Charlie’s angels

The Soong sisters lives were sewn into the dramatic tapestry of China’s modern history, but in this saga there is nobody with whom to sympathise or identify

John Gerson

The three daughters of Charlie Soong, an American-educated Chinese missionary, all wed historic figures: Ei-ling (known as “Big Sister”) married the billionaire finance minister H.H. Kung; May-ling (“Little Sister”) was wife to Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek; and Ching-ling (“Red Sister”) married Sun Yat-sen, figurehead of the 1911 Revolution that felled the Manchu dynasty. Thus, their lives were sewn into the dramatic tapestry of China’s modern history. 

In this saga there is nobody with whom to sympathise or identify. That applies equally to the menfolk. The sisters had three brothers, and one of them, T.V. Soong, became finance minister, foreign minister, and central bank governor—and as fabulously and corruptly wealthy as his brother-in-law. The husbands were variously disreputable. China’s government in the 1940s resembled a badly run, second-generation family firm.

The founding father had been very appealing. Charlie Soong was a picaresque youth returned to China by his Southern Baptist backers to spread the word; he went on to make a fortune in Shanghai partly in alliance with the Triads. Unlike all but one of his children, whom he sent to the US for their education and whose Church membership they inherited, Charlie was devoted to his country’s future. He gave some of his wealth and much of his energy to the republican cause.

The leader of that cause rewarded Charlie by running off with his youngest daughter. Sun Yat-sen was a feckless adventurer whose posthumous personality cult has been convenient to both the Nationalist (KMT) and the Communist (CCP) camps into which the republican movement split. Neither the KMT nor the CCP will happily recall that he offered Japan Manchuria and the Soviet Union Xinjiang in exchange for their support in his personal power struggles.

Charlie’s angels were not spoilt as children, with early years far from home in US boarding schools. But Ei-ling and May-ling somehow acquired a monstrous sense of entitlement, an almost pathological need for privilege and luxury, ruthlessness, and a bizarre lack of sympathy for others. The Borgias were more human, more gifted, and more interesting. A sober judgment on this trio would conclude that despite their prolonged and vivid presence on the stage their parts, with only occasional exceptions, were not crucial to the plot.

Little Sister (she was 5’ 3”) looms largest. The best description of May-ling, despite many references to her beauty, comes from General Alanbrook’s diary. He admired her charm at the Cairo conference, but wrote of her appearance: “Not good-looking, with a flat Mongolian face with high cheekbones and a flat, turned up nose with two long circular nostrils looking like two dark holes leading into her head.” This might have been a description of the later Presidential consort in Manila, Imelda Marcos.

Imelda also comes to mind when contemplating May-ling’s gross self-indulgence in the many years that followed marriage in 1927 to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Staying at the White House in 1943 May-ling required the silk sheets she had brought with her to be changed four or five times a day. When her cigarettes arrived in New York, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau was pestered into flying an official there to collect them. White House staff did not enjoy being summoned with a clap of her hands, and President Roosevelt grew “just crazy to get her out”.

Yet that trip was one occasion when May-ling did make a difference. Her charm and determination played on the romantic American idea of China to tremendous effect and won mass support for US aid to China against Japan. 

May-ling had also mattered in 1936, when Chiang Kai-shek was seized in Xi’an by warlords. Her courageous and decisive intervention probably saved his life and without it the affair would not have produced the Nationalist-Communist truce that was the price for his release. She made a speech that even echoed Elizabeth I’s great call to defy the Spanish Armada. But that was about it. After Chiang fled to Taiwan May-ling spent most of her time in the US in luxurious exile, lingering on as a dowager following Chiang’s death in 1975 until her own in 2003, aged 105.

Ei-ling, the Big Sister, had a sense of responsibility towards her family but her life and formidable intelligence were otherwise ferociously concentrated on massive enrichment at the country’s expense. She wisely shunned publicity and deserves obscurity.

Red Sister lacked the grasping vices of her siblings and was estranged from the family by her marriage. Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925 and her covert co-option by the CCP United Front condemned her to a sad life of “living suttee”. Entitled China’s Vice Chairman she lived on after 1949—privileged, protected, powerless and effectively imprisoned in her Beijing palace, until her 1981 deathbed acceptance into the Party.

The last big book on this subject (The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave, 1984) was revelatory, and its author had to go into hiding, a previous would-be whistle-blower having been assassinated. A long new book about the three sisters should surely offer its readers generous helpings of new information, conclusive judgments, and fresh insights into the period. This one does not.

After the success of her memoir Wild Swans, Jung Chang has written four books, all apparently aimed at educated readers who don’t know very much about China. They have been condemned by many people who do know about China for their glib judgments and cavalier, unscholarly methods.

Jung Chang’s life of Mao was judged by Frank McLynn in the Independent “an 800-page polemic . . . full of bad history”. Why, he asks, “bother with the tiresome discipline of historical research when you can make wild assertions buttressed by unknown or suspect oral sources?”

Professor Pamela Crossley, scholar of the Qing dynasty, delicately eviscerated Jung Chang’s book on Cixi (Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China), after recalling that, “Since Sterling Seagrave’s Dragon Lady of 1992 [yes, him again], Cixi has been the subject of or a major figure in a dozen books, as well as films and television series. Still, we evidently need more Cixi.”

Jung Chang has been here before. Her first, brief life of Red Sister, now strangely buried in obscurity, was published in 1986. Publishers Weekly called it a “dry and sometimes fawning account . . . (that) owes readers more than it delivers”.

Most of the vivid passages in this book were drawn from one published in 1941 and extensively quoted in later works, and from another that is 30 years old. This latest work makes similar glib, sweeping assertions to the others. Thus, Mao’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward is simply attributed to his desire to build up military industries urgently, and “the main cause” of the devastating famine that followed was that “Mao exported food to Russia”. Pull the other leg.

In 1936 Chiang Kai-shek detained the warlord who had kidnapped him. When the Generalissimo fled to Taiwan in 1949 he took his prisoner along like a pet in a cat basket. Only after Chiang’s death in 1975 was he released. Jung Chang states that the man’s “only punishment was a comfortable house arrest”.

Perhaps that’s not as weirdly inappropriate as it seems. During all those years China’s people have not experienced much comfort at the hands of their rulers. Mikhail Borodin, Sun Yat-sen’s Comintern adviser, called the KMT “a toilet, which, as often as you flush it, still stinks.” President Truman said of the Party “They’re all thieves, every damn one of them.” The Communist underdogs offered a fresh, attractive, contrast, which their record in power betrayed. Today the underdog Taiwan, liberated from corruption and authoritarian rule by Chiang Kai-shek’s son, offers a contrast to China’s corruption and intolerance. For readers depressed by the content of this rather pointless book, there just might be the chance of a more encouraging sequel.


Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China
By Jung Chang
Jonathan Cape, 316pp, £25.00

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