The Sisters Who Made Modern China5 min read

James Carter reviews Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang

One of the great challenges for authors writing biographies is their relationship to their subjects. They risk either putting them on a pedestal and explaining away their foibles, or demonizing them and finding evil intent behind every action. Jung Chang has swung to both horns of this dilemma in the past. In Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, she interpreted the historical evidence to claim that rather than the hidebound reactionary she is often portrayed to be, Cixi was a progressive visionary who, had she not been thwarted, would have presided over a golden age of Chinese democracy. On the other hand, in Mao: The Unknown Story, Chang and co-author Jon Halliday so thoroughly and unskeptically demonized Mao that they achieved the unlikely effect of bringing sinologists to write a book about their book itself, Was Mao Really a Monster?

In Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, Jung Chang has opened a window onto the lives of the Soong sisters – Soong Ai-ling, Soong Ching-ling, and Soong May-ling – who like Cixi are on the short list of the most famous women in China’s modern history. Chang does not shy away from criticism in this latest book, though that criticism is not, for the most part, directed at her subjects. Sun Yat-sen comes off especially poorly, as a womanizing political opportunist. Chiang Kai-shek doesn’t shine either, and we already know Chang’s views on Mao. Sister’s 300 pages entertain and titillate through remarkable stories of unlikely experiences, but without the controversy or the intimacy of Chang’s earlier books.

The book’s greatest contributions are scenes of these three extraordinary lives – threads that run through a time of transformation in China. It is impossible to see up close the changes from the late 1800s to the late 1900s and not be astounded. The book underscores the importance of contingency to history: the parade of revolutions and inaugurations that make up the timeline of 20th-century China was not pre-ordained. It is hard to read about how conversations held at the pinnacles of power in Beijing or Nanjing reverberated across the continent and through the years and not pause to wonder what might have been.

But this is also one of the weaknesses of Chang’s approach. Her books illustrate why theories that emphasize the actions of political leaders as the driving forces of history are out of fashion. For example, the unlikely survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the Long March is, given their later rise to power, enormously important for not only China but the entire world. The hagiography of the Long March has been well documented; the CCP has made it a mythological origin story. Chang instead argues that the entire enterprise was only possible because Chiang Kai-shek allowed it, part of a secret deal with Stalin that if Chiang let the Communists in China survive, Stalin would release Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, from captivity in Russia. Apparently, this deal was so secret it was even secret to Stalin. Chang and Halliday went to great lengths to challenge the CCP’s legitimacy in Mao: The Unknown Story, and in Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister Chang wants to finish the job. Mao showed that the Long March was not the feat the CCP made it out to be; here she contends it was entirely because Chiang Kaishek chose his son over China’s future. This makes for a fascinating tidbit, but reduces one of the major arcs of China’s history – the rise to power of the CCP –  to a single decision by one man.

Chang’s books illustrate why theories that emphasize the actions of political leaders as the driving forces of history are out of fashion”

One of the most consistent criticisms of Jung Chang’s last two books was that they were too polemical, fitting (or ignoring) evidence to make points that seemed to have been predetermined. Although new archives, in many languages, were put forward to buttress the arguments, key points were sometimes supported solely by recollections of a single witness. By contrast, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Chang’s first and most critically acclaimed book, let the story speak for itself. It had a point of view – no love for Mao came through its pages – but Wild Swans laid bare the hypocrisy and malevolence of Maoism through personal experiences, letting detail tell a story without manipulating the details to prove a point.

If Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister were fiction, it would be criticized as farfetched. The attraction of the Soong sisters’ story is their completely implausible connections to just about everyone of celebrity or importance in modern China. The three husbands of the Soong sisters are there, of course – Sun Yatsen, Chiang Kaishek, and KMT finance minister HH Kung – but also Mao, Zhou Enlai, Eleanor Roosevelt, and even Elvis Presley makes an appearance. In almost every scene of China’s recent history, the Soong sisters appear.

It is that proximity to the big decisions that makes the book worth reading. The historical figures making those decisions do so because of human failings, or wants. That is a valuable corrective to the current fashion to emphasize structures and processes over human agency, although at times Chang takes it goes too far. In this way Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister avoids the pitfalls of polemic, but doesn’t bring the intimacy of memoir. The result is a fascinating, if episodic, trip through China’s twentieth century. ∎

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, Jung Chang (Jonathan Cape, October 2019)