Blood and Ice: Mayling Soong Chiang by Helen Hull
I scored a couple Helen Hull (1888-1971) books from Popek’s Used Books (Michael published Forgotten Bookmarks discussed in an earlier post). One is #157 Landfall and the other #156 Mayling Soong Chiang.
According to the Feminist Press which reissued her early novels: Quest and The Islanders, Hull wrote 17 novels and 65 short stories (many of which have been published in books, including Uncommon People). She was from Albion, Michigan (in Michigan’s southern lower peninsula) and taught English and Creative Writing at Wellesley and Columbia Universities. I’m pretty amused to learn that she has a Facebook page – although it IS cool. I’m sure she’d be pleased… From her Facebook page, I learned that she was gay and lived with a long-term partner, Mabel Louise Robinson, also a faculty member. That’s interesting – I had been seeing a bit of discussion of her novels as “lesbian” literature and I mentioned in my discussion of Heat Lightning that I was surprised to see such open discussion of a lesbian in a book published in 1932.
During her early years at Wellesley, she happened to teach the young Mayling Soong Chiang – or, the Chinese way: Chiang Soong Mayling, later better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek. I’ll try to keep the Chinese history brief here and say that, after living in the US for ten years during which she went to K12 school and college, Mayling moved back to China and eventually married Chiang (the brother of Sun Yat Sen). Both Chiang and Sun were Chinese leaders from the 1920s into the late 1940’s when Kai-shek and Mayling fled the Communists for Taiwan. As you may remember, China endured many years of very bloody Japanese invasion, assault, and occupation in the 1930s and 40s when Mayling was “first lady.” American soldiers were stationed in China during World War II working with China to drive out the Japanese.
Mayling (1898-2003!) traveled to the US and Europe a number of times as a leader (and eventually bought a house and settled on Long Island, New York). In 1943 she made what was probably her most famous trip, she came to the United States to appeal for increased US assistance to China during World War II. She met with the Roosevelts, addressed Congress, spent time in the Western US, and visited Wellesley. Her trip was extensively covered in the media; she was beautiful, poised, loved America, and fluent in English, speaking with little accent; a powerful speaker; and she took America by storm. She had maintained strong and affectionate ties with Wellesley, sending them gifts, endowing a room, and following the careers of her favorite professors, including Hull whose novels she bought and read and enjoyed greatly.
Mayling as Madame Chiang (source: Women in power).
On her 1943 trip, she invited Hull to accompany her and they spent a great deal of time together. Since this was a very political trip aimed at raising support for China, I suspect that Mayling’s strategy for involving Hull was tied to the outcome of this published book: Mayling Soong Chiang that had the potential for supporting her cause and appears to have been quickly published in the same year as the trip. This little book (just 32 pages long) is a beautifully written description of her visit with special emphasis on her trip to Wellesley. During her February campus visit, the area experienced a terrible ice storm that created a lot of tension around getting her around safely (she had Secret Service accompaniment) and warmly.
From all accounts, Mayling was an incredibly dynamic, astute, strategic and charming woman. She had a knack for focusing intensive energy on her work (remembered from her student days as well) followed by collapses into exhaustion where she recouped her energy. In fact, her 1943 arrival in the US was immediately followed by a hospital stay – presumably for exhaustion, but perhaps something worse. Mayling had been accompanying her husband to the Chinese front lines, walking 20 miles a day up and down them, finding out what was going on and cheering up the troops. During these years, she saw bloody horrors beyond imagining – but she chose not to feature them during her visit. You can hear her address to the US Congress on the the Soong May-ling wikipedia page.
This lovely book is a very quick read and, as far as I know, the only nonfiction book Hull published. It is gorgeously written and an interesting entry point into a fascinating female leader and the very female world of Wellesley in the first half of the 20th Century.
Happy reading! Ruby