Emma and Mayling
When Wellesley unsealed the papers of Southport author Tom DeLong's cousin, Emma DeLong Mills, that included correspondence between Mills and Madame Chiang Kai-shek that spanned 70 years, he did what any prolific writer would do. He wrote a book.
"Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Miss Emma Mills: China's First Lady and Her American Friend," published by McFarland Press, focuses on the lifelong friendship between the two women, who met at college and graduated in 1917. Their friendship continued through personal visits both here in America and China and through their letter writing.
Emma saved the letters, along with speeches and press releases. This collection, which also included facts about Emma herself and various social and political programs in China at the time, were given to the Wellesley archives in 1988 after Emma's death in 1987 at age 93. However, Emma had requested the collection not to be made available to the public until after Mayling's death. She died in 2003 at 106.
Theirs was "a long and unique friendship between two classmates at a time of great history," said DeLong, during an interview in his home on Mill Hill Lane, where he has lived for more than a quarter of a century. Mayling Soong married Gen. Chiang Kai-shek in 1927.
Their friendship encompassed a period of great global war that involved the United States, Europe and the Far East. One of the book's focuses is the role the two women played in Chinese-American relations during World War II.
In addition to looking at the women's friendship during a period of great world development and change, DeLong chronicles the lives of the two college graduates who received an education at a time when women followed more traditional roles of wife and mother. Upon graduation, both women faced their own personal identity struggles. The two ambitious women represented a new freedom and independence of their gender in a new century with all its possibilities.
Upon her return to the Far East following graduation, Mayling began writing her former classmate, almost weekly. DeLong said she told of her activities, aspirations and frustrations, especially marriage versus a career "in the midst of adjusting to the confines of old China protocol and family duties and expectations."
Mayling came to America at the age of 10. Her father, Charlie Soong, a practicing Christian who had spent time in America, was convinced that China's youth would need progressive, western educations before returning to their homeland to take their places as leaders in the fields of government, education and engineering. After graduation, the young Chinese woman returned to her country and subsequently married the military general at age 30 and became the first lady of China's Kuomintang (National Party) administration. She played a role in bringing about China's entry into the United Nations Security Council and had an impact on the heritage of China.
Meanwhile, Emma dabbled in a number of careers, including that of a newspaper reporter and a tutor during her long stays in China, fueling her strong interest in the country. She took an active role in the American Bureau of Medical Aid to China and assisted Madame Chiang Kai-shek in her fund-raising efforts on behalf of Chinese war relief. During her many visits to the United States, China's first lady would summon Emma to her hotel room where DeLong's cousin would help Mayling with her fund-raising speeches.
DeLong said Eleanor Roosevelt was Madame Chiang Kai-shek's role model and she even began a correspondence with the U.S. first lady, who in 1943 invited Mayling to the White House. "Eleanor Roosevelt went out of her way for the Madame," said DeLong, who noted they shared a number of similarities. Both women reached out to the downtrodden. Both were interested in education and the welfare of the average citizen in their respective countries. And both were interested in peace. They both believed that "women have to stand up and keep the world at peace," he said.
In his book, DeLong writes: "Both women subscribed to the belief that education stood as a primary route through which progress is made toward the goal of useful citizenship for all people."
Why did he write the book? DeLong, who is the author of "John Lodge: a Life in Three Acts, Actor, Politician, Diplomat," said, "Writers of biography usually seek unpublished primary sources." The story of the friendship between these two unusual women has been "brewing in my heart for 10 years It's a great narrative." He added that there "have been no really full-blown, up-close biographies of Mayling and here she is an icon of the 20th century." She never wrote an autobiography, and she was never particularly cooperative with those who wrote about her.
"Her last biography was in 1940 pre-women's liberation," said DeLong, noting that his cousin and Mayling had graduated a prestigious college at a time when the choices for women were to be a housewife, secretary or a teacher. At that time, few became doctors or lawyers.
DeLong said his cousin, who was unmarried and lived in Manhattan, never really found her niche until her interest in China became a focal point of her life. In the 1960s, she became president of the Chinatown Council to help Chinese immigrants. On the other hand, Mayling wanted to marry the military general because she saw him as a source of power. She felt that being close to the source of power she could do a lot for the Chinese people.
While DeLong's book is not a military and political history, such history is portrayed as it impacts the friendship between these two women, both in search of a career and a cause. The two share a common bond in finding strength and purpose in their work for China.
© Copyright 2007 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.