Jung Chang, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, Penguin Random House, 2019. 373 pgs.
Jung Chang’s 2019 book Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth–Century China continues her legacy as a historian and biographer who does not shy away from challenging established narratives of mainland China. Her 1992 autobiography Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China shattered the myth that the communist revolution freed women from patriarchal domination. Her biography Mao: The Unknown Story destroyed the great helmsman’s image as a visionary leader by giving voice to the millions of victims who suffered under his tyranny. Despite having been banned from entering mainland China since the book was published in 2005, Chang continues to uncover new understandings of modern Chinese history by excavating historical records previously unavailable or overlooked. Her 2013 book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China presents the Dowager commonly blamed for the downfall of the Great Qing as a wise and benevolent matriarch who modernised China; her reign reformed education, tolerated press freedom, and nurtured the emerging constitutional monarchy.
Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister continues the narrative from the point in history when Empress Dowager Cixi left off, and demonstrates how the fledgling Republic of China reverted from being a relatively open society with functional elections to a dictatorship, first under Chiang Kai-shek and then Mao Zedong. The most ground-breaking aspect of the book is Chang’s portrayal of Sun Yat-sen, “Father of China”. Unlike Chiang and Mao, whose reputations are controversial, Sun continues to be revered in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and on the mainland. He is celebrated as the revolutionary leader who overthrew the Qing monarchy and began democratic reform. Sun’s statue stands in a number of Hong Kong’s university campuses today with his most widely quoted words “天下为公” (“The world belongs to the people”) carved at his feet.
Chang reveals that Sun, in fact, played a negligible role in bringing down the Qing Empire. His “Revive China Society” had petered out in the early 1900s and his new organisation, the “United League”, did not function well either. Though Sun’s nationalist ideas gained widespread popularity, he was shunned by his colleagues for his dictatorial behaviour and his appropriating of public funds for his own use. When the Wuchang mutiny which triggered the collapse of the Qing dynasty broke out, Sun was travelling in America. The mutiny was led by army chief Li Yuan-hong and his government troops, not the gangsters Sun had recruited. Far from being a democratic reformer, Sun started a personality cult of his own and “fired the first shot” that began the ruthless struggle for power. Sun refused to recognise the Republic of China’s elected, legitimate leaders, and introduced a military dictatorship which paved the road for the rise of Chiang Kai-shek. His collaboration with the Russians planted the seed for communist totalitarian domination. Chang shows that Sun Yat-sen is better understood as a father of dictators and the China he left behind was not a world that belonged to the people, but a world for one family, the Soong family.
The Soong sisters, Ei-ling, Ching-ling and May-ling were daughters of the prosperous businessman Charlie Soong. They were commonly described as “one loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country”. Though Chang’s narrative largely confirms this overall impression, she humanises the Soong sisters as intelligent, wilful women who suffered their own share of disappointment and loss. This is where the incongruity of the book lies. Chang can be mercilessly critical of male historical figures, but throughout her writing career she has had a clear agenda to empower female voices. Though the Soong sisters’ contribution to the wellbeing of the Chinese people is minimal, and much of their deeds were in fact damaging and self-serving, Chang is nonetheless compelled to present them in a positive light.
Ei-ling, married to banker H.H. Kung, who served as Chiang Kai-shek’s Premier, Vice-Premier and finance minister in the 1930s and 1940s, was the Republic of China’s richest woman. Chang describes her sympathetically, depicting her as a devout Christian woman with wisdom and intellect, an able protective big sister who served as the pillar of her family. While working as Sun Yat-sen’s secretary, Ei-ling showed respect and deference to Sun’s first wife Mu-zhen and turned down Sun’s marriage proposal. She was a financial wizard, whose choice investments generated enough fortune to build prime properties in the world’s most expensive cities, including a waterproof private nuclear bunker built under a lake in Houston that cost $400-500 million in today’s money.
However, despite having been raised and educated as a Christian woman, Ei-ling exhibited no compassion for the poor, and her loyalty was exclusively devoted to her immediate family.
Over the years, Ei-ling developed a conviction that it was her mission in life to look after and provide for her illustrious sisters, especially Little sister. This was what God wanted her to do, she believed; and making money was her way to fulfil this role. Having this conviction gave her a purpose in amassing a fortune and fortified her against incessant accusations. (210)
Ei-ling was blamed for accumulating money while China was at war with Japan. The accusations proved to be justified as H.H. Kung confirmed with Columbia University that only two signatures were required for China’s budget – his and Chiang Kai-shek’s. Ei-ling “was the brain behind key financial decisions by her husband” (205) and she had the entire nation’s wealth at her command. She left China in 1949 and lived her remaining 24 years in her luxury homes in America, never again setting her foot in mainland China.
In contrast to the extravagant Ei-ling, Ching-ling, the one who loved her country, was an idealist. Instead of basking in the glory of her family’s prestige, Ching-ling was bothered by their privilege. “As a child I was taken to church on Sundays by my mother who was a devout Christian. When we arrived at church the pastor and his assistants used to drive away the poorly clad women in the front pew to give up their places to us” (45). Years later, Ching-ling abandoned Christianity and converted to communism. In 1913, when Ching-ling returned to China as a twenty-year-old graduate of Wesleyan College, she fell passionately in love with Sun Yat-sen while working as his English language assistant. Sneaking out of her family home in the middle of the night, Ching-ling eloped with Sun in 1915. The couple fled to Japan and got married at the home of Wada Mizu whom Ching-ling believed to be a lawyer. Mizu was in fact “the owner of a small trading company” and the ‘marriage contract’ drafted in Japanese, was in no way legally binding. The elopement ended the life-long friendship between Charlie Soong and Sun. The deeply distressed Charlie Soong even called upon the Japanese government to intervene to no avail. Soong had known Sun long enough to know that this womanising revolutionary would make a nightmare husband. Only a couple of years earlier, Ei-ling (whom Sun was wooing at the time), Sun’s first wife Mu-Zhen, and their daughter Wan had been in a life-threatening road accident in Tokyo, yet Sun declined to pay them a visit. “What’s the point of going to Tokyo as we are not doctors,” Sun had told Soong before remembering he was indeed trained as a doctor, adding that “even if we were, it would be too late by the time we got there” (69).
Ching-ling was to discover the nightmare she had brought upon herself just seven years later, in June 1922, when Sun used her as live bait to escalate a military conflict. By this time, Sun was determined to become the supreme ruler of the Republic of China and was plotting against Hsu Shih-chang, the president elected in 1918. Sun’s aggressive campaign for power led to the rebellion of Ch’en Chiung-ming, a military officer of Canton and a former supporter of Sun. When Ch’en’s army attacked Sun’s presidential palace on June 16th, Sun had already fled to safety himself leaving his pregnant wife Ching-ling home with fifty guards. Sun knew that with Ching-ling left behind, his guards would do everything possible to defend his house, thus turning the attack into a heated battle. Ching-ling wrote “from eight in the morning to four that afternoon we were literally buried in a hell of constant gunfire. Bullets flew in all directions. Once the entire celling of a room I had left only a few minutes before collapsed” (92). At one point, Ching-ling was so exhausted from her escape that she begged her guards to shoot her. When Ching-ling finally reached her husband’s gunboat days later, she suffered a miscarriage that rendered her childless for the rest of her life. Her death-defying escape served as an excuse for Sun to bombard Canton and begin a civil war.
Ching-ling’s devotion to communism led to emotional wounds as painful as her disillusionment with Sun’s love, yet she held on to this idol to her dying day. When her husband resolved to work with the Russians to help him seize power, the young impressionable Ching-ling became deeply attracted to Lenin’s ideas and became a life-long believer of communism. She openly challenged her brother-in-law Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-communist policies and broke with her two sisters. She did her best to aid Mao in his campaign against Chiang. She spent her later years in Beijing serving as Mao’s vice chairman, unable to return to her hometown Shanghai due to government restrictions. During Mao’s numerous political purges that sent her friends into labour camps or drove them to suicide, Ching-ling remained silent. She wrote articles that advised people to “crush warm-feeling-ism” and behaved as a docile follower of Mao.
During the Cultural Revolution, Ni Ji-zhen, a cousin on Ching-ling’s mother’s side reached out to Ching-ling for help. She had been driven out of her house; eight people she knew had committed suicide, and she herself was struggling against the same urge. Ching-ling tried to send her money, but it failed to reach her. The desperate cousin jumped to her death from the building facing Ching-ling’s Shanghai mansion. Having by then crushed her own warm-feeling-ism, Red Sister Ching-ling continued to revere Mao, claiming he “was the wisest man I ever had the good fortune of meeting” (270) in her private correspondence. Like many others, Ching-ling blamed Mao’s wife Jiang Qing for all the misery of the Cultural Revolution and was able to live in apparent serenity after it was over. On her death bed, in 1981, Ching-ling’s 1957 application for Communist Party membership was finally approved by Deng Xiaoping. Though none of the Soong family members were present at Red Sister’s funeral, and her final wishes were largely ignored, Ching-ling passed away with her faith intact, claiming “I have no regrets”.
May-ling is depicted as the most extroverted and most sympathetic of the three Soong sisters. In her early twenties, she had the intuition to observe, “the most successful men are usually not the ones with great powers as geniuses but the ones who had such ultimate faith in their own selves that invariably they hypnotise others to that belief as well as themselves” (87). Her ability to identify ambitious men helps explain why, after exhausting all her suitors in Shanghai, she turned her attention to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the son of a salt merchant, raised by a widowed mother. Chiang was already married with a wife and concubines, but Big Sister Ei-ling was pleased with his ability in political scheming and shared his anti-communist convictions. She introduced Little Sister May-ling to Chiang, thus joining money with power, creating the most powerful family of the Republic of China, and cementing Chiang’s rise as new China’s first dictator.
Chiang was a domineering husband with a violent temper. He used to drag his first wife down flights of stairs by her hair, and so had to adjust to his American educated wife May-ling, who had no intention of being subservient to him. Their first quarrel ended with his apologizing to her and set a life-long pattern for May-ling to exercise a softening influence on Chiang. May-ling’s own adjustment to her marriage was no less challenging than Chiang’s. Chiang had risen to power by murdering political opponents of Sun Yat-sen, and when he took power, attempts on his life were constant. May-ling suffered a miscarriage after an assassin broke into their bedroom. Afterwards, she was never able to have children.
May-ling eventually grew from the pampered youngest daughter of a businessman into a graceful and skilled diplomat, lobbying for American support throughout the Sino-Japanese war. Her first appearance on the political stage was an episode of high drama. In early December 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped in Xi’an by Zhang Xueliang, a young marshal, originally from Manchuria. Zhang wanted to capture Chiang in order to impress Stalin and become ruler of China himself. May-ling, sensing that the top officials in Nanjing were plotting to have Chiang killed instead of exerting effort in his rescue, made up her mind to save her husband herself. Before meeting the troops in Xi’an, she made her trusted escort William Donald promise to shoot her if things got out of hand. May-ling’s rescue of Chiang was a diplomatic triumph most rare in the history of power struggles in China. Not only did she ensure Chiang’s safety, she also protected the treacherous young marshal and prevented the kidnap from escalating into a bloodbath. Marshal Zhang Xueliang lived under house arrest for half a century, regained his freedom in his eighties and died in Hawaii in 2001, aged 100.
May-ling’s bravery and diplomatic skills were not enough to make her a wise leader who made a lasting impact on the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. She was ultimately limited by her lack of connection or care for common Chinese people. To May-ling, who was raised in Shanghai and educated in America, the poverty-stricken heartland of China was “old, dirty and repulsive”. Her remedy for this was to make “the whole population adopt good manners” by promoting the “New Life Movement” (173). This movement amounted to handing out pamphlets that contained 54 rules and 42 hygienic requirements. In a country plagued by 2000 years of structural exploitation and an unbridgeable disparity of wealth, May-ling’s New Life Movement was like applying makeup to a terminally ill patient. It solved none of China’s urgent social ailments. During the Civil War period, May-ling withdrew from the political scene. Knowing her husband would lose, she spent much of her time reminiscing about “dear old New York” and finally returned there in November 1948, determined to leave Chiang once and for all. She eventually joined her husband in Taiwan in early 1950, but she spent her days designing garments and painting, and did nothing to stop Chiang from imposing martial law, which lasted for the rest of his life and beyond. After her stepson Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, the 90-year-old May-ling attempted to stop Taiwan’s democratisation to protect her own privileges. Her loss was Taiwan’s gain.
The Soong sisters were the Republic of China’s most powerful women. They were among the first Chinese women who ever studied overseas. Yet neither their Western education nor their Christian faith gave them the wisdom and ability to transform China for the better. Their failure is common to many educated elites in China who have been raised and live comfortably with the political heritage of authoritarianism. In imperial China, education was a means to acquire political power; the educated elite was loyal to the privileged ruling class who served the emperor and not his people. The Soong sisters were no different. Their wealth, education and faith were all a means to serve the ends of the men they helped become a new generation of rulers.
How to cite: Zhang, Emma. “The World for One Family: A review of Jung Chang’s Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Aug. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/08/20/sisters/.
Emma Zhang is a lecturer of English in the College of International Education in Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature and comparative mythology. Her doctoral dissertation “Domination, Alienation and Freedom in Ha Jin’s Novels” (2015), analyses Ha Jin’s novels in connection with contemporary Chinese society. Her other works include “Father’s Journey into Night” (2013), “No End in Sight – the myth of Nezha and the ultra-stable authoritarian political order in China” (2018), and “The Taming of the White Snake – The oppression of female sexuality in the Legend of the White Snake”. She is currently working on translating ancient Chinese legends Nezha and The Legend of the White Snake.