A Conversation with Michelle Murray Yang
In this issue, Public Address Division member Michelle Murray Yang discusses her study of a speech given by Soong May-ling (1898–2003), the First Lady of China, at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, California, on 4 April 1943. Married to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who was then the head of the Nationalist government in China and the leading Allied commander in the Eastern war zone, Soong toured the United States in 1943 to raise money for United China Relief. She spoke before diverse audiences during the tour, including Wellesley College students, members of the U.S. House and Senate, and Hollywood starlets.
A full text of the Hollywood Bowl address, as well as her other remarks from the 1943 tour, can be found in Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Selected Speeches, 1943–1982 (Taipei: Chinese Women’s Anti-Aggression League, 1984); this is the source cited herein. Texts of the Hollywood Bowl address are also available elsewhere, including the Los Angeles Times, 5 April 1943, pt. 1, p. 9; and Franklin Watts, ed., Voices of History, 1943–44: Speeches and Papers of Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Chiang, Hitler and Other Leaders (New York: Gramercy Publishing Co., 1944), 147–53. A transcription of the Los Angeles Times text appears as Appendix 1 in the PDF of the conversation available on this site.
What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?
Soong’s address at the Hollywood Bowl is compelling because the substance and tone were markedly different than in her 18 February 1943 speeches before Congress. In her congressional addresses, Soong focused on constructing the Chinese and Americans as a common people whose shared goal of securing the survival of freedom, justice, and democracy transcended divisions of race and nationality. Despite Soong’s glowing praise of American ideals, scholars such as Chih-Yu Shih and Laura Tyson Li have noted that her remarks before Congress rhetorically functioned as veiled critiques of the Europe First military strategy that the United States was practicing. Along with Great Britain, the United States aimed to defeat Nazi Germany first, while deploying limited resources in Asia, and only later to engage in the Pacific theater of operations in a sustained way.
Soong offered a much more pointed critique of U.S. policy in her Hollywood Bowl address. She had made only vague references to China’s wartime burdens in her speeches before Congress, but Soong devoted nearly all of her Hollywood Bowl address to articulating China’s desperate attempts to fend off the Japanese invaders. Detailing the grueling conflict, she repeatedly lamented China’s lack of suitable aircraft and maintenance supplies, contrasting China’s dearth of war machinery with Japan’s staggering abundance. Soong’s stirring word choice and rich description of the brutalities suffered by Chinese fighters and civilians further substantiated her claim that China was sorely in need of aid. Unlike her speeches to Congress, the Hollywood Bowl address provided graphic accounts of the infrastructural and human destruction in China. Depicting the atrocities perpetuated by Japanese forces against the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, she described how “the invaders plundered and stripped the crucified populace of all means of livelihood, molested our women and rounded up all able-bodied men, tied them together like animals, forced them to dig their own graves and finally kicked them in and buried them alive” (117).
Through graphic descriptions like this, Soong emphasized the destruction rendered upon Chinese soil by the Japanese military. However, she also reassured listeners that the enemy had failed to quell the Chinese spirit. Despite material damages and mounting casualties, both civilians and soldiers continued their service to the cause of freedom, their will unabated. Soong linked this courage to the strong leadership exhibited by her and her husband, detailing how they provided guidance to anxious Chinese airmen, visited battle lines in the midst of constant air strikes, safeguarded cultural treasures from ruin, and fled alongside Chinese civilians from the advancing enemy. Additionally, she spoke at length of her role in organizing a Women’s Advisory Council and explained how this organization enabled Chinese women to contribute to the war effort by training them to care for the wounded and orphaned.
Through this account, Soong highlighted the personal contributions that she and her husband had made and challenged those who were critical of China’s wartime strategy. She dared skeptics to ask, “What other peoples in the modern world have endured the agonies of war for so long and so bravely, held so tenaciously and so staunchly to the defense of principles as the Chinese people?” (117). Additionally, Soong’s account challenged the characterization of her in the U.S. press as a fragile “China doll,” casting her instead as a strong woman who worked alongside her husband. In turn, she extended this recognition to other Chinese women by emphasizing their contributions to China’s war effort.
Despite the daunting hardships faced by the Chinese people, Soong reaffirmed that China was not fighting on its own behalf but for a higher cause shared by other Allied nations. China’s casualties of war died “in order that civilization may survive,” she said (116). By valiantly engaging the Japanese forces since 1937 and fighting alone until 1941, China had given “time to democracies to prepare their defenses” (118). Soong acknowledged the ongoing U.S. war effort, but she did so briefly. Instead, she focused on enumerating China’s contributions, concluding her remarks by stating, “We shall not permit aggression to raise its satanic head and threaten man’s greatest heritage: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all peoples” (118). Explicitly quoting from the Declaration of Independence solidified the connection between China’s cause and the survival of American ideals, bolstering Soong’s indictment of U.S. leaders.
Through her use of rich description to articulate the ravages of war, to illustrate the Chinese people’s unwavering resolve, and to depict China’s strong leadership, Soong constructed a much more pointed critique of the Europe First strategy than she had done in her earlier remarks to Congress. She persuasively made the case that although the Chinese people had suffered unimaginable horrors while fighting for ideals expressed in U.S. founding documents, the United States had failed to grant the aid necessary to sustain China’s war efforts. I contend that Soong thus crafted an emotionally powerful argument to try to shame U.S. leaders into providing material support to China, which deeply resonated with the sympathetic crowd of 30,000 spectators who came to hear her speak.
What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of this artifact?
There are several important contexts to consider, the first of which concerns the conventions of diplomatic rhetoric. Typically, visitors are careful not to offend the leaders of the host nation. Soong subverts diplomatic convention with her stinging critique. Although her speech at the Hollywood Bowl contains brief praise for the United States, the gripping description of China’s hardships makes any praise for the United States appear ironic. It further strengthens her claim that China had borne the wrath of the Japanese military for far too long with far too little aid.
It is also important to consider Soong’s unique speaking position as it relates to race and nationality. Although Soong was born in China, she came to the United States at the age of ten to study. After graduating from Wellesley College, she returned to China. Reporters praised Soong’s perfect English after her appearance before Congress; for example, on 19 February 1943 the Record of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, declared that she “not only spoke American, but thought American.” Soong’s embodiment of a dual Chinese/American identity can be viewed as both an advantage and a disadvantage. It helped to ingratiate Soong with American audiences and heightened her ethos, but in conjunction with her rhetoric, it also linked China with American principles, therefore eliding complex issues pertaining to intercultural differences.
How would you characterize your critical approach to this artifact? Why have you chosen this approach?
My critical approach is best characterized as a comparative close textual reading. Comparing and contrasting Soong’s Hollywood Bowl address with her speeches before Congress provide an opportunity to examine how the substance and tone of her rhetoric evolved during her tour of the United States.
How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?
As the first Chinese to address both houses of Congress, Soong provides students with a valuable opportunity to reflect upon the relationships among race, gender, and identity. Soong’s speeches offer a useful case study for examining diplomatic rhetoric as well as twentieth-century women’s rhetoric. The U.S. press repeatedly commented on Soong’s petite physical features and what reporters deemed her exotic “Oriental” manner of dress, thus marking her as a cultural “other.” However, Soong’s perfect English, adherence to feminine norms of gender performance, and espousal of American ideals allowed her to constitute a hybrid Chinese/American identity in which her cultural difference was perceived as beguiling rather than threatening. Having students research how news articles described Soong’s speeches and public appearances during her 1943 tour can be helpful for examining how her hybrid identity was constructed, in part, through press accounts.
Where can interested readers find additional information?
A detailed analysis of Soong’s 1943 congressional addresses and the U.S. media’s reception of them can be found in Chih-Yu Shih, “The Eros of International Politics: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Question of the State in China,” Comparative Civilizations Review 46 (2002): 91–119. For a thorough historical account of Soong’s 1943 U.S. tour, see Hannah Pakula, The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), 405–65. Finally, for a wonderful discussion of how Soong both benefited from and was constrained by a gendered Orientalism, see Karen J. Leong, The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Contributor: Michelle Murray Yang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Belmont University. Her research focuses on how China is understood, interpreted, and portrayed by policy makers and media outlets within the United States. Her work has appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Speech and Rhetoric and Public Affairs.
Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.
A transcription of the Hollywood Bowl address of Soong May-ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek) as published in the Los Angeles Times appears on pages 7–14 in the PDF available on this site.