For a traditionally male-dominated society, China has had its fair share of powerful women who rose to the top, albeit thanks to their husbands. Under the Tang dynasty, Wu Zetian, who lived from 625 to 705, had herself proclaimed emperor after disposing of rivals. From the 1860s to her death in 1908, the Dowager Empress, Cixi, was the dominant figure at the Manchu court of the Qing dynasty. In our own time Madame Mao, Jiang Qing, drove on the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution, reportedly seeing herself as a born-again Wu, and crashing to earth only after the death of her husband. She ended up committing suicide in prison.
The subject of Hannah Pakula’s exhaustive biography was in a different mode. While Wu and Cixi both began as concubines and Madame Mao made her way from minor film roles in 1930s Shanghai to power through Chairman Mao’s bed, Soong Meiling was born into a wealthy cosmopolitan world.