheless used his speech as a platform to make her own voice heard. Another example of how Soong’s interpreting was able to influence perceptions of Chiang occurred during the Cairo conference, when her desire to make “Chiang’s remarks as positive as possible” to his allies resulted in British leaders believing that Chiang was supportive of a British war plan that he actually opposed.[17] While serving as Chiang’s English voice allowed her to promote her own interests through the manipulation of his words, Soong was also capable of allying herself with Chiang’s rivals to achieve her aims. Despite the difficulties that Chiang had working with the American General Stilwell, Soong pressured her husband to make every effort to cooperate with him and according to Stilwell, even went as far as to ally with him against her husband at times.[18]

Like Soong, Jiang also found that her status as Mao’s wife was not enough to implement her own political ideas. She needed political maneuvering to promote her own interests against the wishes of Mao and the CCP. For example, the protest over her marriage to Mao resulted in Jiang being banned from participation in politics by the CCP. To overcome this, Jiang used her intimate relationship with Mao to compensate for her exclusion. She was able to serve as Mao’s secretary and she was perceived by party members as having a strong influence on Mao’s opinions, despite rarely participating in political discussion.[19] The restriction on Jiang’s political participation was eventually lifted, though Terrill suggests that she continued to face opposition both from her own husband and from the party, and that the positions she was able to hold were “wrench[ed] from extremely reluctant hands.”[20] Jiang also sought to reinvent her identity and distance herself from her non-revolutionary past as a way to secure her power. Following her marriage to Mao, she changed her name from Lan Ping to Jiang Qing, a revolutionary moniker that signified a new stage in her life.[21] Jiang also desired to present her own image of herself to international audiences as well. Without the permission of Mao, she met with historian Roxane Witke for a series of interviews.[22] As a result, Witke’s book, Comrade Chiang Ch’ing, provides readers a unique insight into how Jiang desired to be viewed by others. For example, in a description of her childhood, Jiang states that“[n]ot only did I hate the landlords of China, but I also felt a spontaneous sense of resistance against foreign countries, because foreign devils from both the East and the West used to bully us.”[23] This autobiographical account of Jiang’s early years stands in stark contrast with Terrill’s description of Jiang as a political hypocrite in her youth. Jiang also used Witke to portray the circumstances of her marriage to Mao in a more favourable light. In the version of events presented by Witke, under the authorization of Jiang, Mao was already divorced from his third wife, who is described as a child-beating psychopath, when he and Jiang met.[24] Through claims such as, “I like to work among the masses,” and “I knew I wanted to resist Japan,” Jiang used Witke’s book as a platform to present herself as an unquestionably loyal communist in spite of a questionable political past.[25]

As influential members of their husband’s regimes, the actions of Jiang and Soong affected the lives of ordinary people. Despite the huge impact that Jiang had on people’s everyday lives, Terrill argues that she thought little about the impact her actions had on the masses she claimed to represent. Through the Cultural Revolution, Jiang’s thoughts and ideas pervaded the arts. Books and films that Jiang disagreed with were banned and the careers of officials and artists throughout China were ruined.[26] Consumers of culture found the traditional operas, ballets, films, and literature they had enjoyed replaced with state-approved proletarian works.[27] Soong also expressed little concern for the lives of ordinary people despite her lobbying for the United States to provide greater assistance to the Chinese people. Leong argues that although Soong made efforts to improve the lives of the Chinese people, she was unwilling to do anything that threatened her family’s power or Chiang’s control of the government.[28]

Jiang and Soong demonstrate that in an authoritarian government, nepotism is a double-edged sword. At times, both women were key political allies to their husbands. Soong played the important roles of ambassador, interpreter and confidante for Chiang, while Jiang helped her husband overcome challenges to his authority through her role in the Cultural Revolution. Scholarship has shown that Jiang and Soong were not simply privileged wives, but capable political participants in their own right. Though nepotism might have served as an initial route to power for Jiang and May-ling, maintaining their power and influence required them to do more than simply act as supportive wives to their husbands. Once in power, both women promoted their own interests and used their husbands to turn their ideas into state policy. It is difficult to imagine that without their combination of political skill, personal ambition, and nepotistic privilege, Jiang Qing or Soong May-ling would have ever been able to grace the covers of TIME magazine.

Works Cited

Dragani, Rachelle. “The 25 Most Powerful Women of the Past Century”. TIME. Nov. 2010. http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2029774_2029776_2031838,00.html.

Heiferman, Ronald Ian. The Cairo Conference of 1943: Roosevelt, Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company: 2011.

Leong, Karen J. The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Levenstein, Joan. “Person of the Year: A Photo History.” TIME. http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2019712_2019710_2019671,00.html

Mharte, Ketan H., Ronald E. Riggio, and Heidi R. Riggio. “Nepotism and Leadership,” in

Nepotism in Organizations. Edited by Robert G. Jones. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Seagrave, Sterling. The Soong Dynasty. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Soong, May-ling. “Morale plus Equipment,” in We Chinese Women. New York: The John Day Company, 1943.

Soong, May-ling. “To my Alma Mater: to America,” in We Chinese Women. New York: The John Day Company, 1943.

Taylor, Jay. The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 2009.

Terrill, Ross. The White Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong, (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1984.

Witke, Roxane. Comrade Chiang Ch’ing. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company, 1977.

[1] Joan Levenstein, “Person of the Year: A Photo History,” TIME, http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2019712_2019710_2019671,00.html

[2] Rachelle Dragani, “The 25 Most Powerful Women of the Past Century”, TIME, Nov 2010, http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2029774_2029776_2031838,00.html

[3] Ketan H. Mharte, Ronald E. Riggio, and Heidi R. Riggio, “Nepotism and Leadership,” in Nepotism in Organizations, ed. Robert G. Jones (New York: Routledge, 2012), 175.

[4] Ibid., 172.

[5] Ross Terrill, The White Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong, (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1984), 19. Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty, (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 9.

[6] Terrill, White-Boned Demon, 354.

[7] Ibid., 17-18.

[8] Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 2009), 76.

[9] Karen J. Leong, The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 117, 124.

[10] Ibid., 106, 118.

[11] Ronald Ian Heiferman, The Cairo Conference of 1943: Roosevelt, Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company: 2011), 25.

[12] Soong May-ling, “To my Alma Mater: to America,” in We Chinese Women, (New York: The John Day Company, 1943), 40-41.

[13] Leong, The China Mystique, 126.

[14] Terrill, The White-Boned Demon, 258.

[15] Ibid., 298.

[16] Soong May-ling, “Morale plus Equipment,” in We Chinese Women, (New York: The John Day Company, 1943), 37-38.

[17] Taylor, The Generalissimo, 248.

[18] Ibid., 201, 237.

[19] Terrill, The White-Boned Demon,160.

[20] Ibid., 188.

[21] Ibid., 160.

[22] Ibid., 321.

[23] Roxane Witke, Comrade Chiang Ch’ing (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1977), 46.

[24] Ibid., 160-161.

[25] Ibid., 150-151

[26] Terrill, White-Boned Demon, 260.

[27] Ibid., 251.

[28] Leong, The China Mystique, 127.