Jung Chang : ‘I’m very wary about the role of written history’
In her new book the Wild Swans author and historian examines the lives of three sisters known as the Soong Dynasty who played a fascinating role in modern Chinese history
Jung Chang: Her new book Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister looks at a fascinating relationship between three powerful siblings. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images
The imperial dynastic rule of China was overthrown in 1912, and it is natural to see the country’s modern history as defined by a series of strongmen from opposing political camps. But none of the above is as clear-cut, perhaps, as it might seem.
“From my experience of dealing with historical figures,” the bestselling historian and author Jung Chang tells me in the London offices of her publisher, “the facts are often surprising, even counterintuitive”. For almost a century after the fall of the monarchy there was one family who was close to power, and they exerted it from both Nationalist and Communist sides of the political divide. They were also women. Sisters Soong Ei-ling (1888-1973), Soong Ching-ling (1893-1981) and Soong May-ling (1897-2003) came to be known disparagingly as the “Soong Dynasty”, and their lives, triumphs, relationships, and hardships were so entangled with every twist of modern Chinese history as to tell its story.
Chang moved from China to the UK in 1978, and in 1992 published the international sensation Wild Swans about three generations of women in her family during specific moments of political upheaval. It became the most successful work of nonfiction ever published. Since then Chang has written fearless books that offer challenges to received wisdom about some of the most important Chinese figures. For the gargantuan Mao: The Unknown Story, she and her co-author, husband Jon Halliday, conducted hundreds of interviews in China that put her at risk of deportation. In her book about the Dowager Empress Cixi, Chang cast her subject in a favourable light and was urged by Chinese authorities to amend it.
“After Cixi, I wanted to write about another programme setter. And who made more difference to the course of 20th century China than Sun Yat-Sen, the so-called Father of the Republic? But I found him so single-minded in his political ambition that I got bored of him. He was heartless. In the meantime his wife Ching-ling and her sisters were in the same political environment but their lives and emotions were richer and more complex, as was the relationship between them. How affectionate they were, but how they were torn apart by antagonistic political camps. They caught my imagination in a way Sun Yat-Sen couldn’t.”
I never set out to prove that received wisdom is wrong or unjust. I set out to know more, and only through my research do I know how much injustice there is in history, how unfair history is
These polished daughters of an American-educated Methodist businessman, and one of the most devoted early backers of Sun, were educated in America. The eldest, Ei-ling, was a kingmaker who could read people and political trends: the most formidable intellect of the sisters, she was described by one American journalist of the time as a “first-rate financier” who took joy in “manipulations”. Inventive and shrewd, she could make millions from anything, even war, or the printing of currency. She engineered the marriage of her younger sister May-ling to Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek, who she also advised. She then made sure her own husband was made prime minister, and this way made herself one of the two richest women in China.
Ching-Ling, the middle Soong sister, was the most ideological and wanted to be a revolutionary. Barely out of her teens, she fell in love with Sun Yat-sen and rebelled against her family by marrying him. But his politics weren’t left-wing enough for her, and she would try and bring him in line with Leninism. After he died she opposed Nationalist rule in China and was a Communist spy. When Mao Zedong took power he invited her to “guide us on how to build a new China” and made her one of the six vice chairs of the party leadership. She was charismatic, likeable and beautiful, as well as an operator skilled in curating her public image, at one point allowing false rumours about her sisters to flourish even while they sheltered her. Ching-Ling emerges in Chang’s book as a complex figure who spends much of her life surmounting disillusion and accepting the personal consequences of her beliefs.
The youngest Soong sister May-Ling grew from a vivacious, Americanised young woman with expensive tastes into a skilled negotiator with the respect of her husband’s enemies, able to smooth diplomatic problems that acting politicians couldn’t. “I can picture this young girl in a US college,” says Chang, who found May-ling the most engrossing subject for her book. “She’d be with her classmates lying on their beds and chatting, or swapping notes. What’s your weakness? What do you fear most? Being fat! Then she became Chiang Kai-shek’s wife. To start with he treated her like a traditional Chinese woman, and expected her to wait on him. But then she asserted herself and her independence.”
May-ling became a figurehead during wartime, risked her life, oversaw the creation of the Chinese air force, and won support during a US tour. The only woman at the Cairo Conference of 1943, she translated between her husband, Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt. Her appetite for luxury, though, drained the state coffers. Chang individually designates the Soongs Big Sister (Ei-ling), Red Sister (Ching-Ling) and Little Sister (May-ling).
Elements of calculation
At a time when everything with a hint of operatic politics or personal conniving is compared to Game of Thrones, this real-life story of three sisters with a hand in ruling China from opposite sides, unseating and supplanting each other, surely justifies the epithet. Politics couldn’t help but stain every other strand in their life. Two of the sisters suffered miscarriages as a direct result of armed threats – a military bombardment and an assassination attempt against a husband respectively. Neither could conceive again.
Red Sister’s ideological soulmate and rumoured lover, the left-wing politician Deng Yan-da, was executed (and most likely tortured) by Little Sister’s husband Chiang Kai-shek. Beyond the influence of major trauma, I ask Chang how it must have affected the sisters psychologically, and in their relationships with each other, when something as simple as appearing in public together would be combed for its political significance.
“In both camps they rose very high. And obviously people would see them as political symbols because of their positions. Inevitably, how they interacted with each other, and their reactions in general, could no longer be entirely natural or spontaneous. Even this very intimate sibling relationship showed elements of calculation as to how much of it should be revealed.”
Was Chang conscious that in foregrounding the importance of these three women in the 20th century march of Chinese history, she’d also be doing a service by cutting the petty and often unpleasant male political titans down to size? “This is not a female vs male polemic,” says Chang. “But it is true that I’ve seen the heartlessness of some important political men. Mao was heartless towards his wives. And Sun Yat-sen was uncaring towards Ching-ling who was madly in love and willing to sacrifice herself for his ideals. Not to mention his first wife and concubines.”
Chang’s critique of Sun is comprehensive, incisive and scathing. Having first lecherously pursued Big Sister while married, he then succeeded with the even younger Red Sister. He is shown to have had a complete lack of regard for those sharing in his struggle: abandoning his wife and children to the care of a brother; attempting to “sell” his companion of years to a friend when having a concubine was no longer helpful or politically expedient.
Chang anticipates this portrayal might be controversial even for people outside of China and Taiwan; there are monuments to Sun in Vancouver, San Francisco and Melbourne, to name but a few. “Well I hope this book sheds new light. There is something deeply off-putting about these political figures. But Chiang Kai-shek, who was not a good ruler, in this respect has risen slightly in my estimation for the devotion he showed May-ling.”
Though Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister tells the Soong sisters’ stories, it is still structured around the lives of the male statesmen to whom they were married. Did Chang at any point worry she was spending comparatively too much time on them? “Some of the facts I include have not been written about, and they are highly relevant to the sisters. You can’t write about the sisters without talking about their husbands. Their lives are so intimately connected with the history of modern China, and in a dictatorship history is often made by extraordinary men. Powerful men. And so it was inevitable, but I don’t think I’ve given them too much space. Taken all together, their lives were not just part of Chinese history: they are modern Chinese history itself.”
As an analogue to the Soong sisters, Chang’s own story seems similarly interwoven with the history of China. Her father, a provincial bureaucrat, spoke against the dictator and never recovered mentally or physically from life in a labour camp. Her mother was subject to what amounted to more than 100 trials. I’m curious as to whether that kind of violence and trauma gave Chang a sense of responsibility to bear witness to history and challenge what is known about those powerful enough to make it.
“I never set out to prove that received wisdom is wrong or unjust. I set out to know more, and only through my research do I know how much injustice there is in history, how unfair history is. People say: history will exonerate me! But history never exonerates anyone. In fact, this makes me very wary about the role of written history – how unfair written history can be. So I am quite dedicated to finding the truth. And that gives me the motivation to do thorough research. I want to write as close to truth as possible. And always to write what I believe is true, and never pull my punches. So that, I think, is my parents’ legacy.”
Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is published by Jonathan Cape. Jung Chang will be interviewed at a free event as part of the Dublin Festival of History, Sunday, October 20th, at 6pm in Dublin Castle