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Madame Chiang Kai-shek dies

Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang in 1964.
Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang in 1964.

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NEW YORK -- Once considered the most powerful woman in China, Madame Chiang Kai-shek has died at her home in New York, aged 106.

Taiwan's representative in New York said Chiang passed away Thursday night at her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan.

"I was told by family members that she died very peacefully in her sleep," Andrew Hsia, Director-General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, said.

"Her niece, her niece's husband and her great-grandson were with her at the time of her passing."

Using her charm and fluent English, Madame Chiang lobbied Washington and became a driving force in Taiwan's nationalist government.

But her rise to prominence began when she married Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, also known as "the Generalisimo," in 1927, becoming one of the world's most famous couples.

Madame Chiang was born Soong May-ling in China's Kwangtung province.

Educated at Wellesley College and fluent in English, she introduced her husband to Western culture and converted him to Christianity.

"The only thing Oriental about me is my face," she once said.

The Nationalists, or Kuomintang (KMT), overthrew China's last dynasty, the Qing.

The American public became enamored with the glamorous Chiang, seen here in a 1940 file photo.
The American public became enamored with the glamorous Chiang, seen here in a 1940 file photo.

But pledges to modernize and bring democracy to China failed because of Japan's invasion of China and corruption within the government.

During World War II, Madame Chiang became a familiar face in the West, particularly in the United States, drumming up support for China's war against Japan.

Her husband could not speak English and hated talking with foreigners so Chiang took on the role of his spokesman, wowing world leaders and especially Washington.

In 1943, Chiang was the first Chinese and second woman to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

It was one of her most famous U.S. public appearances.

Using perfect English and clad in a traditional black Chinese dress, Madame Chiang tried to convince U.S. politicians that defeating Japan was more important than stopping Germany, and that U.S. forces should concentrate more on battling the Japanese in China.

The American public became enamored with Madame Chiang, and her name appeared annually on the U.S. list of the 10 most admired women in the world.

A stunning couple: Madame Chiang and her husband, the Generalisimo, in 1943.
A stunning couple: Madame Chiang and her husband, the Generalisimo, in 1943.

After WWII, the nationalists lost a civil war to Mao Tse-tung's Communist Party. After the 1949 communist revolution, the Chiangs fled to Taiwan with the nationalist forces where he remained in power until his death in 1975.

As the leader's health deteriorated, Chaing Ching-kuo, one of the Generalisimo's two sons from a previous marriage, took control of the Nationalist government.

Madame Chiang moved to New York after her husband's death in 1975, and her influence faded in recent years.

When U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced in 1978 that the United States was breaking off diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establishing formal relations with China, Chiang remained in seclusion and did not comment on the move.

Under the nationalist party, the Chiangs hoped one day to reunite with mainland China, after overthrowing the communists.

But the party eventually gave up that objective. The party's ranks gradually filled with those born in or native to Taiwan and the influence of mainlanders that fled the communists subsided.

In 2000, the KMT lost its five-decades long control of Taiwan's presidency to the Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian despite Madame Chiang endorsing the Nationalist candidate.

Under Taiwan's current leadership, the island favors independence.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and has warned the island's government that any move to declare formal independence will not be tolerated.

Madame Chiang is survived by the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Chiang Ching-kuo.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian has been informed of her death, and conveyed his condolences on behalf of the government.

-- CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy in Taiwan and Assignment Editor Jonathan Wald in New York contributed to this report

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