Six lives that shaped China

From an iconic ancient sage to a taboo-smashing feminist novelist, Rana Mitter profiles six Chinese men and women who left an indelible mark on their country's tumultuous history...

Husband and wife Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling (Madame Chiang), pictured at their wedding in 1928. The pair “dominated Chinese politics for two decades [and] were among the most prominent non-westerners on the planet throughout the 1930s and 1940s”, says Rana Mitter. (Photo by Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The power couple

Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling (1887–1975 / 1898–2003)

The husband-wife partnership of Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong Mei-ling (Madame Chiang) achieved that rarest of feats among the people of China in the first half of the 20th century: they made waves on the world stage. In fact, the couple, who dominated Chinese politics for two decades, were among the most prominent non-westerners on the planet throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Chiang Kai-shek rose to power in the 1920s as a follower of Sun Yat-sen, the great Chinese revolutionary who had spent the final years of the 19th century plotting the overthrow of China’s Qing dynasty. After Sun died in 1925, Chiang took over the leadership of China’s Nationalist (Kuomintang) party through his deft – and often violent – command of military force. He established a fragile new Chinese government in 1928, but only after he had had his former communist allies murdered in vicious purges in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

In the same year, Chiang married a woman whose experience was far removed from his own. He was a product of rural China; she was the daughter of a prominent family with overseas Chinese trading connections, educated at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and someone who was teased that her English was better than her Chinese.

Their greatest test would come in the years 1937–45, when Chiang Kai-shek led China’s war effort against the Japanese. This was China’s phase of the Second World War, in which more than 10 million Chinese were killed and nearly 10 times as many became refugees. During these years, Chiang became a global political heavyweight, sitting alongside Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Cairo Conference in November 1943, where the future of postwar Asia was debated.

By Chiang’s side was Soong Mei-ling (who, remarkably, would live in three centuries), her husband’s interpreter to the outside world. Earlier in 1943, she had given speeches about China’s war effort to the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington, only the second woman ever to address both houses of Congress.

Chiang’s regime did not last. Corrupted and weakened, it survived until 1945 but was defeated by Mao’s communists in 1949. But during the war years, Chiang and Soong Mei-ling were more visible than any other Asian politicians in the world.

The heavenly patriot

Li Qingzhao (1084–1151)

Many poets are remembered after they die, but not many have an impact crater named after them on the planet Venus. One such is Li Qingzhao, who lived during the late Song dynasty. Li Qingzhao grew up as part of China’s culture of highly regulated court bureaucracy. Her husband’s position as a senior official offered her access to a world of high culture – an opportunity she exploited with relish.

Li learned many of the great Chinese classics by heart, and became an expert on the calligraphy and epigraphy (study of ancient inscriptions) that were part of the body of knowledge that defined civilised society at the time. She also developed into a brilliant and renowned poet in her own right.

“Oh,” Li wrote later, “if only that life could have continued.” Unfortunately, it didn’t. The Song dynasty was a time of great political turmoil and, in 1127, a neighbouring people, the Jurchen, invaded, compelling the dynasty to flee its capital in the city of Kaifeng. Li’s beloved husband died of a disease early in the conflict and she was forced to wander for years, trying to preserve as much of her family’s collection of books and precious artefacts as possible, but to little avail. Within a few years there was nothing left but a handful of remnants.

Eventually Li settled down in the new capital of Hangzhou, but after an acrimonious divorce from a second husband, her reputation was now vulnerable. However, she took advantage of her new, lower status, to write a series of broadsides condemning the Song rulers for succumbing to the invaders. In doing so, she established a reputation as a true patriot that has lasted to the present day, along with her name as a poet of high distinction. Little wonder that the modern-day Chinese chose to name a heavenly object after her.

The subversive

Ding Ling (1904–86)

In 1927, China’s literary scene was struck by a sensational new character. Her name was Sophie, a young woman wracked by sexual longing, and determined to torment her reliable and rather dull boyfriend while lusting after a tall, handsome man she couldn’t have. Sophie broke a whole range of taboos about young Chinese women and how they should behave – and she became a literary phenomenon as a result.

Sophie was the creation of Jiang Bingzhi, who became known under her pen name of Ding Ling. She appeared during a brief flowering of liberal culture in China’s cities, known as the New Culture movement, which allowed for daring new thought about feminism and social change.

Ding Ling became involved with the leftwing literary scene in Shanghai and Beijing, but soon found herself on the run from the nationalist political authorities, who regarded people like her as dangerous subversives. By the 1940s, she had joined the communists under Mao Zedong, but even that didn’t spell an end to her troubles. After Mao’s victory in 1949, Ding Ling found herself in internal exile, forced to live in the remote countryside for decades because her views were considered ‘bourgeois’, dangerously individualistic and ‘rightist’.

Yet from the 1970s, Ding Ling was finally rehabilitated, and is remembered today as one of China’s most important feminist authors.

The moral compass

Confucius (551–479 BC)

If there was a competition for most famous Chinese person in history, Confucius would surely come out on top. He was the philosopher and ethicist who gave China a significant part of its cultural DNA. Not bad for a figure who, in his lifetime, was not exactly a roaring success in his chosen calling.

Kong Qiu (later Romanised to Confucius, ‘the master Kong’) was born into poverty in modern Shandong province in eastern China. His father died when he was young and Confucius grew up under his mother’s influence, studying hard and later earning a place at the local royal court.

Confucius lived during a period of immense political turmoil, and turned his mind to thinking about how the country could be made calmer and more prosperous. Instead of advocating force, he stressed the importance of rituals and ethical behaviour. It was important to behave in an ordered way; subjects should obey rulers, wives their husbands, children their parents. But this was not just about power: those who had dominant positions in the hierarchy were expected to show benevolence to those below and work hard for their welfare. If they did not, they would forfeit their right to demand obedience.

In his own time, Confucius didn’t have much luck in propagating his thought. He died as a minor official at court. But over the next few centuries, respect for his work grew. By the time of the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220), the government was drawing on his precepts to underpin ideas of stable and ethical government. For the next 2,000 years, Confucian thought would dominate Chinese statecraft. Even today, when the Chinese Communist party is in charge, there are frequent references in contemporary China to ideas such as ‘harmony’ – which would have seemed very familiar to the sage from Shandong.

The divine wordsmith

Kumarajiva (AD 334–413)

Millions of Chinese speak the words of Kumarajiva every day. Far fewer have any idea of who he was. Yet he was perhaps China’s most influential linguist: translating some of the most important Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. This was an enormous undertaking, as it involved dealing with 2 million Chinese characters.

Kumarajiva was born in Kucha, a central Asian oasis town now on the far western borders of China. His mother was a devout Buddhist and brought her son up as part of a travelling religious community. When he reached manhood, she decided to leave for India; he would never see her again.

Kumarajiva settled down into a life of contemplation as a Buddhist priest, but a series of invasions and occupations from the east saw him kidnapped not once but twice, finally ending up at the great Chinese city of Chang’an (modern Xi’an). There his linguistic skills were observed at court with admiration, and he was given the task of rendering some of the key Buddhist teachings, such as the Diamond Sutra, into a form that Chinese worshippers could understand and use.

It wasn’t always an easy task: Sanskrit and Chinese are very different linguistically, and at one point Kumarajiva complained that the translation work was like having to eat rice after someone had already chewed it.

But Kumarajiva’s work has endured. In today’s China, immense numbers of Buddhists use his texts. And even though his name has faded, Kumarajiva’s achievement is woven into the fabric of contemporary China.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford. His books include China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival (Penguin, 2014).

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Mitter will be exploring the lives of 20 of the most influential Chinese people in history in the series Chinese Characters on Radio 4 in April and May.