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.
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.
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.
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.