The Future Madame Chiang Learns to Swim in Meredith

Unaware she would one day become a world leader, young Mei-ling Soong of China received her education in U.S. schools, including several summers spent on the shores of Meredith Bay. (Photo courtesy of Wesleyan College)

By Rudy VanVeghten

Of the many famous people to visit Meredith Bay, none gained more significance in worldly affairs than two Chinese sisters who early in the 20th century attended a Meredith summer school on Lake Winnipesaukee.

As events unfolded, one sister came to be known as “the mother of China.” Her sibling gained a reputation as “the most powerful woman in the world.”

These were the sisters Mei-ling and Ching-ling Soong, children of a wealthy Chinese family. In the U.S. to attend American schools, they certainly caused many heads to turn as the mingled among the residents of Meredith Village during the summers of 1908-1913.

To fully understand the lives of these two visitors, it is necessary to learn both their background and the embattled history of China during the first half of the 20th century.

Mei-ling and Ching-ling were two of six children of Charlie Jones Soong (1866-1918). Born Han Chiao-chun, Charlie was the scion of a merchant from Hainan island province in the South China Sea. Following an apprenticeship in the East Indies, the young man sailed to the U.S. to work in his uncle’s Boston teashop.

Determined to procure an American education, he linked up with a Coast Guard cutter and came under the influence of Captain Eric Gabrielson, who called Chiao-chun “Charles Sun.” In addition, the captain converted the young man to Christianity, teaching him the precepts of Methodism.

At an 1880 revival service in Wilmington, N.C., Charlie became the first oriental baptized in that state. Baptismal records list his Anglicized name as Charles Jones Soon (without the “g”). Now as a full member of the Christian community, Charlie laid plans to return to China as a missionary. To prepare for this, the Wilmington congregation arranged for Charlie’s education at Trinity (later Duke) and Vanderbilt universities.

Armed with an education and a new religion, Charlie returned to his native land and began spreading his Christian message in the Shanghai region. Here he met and wed Ni Kwei-tseng, who, like Charlie, was a Western-educated Christian. Before long, Charlie’s ministry grew with a related business—translating and printing Bibles in Chinese.

His business acumen also caught the attention of budding industrialists, and Charlie soon found himself involved as a prime mover of a Chinese pasta concern.

As Charlie’s business endeavors flourished, the couple (now with the name Soong) began raising a family. Their first child, born in 1890, was Ai-ling (meaning “pleasant mood”). Daughter Ching-ling (“happy mood”) followed in 1892, and son Tse-ven (later known as T.V. Soong) in 1894. A third daughter was born March 5, 1897 (some sources say 1898), and named Mei-ling (or “beautiful mood”). Completing the family of six children were two more sons, Tse-liang (T.L.) and Tse-an (T.A.).

Charlie’s Bible sales and industrial pursuits earned him a sizable fortune by 1900, a time when the old traditional ways of Chinese culture were increasingly challenged by Western influences (represented for example by Charlie Soong’s missionary work). The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was followed by the spread of revolutionary ideas promulgated by Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

Charlie Soong, himself involved with Dr. Sun’s progressive movement, realized how precarious the political situation had become and contrived to send his children off to America to continue their education.

Three Soong Sisters
The three Soong sisters (l. to r.), Ai-ling, Ching-ling, and Mei-ling. (Wikimedia Commons)

Methodist ties to Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., led to the Soongs’ choice of that establishment in 1904 for eldest child Ai-ling. Ching-ling and Mei-ling followed a few years later.

Charlie Soong visited the U.S. during 1905-06, principally to raise funds for Dr. Sun’s revolution. He also scouted out educational options for his two youngest daughters. He was referred to Clara Potwin’s private school in Summit, N.J., where Ajax Weng, godson of a Chinese friend, attended. Charlie made arrangements for Ching-ling and Mei-ling to enroll for the 1907-08 school year.

Various accounts indicate that Mei-ling either succeeded in getting her way to accompany sister Ching-ling through a fit of childish temper or, more probably, because her parents simply wanted her removed from the dangers of colliding cultures in China.


Meredith Connection

While at the Potwin school, located about 15 miles west of New York City, the two Soong sisters met Miss Harriet Moses, an educator from Meredith, N.H. During summer seasons, when regular school classes were suspended, Hattie Moses operated a summer school in the point of Meredith Bay now the site of the Meredith Moorings condominiums.

So during the summer of 1908, Miss Moses brought these two China dolls to the peaceful climes of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.

In the Meredith Historical Society collection “Reminiscences of Meredith,” Ruth Colby wrote about the time she was invited to the camp by her playmate Frances Moulton, a niece of Hattie Moses. “Some of her New York pupils attended it,” says Mrs. Colby. “Among them one summer were the Soong sisters, Mei-ling and Ching-ling. Frances invited me to go swimming one day, and the Soong sisters were there. I, of course, did not know that I was swimming with the future Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Her sister Ching-ling married Sun Yat-sen.”

Another account in the “Reminiscences” book is by Helen Swain, who recalled how everyone in town turned to watch the two Chinese young ladies cross Main Street. Certainly they were the most noticeable individuals in Meredith that summer.

After Mei-ling Soong (then Madame Chaing) had gained worldwide fame in the early 1940s, a former friend from Summit, N.J., published a letter she had received from the younger Soong sister. Postmarked Meredith, N.H., and dated July 8, 1908, the letter describes Mei-ling’s efforts learning to swim in Meredith Bay.

“Yesterday I was nearly drowned because the water came up to my neck, first I didn’t know for I am lying on the life preserver, but afterwards I wanted to stand up so I noticed that I was nearly drowned for nobody was near enough to pull me out until a Philadelphia girl caught me by the arm, but please don’t tell anybody for I am greatly ashamed. The rowing teacher said I know quite well how to row. My room is quite small one. Its cozy and cute… I like Frances Moulton very much, she is eleven years old, she lives next room to me we always go and get beautiful stones and shells, we always go to row together and pack berries and cherries together and always knock on each other’s wall…”

That fall, the two Soong sisters moved down to Wesleyan with their older sister Ai-ling. Ching-ling, then 16, entered college as a freshman. Mei-ling, 11, stayed with the college president and was tutored by a couple of faculty members who reported her to be a precocious, quick-tongued little prodigy. Wesleyan proudly treasures its matriculation book for 1908-09, the year all three Soong sisters were in residence there.

Ching-ling Soong
Ching-ling Soong shown at her studies at Wesleyan College in Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Wesleyan College)

Ai-ling graduated in 1909 and returned to Shanghai. She became a secretary to Sun Yat-sen, whose inroads against the old ruling Chinese dynasty were growing ever more powerful. Ching-ling and Mei-ling continued their studies in Georgia, but watched with interest the events evolving in their homeland.

One story told in Wesleyan circles relates the day in 1911 that Ching-ling heard of Dr. Sun’s successful overthrow of the old Chinese government. She ripped down from her wall a banner bearing the Chinese dragon, and put up in its place a flag of the new Chinese republic.

Ching-ling graduated from Wesleyan in 1913 and returned to China. A year later her older sister, Ai-ling, married H.H. Kung, a future Nationalist Party finance minister who traced his ancestry back to Confucius. Ching-ling replaced her sister as Sun Yat-sen’s secretary, and in October 1915, at 25, she married the 49-year-old revolutionary leader against the wishes of her parents.

Ching-ling graduation
Not long after receiving her diploma from Wesleyan College, Ching-ling Soong commenced upon a life-long journey that earned her the epithet “The Mother of China.” (Photo courtesy of Wesleyan College)

Meanwhile, Mei-ling continued to spend summers at Hattie Moses’ camp/school on Meredith Bay for two, three or perhaps as many as an additional five years. She was summering in Meredith when sister Ching-ling was preparing to sail back to China in 1913. Many years later, the teacher relayed to the Meredith News the following incident involving the younger Miss Soong:

“One day when Miss Moses and her party were enjoying themselves on Horse Island, then a family possession, a cable came from China directed to Miss Soong telling her to stop her sister Rosmond (Ching-ling’s English name was Rosamond], who was about to sail from San Francisco to China. There was an uprising of some sort that might have made trouble for her if she had been allowed to sail. A hasty telegram from Mei-ling to Rosmond found her on board ship, but she came ashore, leaving her trunks aboard in the hold.”

Among Mei-ling’s instructors at the summer camp was the Rev. E.L. Converse, pastor at the Meredith Village Baptist Church, who taught history.

As for her balmy days in Meredith, Miss Moses said of Mei-ling, “She enjoyed life here on the shore of the lake.” Noting how active the young lady was in all activities, Miss Moses said, “While in Meredith she was fond of boating, canoeing, swimming and having trips by motor boat to Horse Island, near Bear, and other places for picnics.”

Mei-ling spent her freshman year at Wesleyan, then transferred to Wellesley College in Massachusetts to be near her brother T.V. Soong, who attended Harvard. She graduated from Wellesley in 1917 and returned to China.


Political Drama

Although the Meredith connection to the Soongs had come to a close, the drama of their lives continued to unfold for many decades. Naturally immersed in the political movement of Dr. Sun along with the rest of her family, Mei-ling met one of his rising generals shortly after her return to her homeland. His name was Chiang Kai-shek.

Dr. Sun, who served briefly as president of the new China in 1911, had stepped down in favor of Yuan Shih-kai. When Yuan became increasingly dictatorial, however, Dr. Sun enlisted the aid of various war lords, including Chiang, in order to overthrow the corrupt leader. Sun formed a new party, called the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, and succeeded in ousting Yuan in 1924.

While this military buildup was under way, General Chiang began courting Mei-ling Soong, despite his existing marriage to another. He succeeded in winning the consent of “Mammy” Soong (Charlie died in 1918) to marry Mei-ling after agreeing to convert to Christianity, which he eventually did.

Chiang-Soong Wedding
Mei-ling Soong and Chiang Kai-shek married December 1, 1927, in Shanghai, China. (Wikimedia Commons)

Due to his existing marriage, the Soongs could not convince a Christian minister to perform the ceremony. Finally, in 1927, a YMCA secretary agreed to tie the knot for the couple.

Chiang’s political influence increased overnight. He was now brother-in-law to the late Dr. Sun, who had died in 1925, as well as to finance big-wigs T.V. Soong and Dr. H.H. Kung. He shortly assumed leadership of the Kuomintang government headquartered in Nanking and soon was sporting the title “generalissimo” in the worldwide press.

Upstart political movements are prone to internal unrest, and the Kuomintang was no exception. Dr. Sun, a proponent of Karl Marx’s theories and supporter of the 1917 Russian Revolution of Vladimir Lenin, encouraged an early left-wing communist faction in the KMT. After his death, Dr. Sun’s widow, Ching-ling, became a leader of the communism philosophy. Chiang Kai-shek, however, and his fiancée (later wife) had a right-wing leaning.

It is not surprising, therefore, that one of Gen. Chiang’s first official acts as China’s leader was to purge the communists. This meant severing relations as well between his wife, Mei-ling, and her sister Ching-ling, who leant her support to the likes of young Mao Tse-tung.

Next on Chiang’s agenda was capturing the capital, Peking (Beijing), then moving his army toward Manchuria and northern China, an area also desired by the Japanese. With their interests in conflict, Chiang’s China became a bitter enemy with the imperial-minded Japan.

Time's Man and Wife of the Year.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang, the former Mei-ling Soong, were headline toppers during 1937. Time Magazine named them Man and Wife of the Year in their first issue of 1938, judging them even more worthy than Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

As for social reforms, Chiang, and to an even greater extent, Madame Chiang, launched their New Life Movement to promote Western ways and healthy customs. Local leaders throughout the Chinese republic traveled to Nanking to receive instruction in disseminating and enforcing this new wave of Puritanism.

So successful were the Chiangs’ military and social accomplishments that they were named Time magazine’s Man and Wife of the Year for 1937.

During World War 2, Chiang’s Kuomintang and the Chinese communist faction joined forces to oppose the Axis powers. “There is a popular old Chinese saying,” Madame Chiang said. “Brothers fight at home, but join to resist invaders.’ ” She explained further, “We, the Chinese people, including our party and the communists, have no choice but to join hands as brothers to fight the Japanese.”

Following the defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II, China was left once again on its own to settle its domestic disputes internally. Through the years, Mao Tse-tung had become the dominant leader of the Chinese Communist Party, and by 1949 his massive Red Army toppled General Chiang’s Kuomintang, which retreated and re-established itself on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).

In tribute to her efforts through the years in support of the left-wing movement, Ching-ling Soong, the widow of the revolutionary hero Sun Yat-sen, was given the honorary title of vice chairman of the People’s Republic of China and was worshiped as “the mother of China.”

For many years, the world community recognized Taiwan as the legitimate Chinese government. During these years, Chiang remained the leader of the Kuomintang, and his admired wife became his principal spokesperson and proponent around the world. Chiang Ching-kuo, a son by a previous wife, followed his father as leader of Nationalist China. Madame Chiang moved to the U.S. following her husband’s death in 1975 and continued to be an influential voice into the 1990s.


Meredith Fans

As Mei-ling Soong Chiang rose to prominence, her admirers back in Meredith continued to cheer her on and boast about the days when she had been a summer resident on Meredith Bay. “Meredith has acquired a little limelight lately on account of the famous wife of Chiang Kai-shek, the former Mei-ling Soong, who for four seasons attended the summer school of Miss Hattie Moses,” wrote columnist Eva Blake.

Meredith News Editor Charlotte Lance wrote, “It is of interest to know that Mei-ling Soong, educated in America, is having a large part in the regeneration of her native land. She has inaugurated many reforms in the social life around her and done much to improve the condition of her people. It is an example of the truth that we never know just how far the influence of anyone may extend. It is a pleasant thought that the teaching in Meredith a good number of years ago is having an influence for good in the vast land of China.”

And again is was local feminist Eva Blake who wrote in September 1937 that Madame Chiang was “the most powerful woman in the world,” a claim often made in the national media of the day. Mrs. Blake added that the Chinese first lady’s high standing for a woman “was due, no doubt, to her getting a new idea of independence of women in America.”

Meredith is not the only Lakes Region town claiming ties to Madame Chiang. Wolfeboro was home of a summer estate maintained by the Nationalist Chinese legation for many years beginning in the 1950s. Among the visitors there were Madame Chiang, her nephew Col. Lin Chi Kung (sister Ai-ling Soong’s son) and his wife, and movie actress Debra Paget. Developers purchased the property in the early ’90s and demolished the cottage.

In 1968, during Meredith’s bicentennial celebration, a delegation of residents contacted Madame Chiang and invited her back to town, an invitation she was unable to honor. But she did respond to the town with recollections of her happy years spent at summer camp on Meredith Bay.

In lieu of the in-person visit, Meredith sent her some gifts from the bicentennial. On Jan. 18, 1968, the Meredith News reported, “Bob Montana of this community, creator of the famous comic strip ‘Archie,’ heads up a group of four well-known cartoonists who are on the way to the Far East to entertain servicemen wounded in Vietnam who are not recuperating in hospitals in Tokyo, Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines and Hawaii…

“Bob has with him a set of Meredith bicentennial coins and a copy of the bicentennial book Early Meredith which he will present to Madame Chiang Kai-shek of Taipei, Taiwan, on behalf of the Meredith Blcentennial Committee.”

Madame Chiang survived into the 21stcentury. She died in 2003 in New York City at the age of 106. President George W. Bush paid the following tribute to the famed woman: “Generations of Americans will always remember and respect her intelligence and strength of character.”

But the young Mei-ling Soong will continue, along with her sister Ching-ling, to be remembered locally as a couple of the most famous visitors to spend time on scenic Meredith Bay.