One wet Sunday morning in the winter of 1958, a grandmother in a modest house in the north Taiwan town of Hsinchu called her teenage twin grandsons to her side and, her face covered in tears, showed them a crumpled photograph of a young woman.
“This is your mother, she died so young,” she said. “She is your mother and your father is Chiang Ching-kuo.”
The twins were stunned. Their father was the son and successor of Chiang Kai-shek, President of the Republic of China and leader of the Kuomintang.
The boys had believed their father to be a county chief in the mainland who had been unable to escape to Taiwan after the revolution. They never imagined they had any connection with the “imperial” family of Nationalist China.
“But never speak of this to anyone,” said grandmother.
This is the dramatic opening of Children Outside the Door of the Chiang Family, an autobiography by John Chang Hsiao-yan, one of those twins.
The book is about Chang, who eventually became a distinguished diplomat, and his brother’s search for the truth of their origins and their battle to be accepted as part of the Chiang family. It is tale that begins in the last years of Nationalist rule in China and recounts bitter abandonment, murder, betrayal and eventual redemption.
The two were born in a hospital in Guilin, in the southwest province of Guangxi, in February 1942 to a young woman named Chang Yaruo, the result of her two-year love affair with Chiang, who was then serving as commissioner of Ganzhou city, in southeast Jiangxi province.
Chiang was already married to a Russian he had met in a factory in Siberia during his 12 years in the Soviet Union as a virtual hostage of Josef Stalin; he had two children with his Russian wife and was allowed to return to China in 1937.
To avoid public attention, Chiang sent Chang Yaruo to Guilin, hundreds of kilometers away, to give birth. Afterward, she and her sons stayed in Guilin.
On the evening of August 14, 1942 Yaruo went out for dinner with the officials who were looking after her. Upon her return home, she started vomiting. The next morning they took her to the city hospital, where she was admitted for diarrhea and given an injection. She died shortly afterwards, with none of her family members present. Just 29, she had been in excellent health.
The next day Chiang sent one of his top aides to Chang’s mother – the grandmother of the story – and ordered her to take the family to a town 400 kilometers away, where he arranged a job for one of her sons in the tax bureau. Later, she was later joined by the twins, just six months old.
So began an ordeal for the elderly woman, entrusted with the care of the two infants without their mother, her favorite child. At the end of the war with Japan in 1945, she moved the family back to her native Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province.
But, in 1949, Chiang’s aide arrived again and told her to take the family to Taiwan. Unwilling to leave her native place and her extended family, she refused. But the aide insisted and the family left on May 26 on a military ship from Xiamen, together with gold from the central bank and treasures of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Life was miserable for her in Taiwan. She spoke neither Taiwanese nor Mandarin but only the dialect of her native Nanchang. She lived in poverty in Hsinchu with her grandsons and her son, who failed in business and ran up substantial debts. In 1950, the son fell out with Chiang’s aide, who stopped the regular payments he had made to the family.
So, in their most needy years, the twins received no money from their father, not to speak of visits or psychological support.
Grandmother revealed the secret to the boys in 1958 and died in 1962. Fortunately, they were diligent students, with Hsiao-yan joining the Foreign Ministry after his university graduation and his brother studying law in Taiwan and the United States, becoming a law professor in Taiwan. Hsiao Yan enjoyed a distinguished career in the foreign service of the Republic of China, becoming Foreign Minister in 1996, and secretary-general of the Nationalist Party in 1997.
Throughout their professional life, however, their famous father, who succeeded to the leadership of Taiwan in 1972, remaining in power until his death in 1988, expressed no interest or encouragement; there were no telephone calls to congratulate them on a promotion or successful exam.
Chang, though, began to investigate the circumstances of his mother’s death and it became clear to him that she had been murdered. He ruled out his father, who loved her too much, and grandfather, who had accepted the grandsons, leaving as suspects either the secret police or the officials with her in Guilin.
He concludes that the most likely culprits were these shadowy officials, who probably put drugs in her food that evening. The motive? Blind loyalty to Chiang and an eagerness to remove a possible obstacle to his future political career.
After he retired from government in 2000, Chang visited his mother’s grave in Guilin and tried to find out more. But he was told that the hospital records were destroyed in the war and that the materials related to his mother’s death remained classified.
In the 1980s, as Chang rose in public life, he met some of the four legitimate children of his father, especially a son named Hsiao-wu who served as the country’s unofficial ambassador in Singapore and Tokyo.
In the book an aide also recalls that, in 1986, when Chiang Ching-kuo was suffering from high fever as a result of severe diabetes, he shouted the name of “Yaruo, Yaruo” —the name of his dead lover—to the bewilderment of his staff who did not know such a person.
When their father died in January 1988, the family invited Chang and his twin brother to pay their respects to the body in a hall at the Veterans Hospital close to midnight. It was the first time he had seen his father at such close range. Hsiao-wu invited Chang and his family to spend the New Year with him in Singapore in 1989 and gave him a painting from their father, the first item of his he had ever received. He called him “brother”.
In a twist of fate, in the space of seven years up to 1996, four of the Chiang sons died in middle age, leaving Chang and his brother as the only surviving sons.
In 2000, he visited Xikou in Zhejiang province, the birthplace of his grandfather, to sweep the graves of his ancestors and was warmly welcomed by local people, including members of the extended Chiang family.
Finally, he decided to change his identity card to cite his real parents. This required a visit to Los Angeles in 2001 to visit his aunt—listed on his original ID card as his mother—to collect hair samples for a DNA test. He also obtained a written declaration from two cousins in the mainland saying that he was not their brother and from Chiang’s aide testifying that he was the son of Chiang Ching-kuo.
On December 13, 2002 he proudly displayed to the press his new ID card, showing his real parents. “It is their wish that I be included in the family’s official record of lineage. I believe that they share my joy and pride in heaven at this very moment,” he said.
One of the main characters in the story, Faina, the Russian-born wife of Chiang Ching-kuo, is rarely mentioned in Chang’s book, perhaps because he is too much of a diplomat. She is the person who would have been most hurt by the infidelity of her husband and the birth of his only two children that were pure Chinese.
The daughter of a modest family in Minsk, Faina met her husband when the two were working in a factory in Siberia, where Stalin used him as a bargaining chip with Chiang Kai-shek over cooperation with the nascent Chinese Communist Party.
When Ching-kuo finally returned to China in 1937, Faina found herself at the center of a family struggle, facing the formidable Madam Chiang Kai-shek, Soong Mei-ling, as her mother-in-law. According to some reports, the president urged his son to divorce her and marry a Chinese wife, to ensure a “pure” succession. But he refused and stayed with her until his death.
In 1992, Chang arranged a visit to Taiwan by a delegation from Belarus, who brought two large loaves of Faina’s favorite black bread. He offered to present her with the bread but she declined, preferring to receive a lower-level team from the Foreign Ministry. Faina died in December 2004 at the same hospital as her husband.