The Sisters Who Made Modern China

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 Beijing Spring

James Carter on Khiang Hei’s Tiananmen exhibition at Zimmerli

The images on display in Khiang Hei’s new photo exhibition, at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey, are uncomfortable to look at. Not because of the images themselves, which depict the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Full of color and spectacle, many of Hei’s images taken before the crackdown on June 4 evoke a sense of excitement, even optimism. Some are grim and bloody, but most of them are not. They show students gathered behind banners declaring support for principles such as democracy and free expression, or identifying their universities or departments. Often they are laughing, smiling, even dancing. Some carry small children, or flash the “peace/V-for-victory” sign.