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The Chinese Mitfords

Books |

Soong Ai-ling (Song Ailing; Sung Ai-ling) (1889 - 1973)

Christina Tyler reviews Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China by Jung Chang

Like the Mitford girls, their English contemporaries, the Soong sisters of Shanghai were dazzled by power.

Born to privilege and educated at a Methodist school in America, they were introduced by their father, Charlie, to Sun Yat-sen, a political gangster who plotted to seize the presidency of the new republic in Peking. It is no surprise that in this climate the naïve young sisters should have become – unlike the Mitfords – corrupted by status and money.

The eldest and plainest, Ei-ling, was courted by Sun but married a mild-mannered businessman who became very rich at the state’s expense. It was her younger sister Ching-ling who won the dubious prize of Sun, the so-called Father of China. The youngest of the three, May-ling, fell to Sun’s successor Chiang Kai-shek, head of the disastrous Nationalist government.

Jung Chang’s latest book clearly adopts the same format as Wild Swans, the bestselling triple biography featuring the author, her mother and her grandmother, which was published in 1991 and made her name. But the trick doesn’t quite work.

One reason is the awkwardness of its structure. Swans had a simple timeline. Here the overlapping lives of three coevals make the chronology confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the chaotic history of China between the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1911 and the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976.

A more serious objection to Chang’s treatment is that the three sisters had nowhere near the influence suggested by her book. They – along with two of their three brothers – merely benefited from the perks of belonging to a ruling-clan mafia in which all the top jobs went to members of the family under the benevolent autocracy of its godfather, Chiang Kai-shek.

Ei-ling was rich because her husband H H Kung was admitted to the Chiang clique as prime minister and finance minister. He was able to manipulate state finances and pocketed millions of dollars of American aid when the US backed the Nationalists in the Second World War.

Ching-ling (‘Red Sister’) opted out. She hated Chiang and worked discreetly for the Russians instead. Her husband had treated her abominably – an episode most vividly described – yet she was desperate to maintain her status as Madame Sun, widow of the Father of China (a cult started, incidentally, by Chiang and later adopted by Mao). Stalin, for his own political ends, indulged her. So later did Mao when, having driven the Nationalists from the mainland to Taiwan, he awarded her an honorific title and a ‘palatial mansion’ in Peking.

May-ling, ‘Little Sister’, came closest to real power, but exaggerated her role as the dictator’s wife. By and large, Chang lets her get away with it. She is critical, but appears to relish May-ling’s extravagance, quoting extensively from May-ling’s gushing and self-serving letters.

May-ling was a fickle wife in a loveless marriage. She may have been a good organiser and kind founder of hospitals, but her real function was to be the pretty face of an ugly dictatorship. Her flirtatious manner charmed some – but not all – of the visiting Americans. (A well-attested one-night stand with the unsuccessful presidential candidate Wendell Willkie is overlooked in this book.) As the PR girl for America’s new Chinese allies, May-ling became a media celebrity during a tour of the US in 1943: she addressed Congress, spoke at huge rallies and reached the cover of Time magazine. A second plane was needed to fly her shopping back to China. She died in 2003, at the age of 105, in an apartment in New York behind bullet-proof windows.

Chang gives an efficient but bloodless account of the historical background to the Soong shenanigans. Tens of millions of poor Chinese died as a result of the warlords’ struggle, the Japanese invasion and massacres, the resumption of civil war, famines and the Nationalists’ eventual defeat by Mao’s Communists.

Nearly 40 pages of notes and bibliography testify to the author’s diligence. Biography, though, is not a matter only of research; it requires discrimination and interpretation. Jung Chang’s many readers will no doubt be entertained by her indulgent treatment of the Soong sisters. But it left a bad taste in the mouth of this one.

This story was from October 2019 issue. Subscribe Now