On the Wrong Side of History

NEW YORK, July 21, 2010 - Henry Luce biographer Alan Brinkley describes the dream Luce never saw realized: a democratic, Westernized China. (1 min., 20 sec.)

NEW YORK, July 21, 2010 – Hannah Pakula, author of The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China, recounted one of Henry Luce’s close friends as saying, "The trouble with Henry is that he is torn between wanting to be a Chinese missionary like his parents and a Chinese warlord like Chiang Kai-shek."

Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Fortune, Life, and Sports Illustrated, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek shared ambition, vanity, and a Protestant Christian upbringing that inevitably drew them together in their pursuit of a modern China.

Alan Brinkley, the author of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, and Hannah Pakula discussed the complex relationship between these two luminaries of the twentieth century at Asia Society New York during a discussion with moderator Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations. 

Elucidating the shared beliefs of Madame Chiang and Henry Luce, Pakula stated, "May-Ling and her family, and I exclude Chiang from this, were the kind of people that Henry Luce admired. They believed in educating women, in a day when girls' feet were still bound so that they couldn't get away from their husbands, to whom they'd been married with no say-so whatsoever. They believed in industrially improving China. It was a very forward-looking family..." In this way, the two were drawn together with hopes for the future of China.

The son of an American missionary in Shandong Province, Luce was immersed in the complexities of China in the early twentieth century. Brinkley explained the challenges facing missionaries like Luce's father: "As missionaries in the traditional sense of the word, they were terrible failures. But they realized it fairly early on, and they turned themselves into educators. And they created schools and colleges, and they taught people physics and chemistry and all the disciplines that were important for developing a modern economy. And that is what Luce absorbed." This understanding drove Luce in his quest to inform America of China's potential, most visibly in his hallmark publication, Time Magazine.

In trying to reconcile the two figures, Eleanor Roosevelt most eloquently stated the reason behind the failure of Madame Chiang and Luce's vision of a democratic, modern China: "She could talk brilliantly about democracy, but she didn't know how to live it."

Reported by Alex Berman and Paige Costello