In the introduction to her new book, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, Jung Chang writes that she originally set out to research a book on Sun Yat-sen to see if he really warranted the status of “Father of Modern China”. But the stories of Sun’s wife Soong Ching-ling and her two sisters ended up out-shining his, so Chang decided to write about them instead. What results is a book with two intertwined narratives: one on the sisters of the title and one about Sun.
Ei-ling, Ching-ling, and Mei-ling were born in Shanghai around the turn of the last century, and educated at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, one of the oldest women’s colleges in the United States. Their father, Charlie Soong, was also schooled in the US and became a Methodist missionary during his time there. Due to their American education, family background, fluency in English, and the cosmopolitanism of Shanghai, the Soong sisters were at the top of Shanghai society. But they differed from other educated Chinese women as they notably married three of the most influential men in China: Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and HH Kung, a Yale-educated banker and descendant of Confucius.
But Chang doesn’t begin with the Soong family, but rather with Sun Yat-sen. Chang portrays Sun as self-serving, caring only about power. He wasn’t in China for the 1911 revolution, yet felt that he deserved the presidency because he fought for democracy in China earlier than most others. Determined to become President of China, Sun would spend the rest of his life trying to regain that role after a quick stint of several weeks in early 1912.
The connection with the Soongs came via the patriarch Charlie, who admired Sun and donated huge amounts of money for his revolution, and later for him to attempt to assert authority over Yuan Shi-kai, the then president (and later pretender to a new imperial throne); the attempt failed, and Sun went into exile in Japan. Joining him were Charlie and his eldest daughter, Ei-ling, enlisted as Sun’s English secretary. Sun was soon pursuing Ei-ling and proposed marriage, even though he already had a wife and a concubine.
In a chilling passage while Sun was in Osaka, he learned that his wife and one of his daughters had suffered a serious car accident in Tokyo. But instead of rushing to his wife’s side, Chang relates that Sun couldn’t be bothered to visit her. His first reaction was that there was no point in going to Tokyo because they weren’t doctors. “Then,” writes Chang,
it seems, he remembered he had actually been trained as a doctor and added, “Even if we were, it would be too late by the time we got there. Besides, we have appointments in Fukuoka.”
Ei-ling and Charlie were stunned.
Sun dropped Ei-ling and later went after her middle sister, Ching-ling, who became his new English secretary. Completely taken in by Sun’s charisma, Ching-ling devoted herself to Sun and agreed to marry him if he divorced his wife and sent his concubine away. Sun agreed but Charlie Soong did not approve. Ching-ling married Sun anyway.
Chang tells of how Sun’s narcissistic ways cost him the love of his new wife. The early Republican period was wracked by warlords and in 1922, the Sun compound in Canton was besieged by armed opponents. It was agreed that Sun would escape first and Ching-ling would soon follow after he sent word that the coast was clear, something which Sun never in fact did.
Sun is still revered in Taiwan, mainland China, and in Chinatowns around the world, says Chang, only because Chiang Kai-shek created Sun’s cult of personality to secure his own destiny as Sun’s heir apparent after Sun died in 1925.
The widowed Ching-ling clung to her identity as Madame Sun Yat-sen, knowing it would save her. Ching-ling sympathized with the communists and was the only Soong sister to remain in China after 1949, never seeing her sisters after that. Although Ching-ling was an agent of the Communist party throughout her life, writes Chang, she didn’t join the CCP until she was on her deathbed in 1981.
The eldest sister, Ei-ling, was the moneymaker of the family. Her financier husband HH Kung became Minister of Finance and Premier of the Republic of China due to his wife’s connections. Although Chang doesn’t write as much about Ei-ling as she does Ching-ling and their youngest sister, Mei-ling, Ei-ling was responsible for introducing Mei-ling and Chiang Kai-shek, hoping that this marriage could further solidify the Soong family’s wealth and power.
Mei-ling was particularly helpful to Chiang Kai-shek: as a fluent English speaker, she could converse with world leaders and campaign for funds in the United States. But according to Jung Chang, Mei-ling felt betrayed by Chiang when he blamed her family for losing mainland China, and spent as much time in the United States as she did Taiwan after the Nationalists moved their government to Taipei in 1949. Mei-ling lived the longest of the sisters and spent the last twenty-five years of her life in New York, where she felt most at home. She died in 2003 at the age of 105.
Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is an engaging story of three influential sisters. But more than that, it’s a scathing critique of China’s 20th-century leaders and how, despite overthrowing the monarchy, none could accomplish what Sun set out to do all those years ago when he first spoke of democracy. One of the main reasons for this failure, Chang concludes, was Sun himself. And by this, Chang manages to write that book about him after all.