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Ei-Ling, May-Ling and Ching-Ling Soong in 1940. Photo/Getty Images

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: How the Soongs shaped modern China

Wild Swans writer Jung Chang traces the history of the most famous sisters in 20th-century China.

The Soong sisters were the most famous sisters in 20th-century China. The eldest, Ei-ling, was one of China’s richest women, a tough unofficial adviser to Premier Chiang Kai-shek and married to Chiang’s finance minister, the billionaire HH Kung. The middle sister, Ching-ling, was known as Madame Sun as the wife of one of the founders of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, then “Red Sister” as vice president of China under Mao. The youngest, May-ling, married Mao’s great rival in the unification of China, Chiang, and became one of his closest advisers, rallying the Chinese in the war against Japan.

Jung Chang, whose Wild Swans (1991) sold 13 million copies, tells their story in Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister. Her Wild Swans told a story of China through three generations of women in her family; here she tells the story of three women, sometimes loving, sometimes feuding, but united by family.

Of the three, it is Ching-ling and May-ling – Red Sister and Little Sister – who are the focus. Ei-ling, the eldest, took on the role she believed God had given her, making money to keep the family going.

Ching-ling married Sun, 25 years her senior, enamoured by his mission to elevate China. She soon discovered his main aim was to elevate himself, says Jung.

After his death in 1925, Ching-ling became a communist sympathiser. After the Soviets ordered Chinese communists to go into partnership with Chiang’s government, she gritted her teeth for the sake of her family and the revolution. She toured hospitals and war zones with her sisters.

May-ling was the vivacious sister who loved the social whirl. Then Ei-ling, ever the family organiser, decided she should be married to the rising Chiang. Their marriage proved surprisingly successful. Chiang listened to her counsel and depended on her support. She, in turn, moved from being appalled by encounters with ordinary Chinese to being their champion.

It is in the quiet domestic moments that Jung excels – such as the time Chiang broke off peace talks with Mao to take May-ling on a date weekend. He gave her a “string of pearls”, which turned out to be a giant rural estate shaped like jewellery. But this intertwining of wealth, politics and family was part of the Soongs’ undoing. They were dogged by corruption allegations, their wealth increasingly an affront to a war-torn nation.

One of the issues for a biography of women married to famous men is how to deal with the men. Chiang is deftly drawn. But Sun overshadows the first third of the story so it feels like his biography – which, in fact, it had been. Chang set out to research Sun but found herself drawn to the sisters. It makes the opening chapters a struggle.

For all that, the middle section, in which the sisters put on a united front against Japan while each hoping for a different outcome in the struggle with the communists, is compelling. There is Ei-ling sending “care packs” to her communist sister as the Reds close in on Shanghai. Or May-ling shutting down a government investigation into fraud allegations against her older sister, who was accused of ripping off government contracts. Family was family, after all.

BIG SISTER, LITTLE SISTER, RED SISTER, by Jung Chang (Penguin, $38)

Jung Chang is appearing at the NZ Festival of the Arts in Wellington on February 28.

This article was first published in the December 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.