The history of China in the twentieth century has always fascinated me. Several years ago I read a wonderful family saga titled Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. It was the true story of three generations of women who lived during China’s radical cultural shifts from 1900 to the end of the century. The grandmother was a concubine with bound feet. Her daughter grew up during the great political turmoil before and after the second world war and was subjected to the tyrannies of Chairman Mao Tse Tung. The third generation was author Jung Chang who was born into more tolerant and prosperous times.
Jung Chang has now written a new book about another triad of exceptional Chinese women. Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China is an amazing story of The Soong Sisters, who were married to some of the most influential and important men who shaped twentieth-century China. In fact, as I read the book, I found myself thinking that the sisters were perhaps smarter and more influential than the men they married.
Big Sister, Ei-ling was the smartest and most influential of the three sisters even though her husband H.H. Kung was not the most high profile. Little Sister, May-ling was married to Chiang-Kai Shek. Red Sister, Ching-ling was married to Dr. Sun-Yat Sen, the father of the early nationalist movement in China.
Ei-ling, Ching-ling, and May-ling were born into a wealthy and prominent Shanghai family. Their prosperous father, Charlie Soong was an early convert to Christianity and had the foresight to ensure that his three daughters and three sons were all educated at Christian schools and universities in the United States. Because they left China as young as age eight, each of the children spoke fluent American English, even better than their native Mandarin.
Charlie Soong moved in elite circles and used his wealth to support early nationalists including Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Despite being already married, Dr. Sun pursued Soong’s eldest daughter, Ei-ling (Big Sister) but she rejected him. He later met the second sister, Ching-ling (Red Sister) and eventually courted and married her after divorcing his first wife and mother of their children. When Dr. Sun died of cancer in 1925, Ching-ling carried on his work and became a strong advocate of Russian-style Communism and a celebrity in her own right as the widow of Dr. Sun.
Chiang Kai-Shek was originally also a follower of Dr. Sun. While Dr. Sun welcomed the financial and political help of Communist Russia to further his cause, Chiang moved away from the Communist ideology and worked toward China becoming an independent republic. His ulterior motive, however, was darker. He envisioned himself as the sole leader and dictator of all of China. Through his connections in the republican and Soong circles, Chiang met the third and youngest of the sisters, May-ling. He too divorced his wife and married Little Sister.
Meanwhile, Big Sister, Ei-ling met and married H.H. Kung who functioned as Chiang-Kai Shek’s Finance Minister. Big Sister proved to be the smartest and most influential of the three sisters, ultimately acting as family matriarch. Because of her business skills and influence in political matters, she also became the richest woman in China. After Dr. Sun died and Chiang Kai-Shek eventually took control of the Nationalists, Big Sister’s husband became his second-in-command and financial strong man.
Politics eventually split the family into Communist and Nationalist camps with Red Sister, Ching-ling joining forces with Mao Tse-Tung and eventually being appointed his Deputy Chairman. When the Nationalists were exiled to Taiwan, Big Sister and Little Sister spent a great deal of time in the United States. They used their energies and intelligence to maintain political and financial support for Chiang Kai-Shek from the United States. In the United States, the sisters also enjoyed the comfortable, elite lifestyle they were accustomed to and managed their affairs from homes in New York and Los Angeles.
There’s an old saying that behind every successful man there’s a strong woman. While this may not always be the case, I found myself thinking that these three sisters were more than the strong women behind their men and were, in fact, the real brains and strategists behind their political husbands. Dr. Sun-Yat Sen, Chiang Kai-Shek, and H.H. Kung were all seriously flawed and often misguided in their own philosophies and their wives consistently played active roles in saving them from disaster.
Reading, Big Sister, Red Sister, Little Sister by Jung Chang whose own family lived the events of twentieth-century China is particularly resonant. Chang has done a herculean amount of research including accessing personal diaries to describe the day-to-day lives of these people. The three sisters lived unparalleled lives of luxury, intrigue, corruption, adventure and political upheaval.
Every page of this book contains fascinating insights into twentieth-century China’s struggles and I didn’t want to miss a single word. If you enjoy history and reading about exceptionally strong, intelligent women, I can’t recommend this book enough. I absolutely loved it and rate it 9 out of 10.
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