- - Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The three Soong sisters characterized in the title of Jung Chang’s latest book about 20th-century China were Ei-ling (born 1889), Ching-ling (born 1893) and May-ling (born 1898). Their father, Charles, was an American-educated Methodist missionary who made a fortune in publishing. Unusually for the era, he educated his daughters in America, each spending nine years in this country.

All three married men at the highest levels of power. Ei-ling caught the eye of Sun Yat-sen, now widely revered as the father of the country. Eventually she married H.H. Kung, with whom she built a business fortune before he became prime minister under Chiang Kai-shek

Sun Yat-sen switched his affections to Ching-ling. She’s called Red Sister because she shared his interest in communism, never lost faith in the party and chaired several important committees in Mao Zedong’s government, eventually earning the title honorary president of the People’s Republic of China.

Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader of China from 1928 to 1949 and of Taiwan from 1949 to 1975, allied himself with Sun early in his career and worked with him until his death in 1925, but did not share his Communist sympathies, and later fiercely opposed both the politics and armies of Mao, which won control of China in 1949. Chiang deeply distrusted almost everyone, revering only his deceased mother, and, at least during the earlier years of his marriage, May-ling, who was his diligent helper.

Indeed all three sisters worked on their husbands’ behalf. Ei-ling is credited with masterminding her family’s’ financial success, and she devoted huge sums to purchasing materiel for the Nationalist cause. May-ling spent much of the early 1940s rallying troops. Ching-ling, who survived Sun Yat-sen by 56 years, devoted herself to his work and beliefs. 

She was probably more committed to communism than he was because his main motivation was not political but personal ambition. He abandoned his first wife and children in pursuit of power; he left Ching-ling exposed to shell-fire while he escaped to a gun-boat; and, believing he deserved to be president of the new Republic of China, he did not hesitate to wage fierce wars that devastated China. Maj. Magruder, the American attache in Canton, said he was driven by the “one motive in life and that is self-aggrandizement.” Certainly, Ms. Chang’s account confirms this.  

In comparison, Chiang Kai-shek, though described as “a lout” by the author, and undoubtedly an ambitious and merciless power-grabber, seems more honestly committed to his beliefs.

At least at the beginning of his marriage to May-ling, he was a devoted husband, though later, and perhaps prompted by her lengthy visits to New York, he seems to have cooled. Chiang often mentioned her efforts in his faithfully kept diary, and she comes alive in the letters to her American college friend. These show her frank interest in luxuries, writing boastfully of her parents’ wealth and her own lavish lifestyle. But after her war work in the 1940s, we hear little more of her, even though her life spanned three centuries. (She died at age 105 in New York in 2002.)

It’s hard to tell much about Ei-ling’s motivations except that money was among the chief. Born a Christian, she became very devout and encouraged May-ling to find strength in her faith. While her husband and her brother were powerful government ministers, Ei-ling dealt with business. But how did she control and extend the family’s banking wealth? What exactly did she invest in? This and more remains vague. 

Perhaps inevitably given available sources, this book mostly focuses on the careers of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. There is much to cover, including several wars and innumerable foreign adventures and devious maneuvers. Both men were eager for foreign funds and military help, especially from Russia and Japan. Though both were Nationalists, both can be said to have helped the Communist cause in China by leading destructive internal wars waged during the nearly five decades following the abdication of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

The Soong sisters flittered in the background of these men’s lives. Ching-ling, the Red sister, stands out as the most interesting and serious of them. She was devoted to her husband, and then unwavering in the Communist cause, even when these commitments threatened her welfare. Though always affluent, she seems to have lacked her sisters’ fascination with money and luxury. And unlike them, she stayed in China until the end of her life, aiding it as she thought best.

The complicated history of China during this period is little-known to most Westerners, so this readable book helps fill a gap. By hooking it onto personalities — Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and the Soong sisters — Jung Chang has been able to chart a comprehensible way through these decades and an immense mass of information that could otherwise be difficult to digest. 

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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By Jung Chang

Alfred A. Knopf, $30, 400 pages

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