Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister
Three sisters born to a wealthy Christian family in Shanghai towards the end of the 19th century influenced the course of modern Chinese history. The roles played by the legendary Soong sisters, however, were as different as their politics and personalities. The conservative and canny “Big Sister” of the book’s title – eccentrically rendered Ei-ling here, Ailing in pinyin – was married to the richest man in China. Her devotion to money was at least the equal of her faith in God. Her shameless profiteering in wartime greatly contributed to the impression of the Nationalist government as corrupt and nepotistic, for the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, was married to her pretty and clever “Little Sister”, May-ling (Meiling). May-ling’s diplomatic savoir faire and innate charm went a long way, both at home and abroad, towards smoothing the image of her husband’s brutal, grafting and inept dictatorship.
As for “Red Sister” Ching-ling (Qingling), she married the republican revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. Sun was a complicated man, lionised today on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as the “Father of the Nation” for his role in overthrowing China’s last dynasty in 1911. After Sun’s death, Ching-ling increasingly allied herself with the Communist cause, straining her once-close relationship with her sisters. In 1949, when Mao declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China from Tiananmen’s rostrum, he did so with Ching-ling at his side as his vice-chairman. Ei-ling went into exile in the United States and May-ling to Taiwan with Chiang. Neither spoke to Ching-ling again.
The story of “China’s princesses” has been told many times before, including in English-language books such as Sterling Seagrave’s 1985 bestseller, The Soong Dynasty, and Emily Hahn’s The Soong Sisters, published in 1941. Jung Chang, whose memoir Wild Swans was a publishing sensation in the West when it appeared in 1991, brings to the story the same blend of racy storytelling and high-dudgeon iconoclasm that also characterised Mao: The Unknown Story, co-written with her husband, Jon Halliday, and intended as a corrective to what they considered an overly indulgent view of Mao in the West. Despite extensive research, their relatively uninflected portrait of an evil tyrant fails to explain Mao’s long-lasting and popular – though not universal – appeal in China. Chang’s 2013 book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, employs a similarly selective use of historical sources to argue, against considerable evidence to the contrary, that the oft-maligned empress-dowager was not only a protofeminist but also a forward-thinking reformer.
Her original intention with this book was to go after Sun Yat-sen. In the process, she tells us, she was sidetracked by the magnetic and colourful Soong sisters, who eventually took centre stage. Sun still cops it – he’s little more than a gangster in her telling. But Chang also turns her self-righteous choler on Ching-ling, who, while praised for being a feminist, is condemned for being pro-Communist.
Chang is the heir to a venerable tradition of Chinese historiography. It’s one that treats history as a series of moral tales in which some actors are worthy of emulation and others of censure. Officially sanctioned history in China today also follows this pattern. Such writing can be entertaining, and informative to a point, and Chang’s work is both. But its extreme partisanship renders it unreliable as a source of history on its own.
Interestingly, Chang seems to have once held slightly different views of Soong Ching-ling. In 1986, she co-authored with Halliday a short biography, Madame Sun Yat-sen: Soong Ching-ling, described by Publishers Weekly as a “dry and sometimes fawning account”. The book doesn’t appear in her list of previous publications.
In Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, Soong Ching-ling at times appears little more than a device to illustrate Sun’s perfidiousness. Take, for example, the famous incident on June 16, 1922, when Sun was woken at 2am and warned that an assassination squad was coming for him at dawn. According to Ching-ling’s own published account of that night, Sun pleaded with her to escape with him. She exhorted him to go alone, certain that she wasn’t a target and would be only an impediment to his flight. It took some time to persuade him to go. Only half an hour after he left, shouts of “Kill Sun” and gunfire began raining down on the house. His bodyguards protected her during a perilous escape in the midst of a deadly gun battle, as a result of which she suffered a miscarriage. Chang reprints this account in part, leaving out such details – published in Seagrave and Hahn – as Sun’s genuine reluctance to go without her. Disingenuously, Chang also asserts that the attack didn’t begin until dawn, claiming Sun had “ample time” to save his wife after reaching safety himself, but “did not want her to escape”. Chang’s own determination to assassinate Sun ends up denying Ching-ling her own voice.
Chang also alleges that while Ching-ling witnessed many of the extreme horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, “the closest she came to protest” was in a private letter to a close friend. I’ve read Chinese sources that claim Ching-ling wrote to Mao himself no fewer than seven times to express her disgust and disapproval. People far more powerful than her were being tortured or killed for less. Could she have done more? Maybe. But why not acknowledge that she did something?
All three women were strong-willed and complex characters in life, and this accords with how Chang portrays them. But there are many places in the book where she has omitted inconvenient details, sensationalised or otherwise put a dubious spin on events, and the result is skewed and unreliable history. Most readers, lacking specialist knowledge, will not notice. But both Mao and Cixi have been the subject of many an academic takedown, including by eminent historians such as Jonathan Spence of Yale University, and I predict the same again. For as in her other histories, Chang here undermines her own hard work by hammering home points so hard the whole frame shatters.
Jonathan Cape, 400pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "Jung Chang, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister". Subscribe here.