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.
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.