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Author Jung Chang talks about her new book on the Soong sisters

by Paul French
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By Paul French

Jung Chang was born in Sichuan and moved to England in 1978. She is best known for the inter-generational biography of her own family, Wild Swans. No other book on China has ever sold as well – with over 20 million copies sold in 38 languages. With her husband, the scholar Jon Halliday, she has written a biography of Mao, and another of the Empress Dowager Cixi. However, her first published book, back in 1986, was a biography of Soong Ching-ling (Madame Sun Yatsen) and so her fascination with the ‘Chinese Mitford sisters’, the three Soong girls who grew up to marry revolutionaries, Generalissimos and phenomenally wealthy men, is nothing new. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that, in her latest book, she decided to revisit the Soong sisters.

After writing about your own family, Mao and Cixi, why choose the Soong Sisters?

Actually, I had resisted the idea of writing about the sisters. I wanted to write about another programme-setter and history-changer like Mao or Cixi. But the sisters were not like them. As individuals they seemed to be unreal fairy tale figures as summed up by the much-quoted description: “In China, there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country.” Instead, I thought of writing about Sun Yatsen, the Father of Republican China. He was a programme-setter and a sort of ‘bridge’ between Cixi and Mao. But when I was piecing together Sun’s life, the depth of character of his wife and her sisters emerged and captured my imagination. I saw their mental conflicts, moral dilemmas, and agonising decisions – all the things that make human beings real and interesting. And so I decided to make them the subjects of this book.

It seems that, in China, the Soong sisters remain ever popular – books, TV shows, movies – what is their enduring appeal in today’s China?

They are modern China’s ‘princesses’, primarily because of their extraordinary marriages. Soong Ching-ling married Sun Yatsen, the ‘Father of China’. Soong May-ling became Mme Chiang Kai-shek and was the first lady of Nationalist China. Soong Ei-ling’s husband, H. H. Kung, was both Chiang’s Prime Minister and Finance Minister for many years.

They were also important personalities in their own right. As Mme Sun, Ching-ling was an independent political figure and became Mao’s vice-chairman. May-ling was China’s first lady and one of the most famous women of her time in the world, especially during the Second World War when her husband led the Chinese resistance against Japanese invasion. Ei-ling became one of the richest women in China. They lived long lives – May-ling died in 2003, aged 105 – and were at the centre of power during wars and revolutions. And, last but not least, they were divided by two antagonistic political camps.

History is such an enormous factor in your books – the political winds that buffeted your own family, Cixi and Mao. Do you think history has been kind to the Soong Sisters, and perhaps Soong May-ling in particular?

In Taiwan and much of the Chinese speaking world, May-ling is revered by many people. In mainland China, her image has changed according to the political winds. I remember when I was growing up in Mao’s China there was a widely known story that May-ling bathed every day in milk to keep her skin luminous. In those days, milk was scarce and using it as bath water deemed an unbelievable indulgence. Once a teacher attempted to redress this common myth and muttered to his pupils, “Well, do you really think it would be comfortable to be soaked in milk?” He was soon condemned. But today, May-ling is largely presented in a benign way, because China has liberalised and because Beijing is courting people in Taiwan that are faithful to the Chiangs.

I myself became fascinated with the sisters when I discovered their human qualities. What moved me was their strength, courage, and passion, as well as despair, fear and heartbreak. Both Ching-ling and May-ling had narrow escapes from death and suffered miscarriages that left them childless. I was intrigued by the relationship between the three sisters: they were close emotionally, and yet ideologically opposed. Ei-ling and May-ling were passionately anti-Communist, whilst the Red Sister Ching-ling associated with the likes of Stalin and Mao. She helped them drive Chiang to Taiwan and destroy the world of her sisters. Modern Chinese history was so intimately intertwined with the personal traumas of the Soong sisters.

Soong Qing-ling’s position in modern China is still paramount – she was “Honorary” President, with several museums in Shanghai and parks named after her. Yet Sun Yatsen and Mao are such different characters, can you explain her support of Mao?

Actually, Sun Yatsen had much in common with Mao in terms of his character. This is partly why I gave up writing about him and made the sisters my subjects. There was a strong sense of deja-vu, even though Mao was a fabulous subject for a biographer.

Ching-ling herself was a committed Communist (and also a Soviet agent). In my book there is a photo taken in 1927, when the Nationalist party was at its most Leninist, and Ching-ling is seated in the middle of the front row as a key leader of the party – while Mao was a much more junior figure. When she went into exile in Moscow in 1927-28, she witnessed Stalin’s bloody purge in which her friends committed suicide or were sent to the Gulag. And yet she consciously chose the Communist way of life. Supporting Mao was the most natural thing for her. She got on well with Mao, too, who liked her and called her ‘Elder Sister’. Ching-ling had no illusion about the cruelty of her chosen system, and made sure she stayed away from the real power centre in Mao’s regime. This way she protected herself.

PF: And Soong Ei-Ling is often forgotten I think. She was branded a capitalist in the Maoist years, but was also a descendent of Confucius. Do you think it’s perhaps time we talked more about Ei-Ling in a China that appears to once again be interested in money and Confucianism?

JC: People don’t talk much about Ei-ling because not much has been known about her. She was less of a public figure than her sisters. This was indeed a problem for me when I started working on this book. But through research, she came alive for me. The most important things about her, I think, are that she was a devout Christian and that she had unparalleled influence on May-ling and Chiang Kai-shek. She left an indelible mark on history – just as her two sisters did. And yes, she certainly should be talked about more.

PF: Many of us are working, visiting and watching China now and trying to understand what is happening – what direction the country will take in the coming years. Do the experiences of the Soong Sisters offer us any clues at to this from history?

JC: This is not really for me to say. In fact, the relevance to today is a thought I always banish from the writing of my books. I just write down what I have found out and believe to be true stories, and never think of my books as historical lessons. I leave the readers to take away what they feel to be worth noting for today or the future.

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