Books

'Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister': Three sisters bear witness to China's raucous 20th century

by Nicolas Gattig

Contributing Writer

“Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes,” said the actor Jim Carrey. As the historical contributions of women are increasingly recognized across the globe, in “Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister” author Jung Chang sheds new light on three Chinese women, each of whom could be forgiven for their own share of eyerolling.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, by Jung Chang.
374 pages
KNOPF, Nonfiction.

The eponymous trio — perhaps the most famous sisters in Chinese history — hailed from Shanghai’s wealthy Soong family, which also counted three sons.

Born in the 1880s and 1890s, and all married to historical leaders, the sisters were for years at the centers of power and embodied the political divide — nationalist versus communist — that marked 20th-century China.

With engaging prose and a stunning amount of detail, Chang follows the family from Canton to Hawaii to New York, from Japanese exile and Moscow to the newly formed government of Taiwan.

The Soong sisters’ ascent to power was sealed mainly through marriage. The eldest, Big Sister Ei-ling married the richest man in China at the time, the banker and politician H.H. Kung.

Even more influential in politics, “Red Sister” Ching-ling became the third wife of Sun Yat-sen, who helped overthrow the monarchy in 1911 to become “Father” of the Republic of China.

Not to be outdone, Little Sister May-ling, the youngest of the three, married the revolutionary leader Chiang Kai-shek, who in 1928 formed a nationalist government and led the Chinese resistance against Imperial Japan. May-ling was first lady for 20 years, until, just after World War II, her husband was exiled to Taiwan by the Communists.

Chang has written extensively about women in Chinese history and her work includes “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China,” a bestselling biography of her own family. Born in China and an erstwhile member of the Red Guard, Chang has lived in England for 40 years, enjoying the celebrity status that has resulted from her historical writings. She first became fascinated with the Soong sisters when, along with their place in history, she discovered their human complexity.

“I’d actually wanted to write a biography of Sun Yat-sen,” says Chang. “But when I was piecing together his life, the depth of character of his wife and her sisters captured my imagination. I saw their conflicts, moral dilemmas and agonizing decisions — all the things that make people interesting.

“What moved me was their courage and passionate love, as well as despair, fear and heartbreak. Both Ching-ling and May-ling had narrow escapes from death and suffered miscarriages that left them childless — as the result of the husbands they had chosen.”

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the power struggles between the sisters. The oldest and youngest sister were passionately anti-communist, with Big Sister Ei-ling an unofficial adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. Red Sister Ching-ling, on the other hand, was a hardened Leninist and, in 1949, became Mao’s vice chairman. Putting politics before family, she helped Mao chase Chiang out of the country, ruining both of her sisters’ positions of power.

“I was intrigued by the relationship between the women,” says Chang. “They were emotionally close, yet committed to hostile camps that fought bloody wars. Modern Chinese history was intimately intertwined with their personal traumas.”

As China becomes increasingly authoritarian, Western readers may not recognize the republic in which the Soong sisters rose to prominence. Between 1912 and 1928, China was a functioning democracy, a society where women felt empowered, with endless possibilities on the horizon.

“It was very different from today,” says Chang, whose books have been banned in China. “In those years, general elections were held and free speech was unfettered. Tolerance of dissent was high. Against this background, women’s liberation advanced quickly. Within a couple of generations, women went from being prisoners in their own homes to being encouraged to take part in public affairs. The Soong sisters were among the first to benefit from the freedoms of this period.”

Of course, with research as scrupulous as Chang’s, the book is full of new discoveries. One surprise was how Sun Yat-sen, revered as saint-like by many Chinese, used his wife as bait when attacked by political enemies. After escaping a clash in Canton, he wanted Ching-ling to remain as a target so that he could draw his enemies into battle and have an excuse to bombard the city. Ching-ling spent two hellish days fleeing and nearly died.

“Sun did not lift a finger to help her,” explains Chang. “She suffered a miscarriage and could never have children, which was devastating to her. It’s still mostly unknown that, for his political ambitions, Sun would readily sacrifice the life of his wife.”

Like all good characters in a story both epic and intimate, the sisters evoke mixed emotions. But when asked which one of the three was the most interesting to write about, Chang is reluctant to pick a favorite.

“All three were intelligent, independent-minded and self-confident,” she says. “As for who is the most interesting, I would like my readers to decide.”