Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, so when I saw her new biography, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, available on NetGalley, I knew I wanted to read it. As the title suggests, this is the story of three sisters – the Soong Sisters – who were at the heart of twentieth century Chinese politics. Like Wild Swans, it gave me some fascinating insights into a country whose history I know very little about, but unlike Wild Swans, the author has no personal connection with the women she is writing about and I thought that made it a much less immersive and powerful read.

Despite their important roles in Chinese history, I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of the three Soong Sisters before reading this book. In case anyone else hasn’t heard of them either, here’s a quick introduction:

‘Big Sister’ Ei-ling, born in Shanghai in 1888, was the eldest daughter of Charlie Soong and Ni Kwei-tseng. Through her marriage to the banker H.H. Kung – who later became Minister of Finance in the Nationalist government – Ei-ling was one of China’s richest women.

‘Little Sister’ May-ling was the youngest of the three. As the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, who was chairman of the Nationalist party (the Kuomintang) and later President of the Republic of China, May-ling was China’s First Lady. With her American education and excellent command of the English language, she provided a link between Chinese and Western cultures.

In the middle was Ching-ling, or ‘Red Sister’. In 1915, she married the much older Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary leader who helped to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. After Sun’s death, Ching-ling’s continued involvement in left wing politics and her support for the Communist Party often put her in direct opposition to Big and Little Sister.

The book takes us through the lives of all three of these women from birth to death, comparing the different paths they choose to follow and describing their achievements and their influence on Chinese politics and society. Rather than devoting a separate section of the book to each sister, Chang jumps from one to the other and back again, moving forward chronologically over a period of more than a hundred years. As this is the first time I’ve read about the Soong sisters I’ve no idea how they are usually portrayed, but it seemed to me that Chang’s account was quite fair and balanced, showing sympathy for all three women but an awareness of their faults and weaknesses as well.

I found Ei-ling the least interesting to read about. With her wealth and position, there’s a sense that she is very detached from the realities of life, although she does come across as a generous and dutiful sister who tries to help her younger siblings in any way she can. May-ling is more appealing; although she is depicted as ambitious and sometimes extravagant, she also seems warm and compassionate, with a genuine interest in carrying out humanitarian work. But it was Ching-ling who intrigued me the most, with her unwavering dedication to the communist cause that sets her apart from her sisters and creates divisions in the family that never really heal. Was she, as one observer says, ‘most responsive and likeable, quiet and poised but misses nothing’ or was she, in the words of another, ‘basically a cold, hard, ruthless woman who knows what she wants and how to get it’?

Although the three Soong sisters all found themselves in positions of influence and power, these positions initially came about because of the men they chose to marry and that, for me, was one of the problems with this book. Almost as much time was spent describing the lives and careers of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and H.H. Kung as was spent on May-ling, Ei-ling and Ching-ling, who were supposed to be the subjects of the book. Overall, it felt more like a general political history of twentieth century China than a biography of three specific people. I found it a much more challenging read than Wild Swans, which was as gripping as fiction, and it has taken me more than a month to finish it as there was just so much information to take in and digest. I can’t pretend that I am now an expert on Chinese politics, but I do feel that I learned a lot from this book and although it was a struggle at times, I’m glad I persevered and finished it!

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Review: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Wild Swans is the story of three generations of women in Jung Chang’s family.  The first is her grandmother Yu-fang, who grew up in pre-communist China, a time when women had their feet bound as children and could be given to warlords as concubines.  The second is Chang’s mother, De-hong, who became a senior official in the Communist party following their victory over the Kuomintang.  The third is Jung Chang herself and the longest and most compelling section of the book is devoted to her own experiences during Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

Before beginning this book I didn’t know very much at all about Chairman Mao, but I’m obviously not alone in that.  As Jung Chang says in her introduction to the 2003 edition, ‘the world knows astonishingly little about him’.  This book helped me understand why the Chinese people initally welcomed communism and how millions of children grew up viewing Mao as their hero and never dreaming of questioning his regime.   It also explained why many people eventually became disillusioned and why the system started to break down.

Reading Wild Swans made me realize how important books like this one are.  Wild Swans presents almost the entire 20th century history of China in a highly personal way that makes it so much more memorable than just reading the same information in a text book would have been.

One of the most horrible things in the book occurs within the first chapter when Chang describes her grandmother’s footbinding.  It’s so awful to think of a little girl being forced to undergo this torture just because tiny feet (or ‘three-inch golden lilies’) were thought to be the ideal.  Soon after her grandmother’s feet were bound the tradition began to disappear.  However, this is just one small part of the book and the first in a long series of shocking episodes the author relates to us.  For example, during the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists, inflation rose so quickly that currency became worthless and people began to take desperate measures to get food, with beggars trying to sell their children in exchange for a bag of rice.

Jung Chang’s parents both worked for the Communists during and after the civil war, rising to high positions within the party.  Chang’s father was completely devoted to the Communist Party, putting it before his wife’s welfare.  Every time she found herself in trouble with the party for some trivial reason, her husband would side against her.  However, this attitude extended to the rest of his family and friends too – he refused to do anything which could be construed as showing favouritism.

Some parts of the book made me feel so angry and frustrated, such as reading about the senseless waste of food when peasants were taken away from the fields to work on increasing steel output instead, as part of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’.  There are some shocking accounts of starving people being driven to eat their own babies.  The famine shook a lot of people’s faith in the Party and afterwards even Jung’s father was less inclined to put the party’s needs before his family’s as he had done in the past – in fact during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, he found himself denounced and arrested, and eventually emerges as one of the most admirable people in the book, at least in my opinion.

“I thought of my father’s life, his wasted dedication and crushed dreams…There was no place for him in Mao’s China because he had tried to be an honest man.”

The descriptions of the Cultural Revolution are horrific; it went on for years and resulted in countless deaths.  One of the most frightening things about this period was that nobody was safe – people who had been high-ranking Communist officials before the revolution suddenly found themselves branded ‘capitalist-roaders’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ (sometimes by their own children) and some of them were driven to suicide.

Some of the parts I found most fascinating were Jung’s accounts of how the Chinese viewed the ‘capitalist countries’ in the west.

“As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story.  When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!’

The book is complete with a family tree, chronology, photographs and map of China – all of which were very useful as I found myself constantly referring to them and without them I would have had a lot more difficulty keeping track of what was going on.

As you can probably imagine, it was a very depressing book, as Jung and her family experienced very few moments of true happiness.  She only really sounds enthusiastic when she’s describing the natural beauty of some of the places she visited – and the pleasure she got from reading books and composing poetry, both of which were condemned during the Cultural Revolution.  However, it was also the most riveting non-fiction book I’ve ever read – I kept thinking “I’ll just read a few more pages” then an hour later I was still sitting there unable to put the book down.

I don’t think I need to explain why this book counts towards the Women Unbound challenge.  All three of the women featured in Wild Swans – Jung Chang herself, her mother and her grandmother – were forced to endure hardships and ordeals that are unimaginable to most of us, but remained strong and courageous throughout it all.  However, Wild Swans is not just the story of three women – it’s much broader in scope than that and is the story of an entire nation.  So much is packed into the 650 pages of this book that I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review and if you haven’t yet read the book I hope you’ll read it for yourself – no review can really do it justice.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir/Publisher: Harper Perennial/Pages: 650/Year: 2004 (originally published 1991)/Source: My own copy bought new

New Book Arrivals – 28th November 2009

I won a £10 Amazon voucher with an online survey panel that I belong to, so of course I decided to spend it on some books. The books I chose were Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte and The Haunted Hotel and Other Stories by Wilkie Collins. I want to read the Jung Chang and Anne Bronte books for various challenges I’m participating in (in particular Women Unbound and All About The Brontes) and they’ve been on my wishlist for years anyway. I wanted The Haunted Hotel because I love Wilkie Collins and am trying to read as many of his books as possible.

The books are now on my TBR list for 2010.