Hilary Spurling

Three remarkable sisters at the heart of 20th-century Chinese politics

Jung Chang’s Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is a monumental work worthy of its author and subject matter

In their lifetime, and afterwards, the Soong sisters from Shanghai seemed like figures from a Chinese fairy tale. There were three of them: ‘One loved money, one loved power and one loved her country.’

They came from a family of prosperous Methodist converts and, for almost 100 years, one or other of them presided at or near the centre of power in China. The middle sister, Chingling, married Sun Yatsen, the founding Father of the Republic, transferring her allegiance after his death to the small group of bandits, led by Mao Zedong, who formed the nucleus of the Chinese Communist party. To this day Chingling enjoys something like mythical status in the People’s Republic of China.

The youngest sister, Mayling, married Sun’s successor, General Chiang Kaishek, commander-in-chief of the victorious Nationalist army, who ruled China for two central decades of the 20th century. Among his most trusted advisers was his wife’s eldest sister, Eiling, whose phenomenal financial acumen made her one of the world’s richest women. It was Eiling who funded her brother-in-law’s Nationalist government, as well as protecting and paying for her two more celebrated siblings for much of their lives.

From the start, a formidable will underlay the fierce independence that made Eiling insist on leaving home alone at the age of five for a missionary boarding school in Shanghai. She completed her education in the US (the first Chinese girl ever to do so), enrolling at a Methodist college in Georgia, where her two younger sisters followed her. After a decade or more away, the three returned home with the habits, assumptions and outlook of American college girls. Eiling married a businessman, H.H. Kung, whose commercial grasp turned out to be far less impressive than hers.

In 1914 Chingling caused consternation at home by running away as soon as she turned 21 to marry Sun Yatsen.

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