If you were a child growing up in 1980s China, as I was, Chinese Communist Party education began as soon as you could spell your name. The lessons were blissfully simple: The party is unimpeachable; those who assail the party are despicable; the family is a metaphor for our great nation, whose members are all lovingly allied because unity is the most important principle. Around the time I learned to write my name, I heard about the Soong sisters, whose reputation permeated Chinese society like some heady, if slightly unholy, perfume. Once upon a time, the story goes, there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power and one loved her country. The tale of their divergent paths was like a politically incorrect parable, a lesson in what not to do if one wished to build a cooperative, functional family. Indeed, if the Soong sisters had not actually existed, the story of their operatic lives, had it been conjured in fiction, would surely have been branded by censors as salacious spiritual pollution.
In her introduction to “Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister,” Jung Chang recalls her first impression of the Soong sisters as “fairy-tale figures” who, in contrast to the subjects of her previous biographies — Mao and the Empress Dowager Cixi — seemed free of “mental conflicts, moral dilemmas or agonizing decisions.” For that reason, she had not intended to profile the sisters at all but arrived at them circuitously as she set about researching the founding father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen.
Like her beloved memoir, “Wild Swans” (1991), which recounts the evolution of China through the lens of her own life and those of her mother and grandmother, Chang’s new book tells her country’s story through three women of the same family. Before wading into the sisters’ lives, she devotes detailed chapters to two men: Sun, who amassed power mostly by being a ruthless, thuggish blowhard; and Charlie Soong, the paterfamilias of the Soong clan, a former Methodist preacher turned wealthy businessman and underground revolutionary.
Soong’s ardent support for Sun came at least in part from the fact that both men visited the West early in life and harbored admiration for outspoken, confident, learned women. Were it not for Soong’s determination to give his daughters a thoroughly Western education and Sun’s attraction to westernized women, the last 100 years of Chinese history might have turned out very differently.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the Soong daughters became some of the first Chinese women to be educated in America, which led to jobs as English translators for Sun. Big Sister Ei-ling was the first to captivate Sun, but she chose to marry H. H. Kung, a wealthy widower, instead. It was Ching-ling, the middle sister, 25 years Sun’s junior, who went on to be Mme. Sun Yat-sen. In an attempt to emulate the selflessness of Joan of Arc, Ching-ling ended up devoting herself to a man unworthy of her worship. In one harrowing episode early in their marriage, Sun fled the presidential palace and used his wife as bait to ensure his escape. But being the wife of an internationally known firebrand would leave its mark on the young Ching-ling. In the early 1920s, when Sun collaborated with the Soviet Politburo out of political convenience, it was Ching-ling who emerged the true believer and committed Leninist.