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The Three Sisters Who Explain Modern China


Modern Chinese history is fascinating, but often misunderstood. People like me who grew up in Communist China have been brainwashed into believing only one version of the story: western powers and Japanese imperialists invaded China and ruined the once peaceful and harmonious middle kingdom; if not for the great leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, who drove out all foreign invaders and brought peace and prosperity, Chinese people would be destitute to this day.

A new book, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, by Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans) illustrates the lives of three famous Chinese women, the Soong sisters who lived from the late 19th to mid-20th century. It also offers one of the clearest rebuttals to the historically inaccurate version of events sanctioned by Chinese government.

The Soong sisters were born into a wealthy Christian family in Shanghai. Their father, Charlie Soong, was an impoverished farm boy from China’s southernmost Hainan Island. Charlie managed to come to America as a laborer, and made friends with influential people of the Southern Methodist Church. Charlie became the first Chinese person to be baptized as a southern Methodist, in North Carolina in 1881.

He was sent back to China as a missionary worker, and later became a successful businessman who started a Bible-printing business in Shanghai. Charlie’s wife was also a devoted Christian. They had three daughters and three sons, whom they all raised to be Christian (their second daughter, Qinling, later became a Communist), and sent all of them to America to study at a very young age. All of their children spoke fluent English.

One of the many contributions of this book is giving Christianity its due for shaping modern China’s history, which Communist China still denies. After Charlie became wealthy, he used his fortune to secretly sponsor Sun Yat-sen, a Christian and the leader of the revolution to overthrow the Qing dynasty and found the Republic of China. Sun’s many other Christian friends used their influence to protect him while he was in exile and hunted by the Manchu government. It is fair to say that Sun would never have succeeded without the support of a vast network of Christians.

Lives During Wartime

The Soongs’ three daughters, Ei-ling, Ching-ling and Mei-ling, were not great beauties, but they were educated, sophisticated, intelligent, independent-minded, and self-confident ladies. Each married a powerful man in China.

Ei-ling was considered the one with the best brain and financial skills. She was also the only one who liked to operate behind the scenes. She married financier H.H. Kung, (also a Christian) who served as the prime minister and finance minister for the Republic of China for many years. It was said that Ei-ling took advantage of her husband’s high position to make millions of dollars for the Soong family through corruption and fraud. Among all the Soongs, Ei-ling had the worst reputation. She has been known as the greedy one.

Author Chang didn’t try to gloss over Ei-ling’s greed, but Chang did present to us a full picture of Ei-ling. Prior to reading this book, I did not know that Ei-ling was the closest adviser to Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), successor of Sun Yat-sen and head of the Republic of China and the Nationalist Party. Ei-ling encouraged Chiang to fight the Chinese Communists, and later, when Chiang retreated to Taiwan, Ei-ling convinced him to let young Taiwanese study abroad, which laid the pivotal intellectual foundation for Taiwan’s booming economy.

Ei-ling also arranged Chiang’s marriage to her little sister, Mei-ling. Among all the Soongs, May-ling was the most westernized. She was sent to America at the young age of nine. She became China’s most glamorous first lady after marrying Chiang. According to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sanctioned version of history, Mei-ling was just as corrupt as her older sister, Ei-ling.

Author Chang shared a rumor she heard when she was growing up in China, which stated that Mei-ling bathed everyday with milk to keep her skin luminous while her fellow countrymen were starving. There is not an ounce of truth of this Marie Antoinette type of rumor, and the CCP perpetuates it only to demonize Mei-ling and Chiang.

Another notable contribution of this book is that it presented these controversial historical figures from a balanced and nuanced perspective. It’s true that Mei-ling couldn’t stomach poverty and that she led her long life (she lived to 106) in nothing but luxury. Yet, she was nothing but courageous and inspiring during China’s strenuous war against the Japanese invasion.

The CCP insists it defeated the Japanese while Chiang’s Nationalist Army did little to nothing. The truth is that Chiang’s army fought the Japanese bravely and bore most of the casualties, while the CCP was busy expanding its military and territories.

Mei-ling did more than visiting hospitals during wartime. She was the first secretary-general of the Aviation Commission, and single-handedly built the Chinese air force in the 1930s. She invited Captain Claire Chennault to China in 1937, who founded the legendary American pilot volunteer group, the “Flying Tigers.” He and his airmen admired Mei-ling, because she often beat them to the airfield, which was a dangerous prime target due to constant Japanese bombing. After each air battle, she would examine damages and greet the pilots, who she liked to call the “boys.” Mei-ling was also responsible in helping Chiang become a Christian.

Between 1942 and 1943, she took on a goodwill tour in the United States and Canada, giving numerous speeches to the American people. The highlight of her trip was to address the U.S. Congress on February 18th, 1942. “Her speech, in impeccable American English, moved many a powerful man to tears. The standing ovation lasted four minutes,” writes Chang. Mei-ling’s words generated tremendous support for China from American people and the U.S. government, and helped secure precious funding and military equipment for the Nationalist Army.

Later in November of 1943, Mei-ling accompanied Chiang to Cairo for a conference with President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Her official role was to translate for Chiang, since he did not speak English.

Mei-ling, however, went above and beyond. She charmed those most powerful men on the world stage, and her intellect and negotiation skills helped secure a big diplomatic victory for Chiang and for China: The Cairo Declaration spelled out that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, including Manchuria, Formosa (Taiwan), and the Pescadores, should be restored to the Republic of China.”

Mei-ling’s biggest weakness besides her addiction to luxury, according to this book, was her complete devotion to her big sister, Ei-ling and the Soong family. She suppressed critics regarding her big sister’s war-time corruption, which unfortunately led to her husband’s eventual downfall.

When mid to lower level Nationalist officials and army generals recognized Ei-ling getting was away with her corruption, they followed the suit. In the end, Chiang’s Nationalist government and army lost the Chinese people’s support due to their corruption and mismanagement of China’s economy. The Nationalists lost the civil war against the CCP, and had to retreat to Taiwan.

Still, all was not lost. With America’s support and Chiang’s son’s political reform, today’s Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and a shining example of what the Chinese can accomplish with access to political and economic freedom.

The Red Sister

Among all three sisters, Ching-ling, the middle sister and also the “red sister,” probably led the most tragic life among all the sisters. She married the “Father of China,” Sun Yat-sen, who was more than 20 years her senior, and married with four children when he courted her. It took a dramatic event for her to realize that her revolutionary hero was nothing but a selfish and power-hungry politician. Since then, their marriage became a political partnership. When Sun courted Soviet Union’s support, Ching-ling was seduced by communism.

Ching-ling became a widow when Sun died in 1925, after their marriage of just 10 years. As Madam Sun, she was one of the most powerful women in China. She had other lovers, but never married again because the title “Madam Sun” was her guarantee to power. She used her influence to assist the CCP in defeating her brother-in-law, Chiang, and overcome her sisters. When Communists founded the People’s Republic of China, Ching-ling was made Mao’s Vice Chairman and, she never saw her family again since they all left—either for the United States or Taiwan.

The CCP initially provided Ching-ling a sheltered life because it wanted to use her status to legitimize their regime and attract international support. However, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966 -1976), her household staff openly criticized her bourgeois lifestyle because she preferred western music and often hosted dance and dinner parties.

Her parents’ tombs in Shanghai were defaced by Red Guards. Her relatives were tortured, and some died of violent deaths because of the family name. They pleaded for her help, but there was nothing she could do—she barely survived herself.

Yet after Mao died, she praised him to be “the wisest man I ever had the good fortune of meeting—his clear thinking and teaching … we must follow faithfully for they lead us from victory to victory.” It’s difficult to determine whether she said it out of self-preservation because she became afraid of the regime, or if she truly meant it.

After she passed away in 1981, the CCP ignored her will, which left most of her things to her adopted daughters, friends, and staff. The CCP claimed that most of her belongings belonged to the government. It also tried to use her death to score a public relations victory by inviting overseas Soong family members to return to China for Ching-ling’s funeral. No one came. Ching-ling died a very lonely woman.

This book is a fascinating read. Through the lives of the three most influential sisters, readers will learn not only China’s modern history, but will also see the nuances within today’s complicated relationships that exist between the United States, mainland China, and Taiwan, and as such it can be enthusiastically recommended for anyone seeking to understand modern China.