Red Sister’s years as Mao’s vice-chairman were anguished. She saw friends tortured and denounced. In public she quoted party slogans such as: “We must crush warm-feeling-ism.” In private she told her correspondents: “Burn this letter after reading.” She loathed Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the atrocities it brought, but wrote: “I made my choice and I have no regrets.” Red Sister died in Beijing in 1981, aged 88, working for the communist government until her last breath.
The sisters were divided by politics, united by love. Even as you recoil from their actions, you are moved by their bond. In this lucid, wise, forgiving biography Chang gives a new twist to an old line. Behind every great man... is a Soong sister.
It’s an engaging story, but as told by Chang is clotted with history that is at best irrelevant and at worst unexamined or careless. At one point she warns, mystifyingly, that the cultural renaissance that followed the May Fourth protests “had little to do with the nationalistic demonstration that took place on 4 May 1919”, in case any reader believed that the entirety of the May Fourth movement took place on May 4. Red Sister has an old-fashioned, Pearl S. Buck flavour, in part the effect of its weirdly soothing romanization style (Soong Ching-ling and not Song Qingling). The founder of the Kuomintang is referred to as “a mustachioed Hunanese”, a warlord as “fine-boned”. More disturbingly, Chang describes Charlie Soong as “dark” with “un-Chinese-looking lips”, and May-ling is “American in all but her face”.
Her breathtaking new triple biography restores these “tiger-willed” women to their extraordinarily complex humanity. I was constantly reminded of the Mitford sisters as I read of their witty, affectionate sibling bonds, glamorous lives, fiercely opposed political ideologies and privileged detachment from the street-level impact of those beliefs. As in her bestselling 1991 memoir Wild Swans, Chang uses a gripping and emotional personal story to draw Western readers into the history of China, a country in which her books are still banned and which she is only permitted to visit for 15 days a year, following the publication of her damning 2005 Mao biography (co-written with her husband Jon Halliday).
Anyone who has read Jung Chang's marvellous 1991 best-seller Wild Swans will know she is a skilled storyteller, with a masterful eye for telling details.
This book, despite its length, fairly zips along, leaving you hungry to know more about China's extraordinary and turbulent history in the past hundred years.
The Soong sisters may still be objects of fascination in their native land, but no one in China will be reading this engrossing story. Although Jung Chang's books have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, her work is banned in the country of her birth.
Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, written in a compulsive style that sweeps the story along, is much the fullest account of their remarkable lives available in English... the warts-and-all portrait of “the Father of the Republic” is a welcome corrective to the conventional hagiography... The sisters make a great story told with considerable sympathy for them. But, for all the interest they provide, the claim on the book’s cover that they were “at the centre of power and each left an indelible mark on history” is overstated.
When Jung Chang was growing up in Mao’s China in the Fifties and Sixties, the three Soong sisters were like characters from a modern Chinese fairytale... Born in the final decades of the Manchu dynasty, these exceptional siblings, the subjects of Chang’s outstanding book, all exercised strong influence on 20th-century Chinese politics thanks to their extraordinary marriages. As with her previous books, most famously Wild Swans, it is Chang’s sympathetic, storyteller’s eye — her attention to deeply human detail during the most extraordinary circumstances — that makes her work remarkable. Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is another triumph.
It is true that the Dowager Empress of China (the subject of one of the author’s previous books) played an important role in supporting constitutional reforms in the early 1900s, but it is a stretch to suggest that she did so from pure conviction. Likewise, dictatorship in China may not have been inevitable, but none of the militarist figures vying for power was truly committed to democracy.
Yet her book is well worth reading, in particular for the way it shows how powerful women have helped to shape modern China. At a time when, 70 years after Mao’s victory, the country’s political leadership contains almost no prominent women at all, that is a particularly apposite message to hear.
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... 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.
Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is a monumental work, worthy both of Jung Chang’s Mao and of the great, rambling, heterogeneous Chinese folk epics of the oral past, such as The Water Margin and The Three Kingdoms. Its three fairy-tale heroines, poised between east and west, spanned three centuries, two continents and a revolution, with consequences that reverberate, perhaps now more than ever, in all our lives to this day.
Beyond the soap opera, what mark the sisters actually left on China remains unclear. If Sun Yat-sen or Chiang Kai-shek had married differently, would that have altered the course of history? Other women could just as easily have visited the troops and succoured the wounded, perhaps without the sense of entitlement these pampered rich girls displayed. Simply because she lived longest, dying at the age of 105, we are left at the end of the book with an image of May-ling passing her final years in New York amid luxuries and bevies of servants. At least with Jung Chang it is a rollicking ride.
Anyone familiar with Jung Chang’s earlier work will know what to expect from her. She paints China’s intense and complex history in bold strokes. This new book offers up roughly a century’s worth of extreme personalities, revolutions, wars, venality and brutality. It is history in black and white, with splashes of red all over... [However] Chang spends little time discussing other cases of corruption or the role of republicans in fomenting the nationalism that the Communist Party now exploits to ruthless effect. Nor does she offer any comparison of the competing political programmes in play. Nuance has no place in this narrative. Trying to cover so much ground in one book leaves little room for it anyway.
Chang's Wild Swans, published in 1991, remains among my favourite biographies. Her new book also stars a trio of extraordinary women, whose lives form the subject of the best-known modern Chinese fairytale-but they are little known to Western readers. Based on extensive first-hand research and interviews, as well as Chang's experience of growing up in Maoist China, it's the engrossing story of the three Soong sisters from Shanghai, each of whom played a crucial role in shaping modern China, witnessing war, revolution and seismic transformations along the way.
Ching-ling (Red Sister) married the founding father of the Chinese republic and later became Mao's vice-chair. May-ling (Little Sister) married Chiang Kai-shek, and became first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China, and a political figure in her own right; while Ei-ling (Big Sister) was chief advisor to Chiang. All three enjoyed tremendous privilege and fame, but also endured constant attacks and mortal danger as well as heartbreak and despair. And the relationship between the three sisters was highly charged, particularly once they embraced opposing political camps. As well as being gripped by story of the sisters, I learned so much about 20th-century China.