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Taiwan’s Madame Chiang Turns 100

March 10, 1998

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) _ With her legacy fading, Madame Chiang Kai-shek marked her 100th birthday on Tuesday, a milestone in the life of a woman once known to be Asia’s foremost anti-Communist symbol.

Madame Chiang celebrated the date quietly in New York, where she has lived for most of the 23 years since the death of her husband, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

The elderly in Taiwan still adore the U.S.-educated woman who used her graceful English and charm to help enlist America and other nations in her husband’s fight against the Japanese in the 1930s and later the Communists.

``Madame Chiang gained her prestige and influence because at that time she was among the privileged few to have access to good education and to power,″ said businessman Wen Ting-chung. ``There can’t be another first lady like her.″

But young Taiwanese view her life with a more critical eye in light of the virtual dictatorship her husband imposed on the island after the Communists ousted him from the mainland in 1949.

Lee Li-shing, a college student, praised Madame Chiang’s contributions to China, but added: ``She belongs to an old era, and her glory and importance have long faded.″

Born Soong Mayling, Madame Chiang became widely known in the West as a diplomat and spokeswoman. She headed the Chinese air force in the 1930s and sometimes was called the ``brains of China.″

After fleeing to Taiwan, Chiang declared Taiwan the seat of China’s true government, a claim that became less credible over the years as more countries, including the United States, recognized the Beijing government. Now, only 28 countries _ most of them small African nations _ acknowledge Taiwan.

Taiwan, however, can take pride in the democracy that has replaced Chiang’s authoritarian rule and a strong economy that is weathering Asia’s financial crisis well.

After Chiang died in 1975, his wife’s presence in Taiwan diminished as she aged. She last visited in 1995 to see an ailing niece.

She rarely gives interviews and did not immediately respond to a request by The Associated Press this week.

Her 100th birthday was celebrated last year in Taiwan, where people follow the Chinese calendar, which adds one year to a person’s total age. Her birthdate on the Western calendar is pegged to the Chinese calendar, and therefore changes from year to year. This year, it fell on Tuesday.

Followers in Taiwan say she is in good health, but did not want a fuss made over her birthday this year.

Nevertheless, some are marking her centenary, including The National Women’s League, which she founded. The group set up a $1.75 million Mayling Soong Professorship in Chinese Studies at her alma mater, Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

An official of the Women’s League, Chiao Wei-cheng said he recalled Madame Chiang rallying women to make uniforms for soldiers and clothes for kids in the 1950s.

``Now, people want to sever all links with the past, and don’t want to look back,″ he said. ``In those days, we lived under the constant threat of a Communist invasion. If we had practiced democracy then, we wouldn’t have survived to enjoy the prosperity we have today.″

Other people are more measured.

Many blame decades of diplomatic setbacks on the myth planted by Chiang that his government was the sole legitimate ruler of both Taiwan and China.

``We might not be in such a diplomatic limbo if it were not because of Chiang’s erroneous policy,″ said Chang Fu-mei, an official of the Taipei city government who handles public grievances.

``But Madame Chiang did not have a decisive role in those policies, and even people who once held grudges against her should now reconcile and wish her a happy centenary,″ said Chang, a member of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates independence from China.

Taipei city officials have opened the grounds of the once seclusive Chiang residence to the public. Visitors pose for pictures before western and Chinese-style gardens. Tour guides tell middle-age visitors that Madame Chiang was ``elegant and easygoing.″

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