Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: 'One loved money, one loved power, one loved her nation'

It’s 28 years since Wild Swans, Jung Chang’s classic family memoir, was published. In the interim, Chang has written two biographies: one on Mao with her husband, the historian Jon Halliday; the other of the Empress Dowager Cixi – a former concubine who played a significant role in shaping modern China.

In certain ways Chang’s new book resembles her first. Like Wild Swans, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is a family story with three women at its centre, women who were deeply enmeshed in 20th-century Chinese history. A writer couldn’t ask for better raw material – war, revolution, exile, ideological differences, deadly power struggles – but as well as weaving her epic together, Chang’s considerable challenge in this group biography is to humanise her subjects.

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Born into privilege in the last years of the 19th century, the Soong Sisters – Ei-ling, May-ling and Ching-ling – from Shanghai were “fairy-tale figures.” Raised as Christians and, very unusually for the time, sent to America to be educated, they made strategic marriages and wielded considerable influence. “In the Chinese-speaking world, people never tire of talking about them, including their private lives,” Chang writes in the introduction.

Her summary of how and why she came to the project is telling. After Wild Swans, she had been writing about “programme-setters and history-changers.” She began researching Sun Yat-sen, the “Father” of republican China, who died in 1925, but was more intrigued by Sun’s wife, Ching-ling – or Red Sister – and by Ching-ling’s sisters.

When Chang was growing up under Mao, the Soong sisters, though part of public consciousness, were defined in broad brush strokes: “One loved money, one loved power, one loved her country.” There was no mention of the “mental conflicts, moral dilemmas, or agonising decisions” of the sisters, “all the things that make human beings real and interesting”.

To a limited extent, the biography delves into these conflicts and dilemmas. At its most compelling, it documents the sisters’ direct experiences and allows their voices, clear and distinct, to emerge through letters. But Chang’s focus is split in more than three ways. The book is vastly populated, thoroughly contextualised and sometimes the sisters’ husbands – odious in the main – take centre stage, which can make for a fractured, unwieldy reading experience.

The Soongs’ father, an importer and publisher who had been educated by Methodists in America, was a devoted supporter of Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China. Initially, Sun was romantically interested in Big Sister but she married a wealthy banker and it was Red Sister who, at the age of 21, eloped with Sun – her father never forgave his erstwhile hero.

It’s no coincidence that Red Sister, who went on to support a regime responsible for the deaths of millions of people, emerges as the most interesting character. When Sun Yat-sen died, Red Sister became, and remained, a figurehead of the nation. Unlike her husband and the rest of her family, she was a committed communist and rose to be Mao’s vice-chair, living in comparative luxury in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. By this time, her sisters were in exile. Little Sister was married to Chiang Kai-shek who had succeeded Sun as leader of the Nationalist Party and was head of the Nationalist government, which had retreated to Taiwan. Big Sister was in New York, where she would live out her days.

Against the backdrop of mass torture, murder and starvation under Mao, the estrangement of the sisters is singularly unmoving. In fact, though the biography is detailed and informative, and though Chang makes good use of the available sources, her factual, dispassionate tone tends to mute traumatic events such as miscarriages, betrayals and forced separations. The Soongs’ fierce acquisitiveness and hunger for power is evident throughout but there is sparse focus on the “mental conflicts” and “moral dilemmas” mentioned in the introduction.

It’s a shame, because the sections that do explore the sisters’ internal struggles – particularly those of Red Sister – are urgent and powerful. Many Soong relatives who remained in China were subject to appalling treatment under Mao. A cousin, who had asked Red Sister for help, was imprisoned, tortured and later committed suicide. Chang – who was briefly part of the Red Guards herself, an experience grippingly recalled in Wild Swans – doesn’t underestimate Red Sister’s revulsion at Mao’s atrocities yet sums up her subject’s ambivalence: “For all her loathing of the Cultural Revolution, Red Sister was reluctant to blame Mao. To confront his responsibility would involve reflection on her own decisions, and might even lead to the thought that her whole life had been a mistake, and that she had chosen the wrong God… The fall of Mme Mao, whom she never liked, gave her a convenient scapegoat, and restored her equilibrium.”

Red Sister may have warranted a standalone biography. The one who risked and compromised the most, she – more than the others – seems to awaken Chang’s instinct for character and nuance, but while the book doesn’t quite live up to its potential, it is nevertheless a fascinating window into 20th-century Chinese history.

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