Get to know China's three most famous sisters

17 February 2020 - 13:47 By Margaret von Klemperer
'Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister' by Jung Chang.
'Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister' by Jung Chang.
Image: Supplied

Published in The Witness (17/02/2020)

The story of the three Soong sisters, born in the 19th century, living through the turbulent 20th and the youngest dying well into the 21st, is extraordinary. They played an integral role in the political history of 20th century China, but their names are little known outside that country. Inside China they have legendary status. It is said one sister loved money, one loved power and one loved her country.

Ei-Ling, Ching-Ling and May-Ling were born into a wealthy Christian family from Shanghai, and, very unusually for the time, all three were sent to America to be educated.

It was the beginning of a century of turmoil in China, when nationalists and republicans of various kinds wanted to see the overthrow of the corrupt and inefficient imperial system.

Charlie Soong, their father, was a covert supporter of Sun Yat Sen, though he was not enthusiastic when his middle daughter, Ching-Ling (Red Sister) wanted to marry the brutal founding father of modern China, a man whose preferred method of dealing with his opponents was to assassinate them.

Meanwhile, Big Sister, Ei-Ling, married HH Kung and became a tenderpreneur of note. She was fiercely protective of her sisters, though Ching-Ling, a more enthusiastic communist than her husband ever was, began to move in a different direction, towards Russia.

May-Ling, the youngest, married Chiang-Kai-Shek, by his own admission “a lecherous lout” and also partial to a bit of assassination. But she stuck by him, particularly through the tough years of World War 2, when huge parts of China were occupied by the Japanese. However, always the most Westernised of the three, her heart was in the US, the country in which she would eventually die at the age of 105.

During World War 2, the sisters pulled together but once the Chinese civil war between Mao Tse-tung’s communists and Chiang-Kai-Shek’s nationalists was raging, the divide deepened. When the nationalists were confined to Taiwan, it became permanent, with Red Sister, though horrified by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, playing a central role as Mao’s vice-chair.

In this book, Jung Chang has created an intriguing blend of family dynamics and affections with an enthralling history of a fascinating country. To create a balance between them must have been extraordinarily difficult, but she has pulled it off in style.