Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang review – at the heart of 20th-century China

A remarkable story of war, communism and espionage related with nuanced sympathy, but lacking reflection

The lives of the three Song sisters – the subjects of Jung Chang’s spirited new book – are more than worthy of an operatic plot. Born between 1888 and 1898, the twilight of imperial China, all three went on to play dominant roles in 20th-century Chinese life, on the extremes of the political spectrum.

The daughters of Charlie Song, a Methodist preacher turned Shanghai entrepreneur, they became the first Chinese girls to attend university in the US, and left speaking and writing better English than Chinese. On returning to Shanghai after 1909, the two older sisters, Ailing and Qingling, threw themselves into the maelstrom of the revolution, for their father was a patron of Sun Yat-sen, whose chaotic conspiracies helped overthrow the country’s last dynasty in 1911. Both young women became Sun’s private secretary; both were courted by him.

Ailing was not interested and went on to marry a businessman, HH Kung; the couple would accumulate one of the greatest personal fortunes of 20th-century China. Qingling – 27 years Sun’s junior – accepted his advances in 1915, to the horror of her parents. For the rest of Sun’s life, Qingling followed him around the world, as he struggled to reunite under his leadership a Chinese republic that had disintegrated into provincial militarism. This led to at least one near-death experience, when Qingling was trapped in a military attack by one of Sun’s rivals. She miscarried during a traumatic escape, and was subsequently – to her great sorrow – unable to have children.

From left: Madame Chiang Kai-shek – Meiling – with her sisters Ailing and Qingling in 1942 in Chungking.
From left: Madame Chiang Kai-shek – Meiling – with her sisters Ailing and Qingling in 1942 in Chungking. Photograph: AP

While Ailing went into business and Qingling became a political wife, the youngest of the sisters, Meiling, devoted herself to Shanghai high society. In search of a successful, ambitious husband who could guarantee her access to political influence and material comfort, she settled on Chiang Kai-shek. A humourless, conservative army man, Chiang had thrust his way to becoming Sun’s heir as leader of China’s first modern political party, the Nationalists, after Sun suddenly died of liver cancer in 1925. Benefiting from Soviet support, and an alliance with China’s Communist party (CCP), in 1927 Chiang became head of a new, nominally unified nationalist state. But to secure his control of the country, he promptly purged the communists from his new regime, killing thousands. Qingling sided with the left (after 1927, she spent two years in exile in Moscow), while Meiling became first lady of Chiang’s rightwing military dictatorship. Chiang also highly esteemed big sister Ailing as a political and financial adviser.

The sisters therefore reproduced in microcosm the great political schism – nationalist versus communist – of 20th-century China. Through the 1930s and 40s, Qingling put her energies and talents – cosmopolitanism, charm, beauty, political untouchability (she was one of the few left-wing public figures whom Chiang did not dare terrorise, given the family connection) – into burnishing the image of communism in China. Time and again she directed towards the CCP educated Chinese whom the party needed to run its state, and drew to the cause useful, impressionable foreigners. By 1937, Qingling had become a covert stakeholder in Mao’s revolution, sending him $50,000 of her savings – almost $750,000 by today’s rates. Chang argues that Qingling was in fact a card-carrying member of the Comintern for much of the Stalin era.

Meiling became a major political player in the nationalist government. Her value to her husband’s regime shone particularly through the grim years of the second world war. In 1942, she took herself off on a 10-month publicity tour of the US, preaching the gospel of friendship between China and the US, pleading for American “moral support” (and dollars). She brought a cheering Congress to tears; she drew tens of thousands to her public lectures; Time magazine named her and Chiang “Man and Wife of the Year”. She spoke in perfect American English on her stiff, bad-tempered husband’s behalf not only in the US, but also at key negotiations with western leaders, including the 1943 Cairo Conference. After the CCP defeated the Nationalists in 1949, Qingling served as Mao Zedong’s vice-chairman on the mainland, while Meiling followed Chiang Kai-shek into exile in Taiwan.

Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum in Nanjing.
Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum in Nanjing. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The book’s strongest point is its nuanced sympathy for the sisters. Ailing and Meiling, in particular, have been periodically lambasted for seeking profit and indulgence, and abetting Chiang’s brutal dictatorship, during the agonies of the second world war. Although Chang records Meiling’s extravagance and addiction to comfort, “little sister” also comes over as surprisingly affectionate and loyal, especially to her family. Ailing – conventionally denounced as a ruthless profiteer – is described as a devoted sister who saw it as her responsibility to provide financially for her less practically minded siblings. In Chang’s account, Qingling is the least appealing: a hard-headed Comintern convert, whose political convictions overrode feelings for her family.

A little oddly for a group biography of three remarkable women, however, the book sometimes veers off into male-dominated accounts of their context. The opening chapter focuses entirely on Sun Yat-sen; the second on the girls’ father. This periodic sidelining of the women expresses, of course, the paradox of their status (a paradox that applies to many other female Chinese politicians of the past 100 years). They were able to exercise influence only through association with powerful, deeply flawed men. The book would have benefited from more reflection on the tensions and limits faced by ambitious women in 20th-century China – and on the challenges this poses for telling their stories.

Julia Lovell’s Maoism: A Global History is published by Bodley Head. Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is published by Jonathan Cape (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Julia Lovell

The GuardianTramp

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