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Faina Chiang, 88, widow of Taiwan president

TAIPEI -- Faina Vakhreva Chiang, the Russian-born widow of Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo, died Wednesday in a hospital here. She was 88.

First lady from 1978 to 198, the reclusive daughter-in-law of Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was the most mysterious and least known member of the powerful family who lost China to Mao Zedong's communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949. She had suffered from lung cancer.

"Mrs. Fang Liang led a very modest and simple life," said Lien Chan, chairman of Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist Party, which ruled Taiwan for five decades. Chiang Fang Liang was her Chinese name.

"She was Mr. Ching-kuo's biggest pillar of support. We deeply respected and liked her. She passed away peacefully today," Lien told reporters at the hospital.

She had checked into the hospital in early October after an asthma attack, doctors said.

Born May 15, 1916, in the Urals city of Sverdlovsk, Mrs. Chiang's life was marked by tragedy. She was orphaned at a young age and raised by her sister. She met Chiang Ching-kuo in 1933 and they married in 1935.

Chiang Kai-shek had sent his 15-year-old son to study in Moscow 10 years earlier to help cement ties with the Soviets. But Chiang Ching-kuo was banished to work in a machinery factory after relations with Joseph Stalin soured.

When the couple returned to China in 1937, Chiang Kai-shek reportedly urged his son to divorce, deeming his foreign wife unworthy. But Mrs. Chiang was later admired for her stoicism and touted as a model Chinese wife.

"Mrs. Faina Chiang's life was modest. Although she was born in Siberia, she possessed the traditional virtues of a Chinese woman," said Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian in a statement, praising the importance she placed on her husband and children.

She arrived in Taiwan in the late 1940s, when the Nationalists were retreating to the island.

Though she was a member of China's most powerful family, she shied away from the spotlight. Her life and personality remained a secret to most as she made few public appearances, especially after her husband's death in 1988.

The mother of four did not intervene in state affairs, probably because of the sensitivity surrounding her foreign origin.

She was the polar opposite of her legendary mother-in-law, Soong Mei-ling, who was famed for her iron will and was a formidable force behind Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan and abroad.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek died in October last year aged 106. As president, Chiang Ching-kuo was respected for starting reforms that set Taiwan on the road to democracy.

He also had an extramarital relationship with one of his assistants that produced twin boys, John Chang and Chang Hsiao-tzu, in 1943, which Faina Chiang found out about years later.

Mrs. Chiang's health began to decline after her husband's death, which was followed by the deaths of their three sons -- Alan in 1989, Hsiao-wu in 1991 and Hsiao-yung in 1996.

The former first lady became withdrawn and shut herself away in her residence in Taipei's suburban Taichih district.

Her only foreign visit after 1949 was in 1992, when she went to see her daughter, Chiang Hsiao-chang, in the United States.

In July, she requested that Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo, who lie embalmed in temporary mausoleums, be permanently buried in Taiwan, giving up hope of a burial on mainland China.

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