Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister

Jung Chang

 
Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister
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Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister

Jung Chang

The best-known modern Chinese fairy tale is the story of three sisters from Shanghai, who for most of the twentieth century were at the centre of power in China. It was sometimes said that ‘One loved money, one loved power and one loved her country', but there was far more to the Soong sisters than these caricatures. As China battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, each sister played an important, sometimes critical role, and left an indelible mark on history.


Red Sister, Ching-ling, married Sun Yat-sen, founding father of the Chinese republic, and later became Mao’s vice-chair. Little Sister, May-ling, was Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of the pre-Communist Nationalist China and a major political figure in her own right. Big Sister, Ei-ling, was Chiang’s unofficial main adviser. She made herself one of China’s richest women - and her husband Chiang’s prime minister. All three sisters enjoyed tremendous privilege and glory, but also endured constant attacks and mortal danger. They showed great courage and experienced passionate love, as well as despair and heartbreak. The relationship between them was highly charged emotionally, especially once they had embraced opposing political camps and Ching-ling dedicated herself to destroying her two sisters' world.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister
is a gripping story of love, war, exile, intrigue, glamour and betrayal, which takes us on a monumental journey, from Canton to Hawaii and New York, from exiles' quarters in Japan and Berlin to secret meeting rooms in Moscow, and from the compounds of the Communist elite in Beijing to the corridors of power in democratic Taiwan. In a group biography that is by turns intimate and epic, Jung Chang reveals the lives of three extraordinary women who helped shape the history of twentieth-century China.

Review

British–Chinese writer Jung Chang (Wild Swans, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China) is well-known for writing intimate biographies set against some of the world’s most turbulent events. She continues this trajectory with Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, a group biography of the famous Soong sisters, that also operates as a political history of China from the fall of the Qing dynasty to the beginning of the twenty-first century. The Soong sisters are glibly described in the popular saying, ‘In China, there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, one loved her country’, but in Chang’s hands it becomes clear that they were far more complex than that pat summary.

Ei-ling, the oldest, was a financial and political power broker, a close adviser to General Chang-Kai-Shek and wife of business mogul H.H. Kung. Middle sister Ching-ling married the founding father of the Chinese republic, Sun Yat-sen, and later became Mao’s vice-chair. May-ling – the youngest – was Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China. The sisters were educated in the West, they were glamorous, cultured, and Christian; all three were nestled into the highest strata of power as various leaders, parties and forces competed for control of post-imperial China. As could be predicted, the chapters covering the Second Sino–Japanese War and World War II are some of the most vivid, but throughout the Soong women face great loss and suffering, danger (at times, literally being shot at) and exile. Despite the fact that they often occupied opposing sides in cut-throat ideological battles, they still maintained the strongest of blood ties.

It seems self-evident that Chang has made a life project of elevating the lives of Chinese women in our collective memories. It’s a conundrum of Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister that it’s quite impossible to talk about the Soong sisters without constant reference to their husbands, but Chang never wavers in her focus on the close interior lives of the Soong women, and the influence and charisma they wielded.


Leanne Hall is a children’s and YA specialist at Readings Kids. She also writes books for children and young adults.

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