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Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

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They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, the three Soong sisters from Shanghai were at the center of power, and each of them left an indelible mark on history. Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the 'Father of China', Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao's vice-chair. Little Sister, M They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, the three Soong sisters from Shanghai were at the center of power, and each of them left an indelible mark on history. Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the 'Father of China', Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao's vice-chair. Little Sister, May-ling, became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China and a major political figure in her own right. Big Sister, Ei-ling, became Chiang's unofficial main adviser - and made herself one of China's richest women. All three sisters enjoyed tremendous privilege and glory, but also endured constant mortal danger. They showed great courage and experienced passionate love, as well as despair and heartbreak. They remained close emotionally, even when they embraced opposing political camps and Ching-ling dedicated herself to destroying her two sisters' worlds. Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is a gripping story of love, war, intrigue, bravery, glamour and betrayal, which takes us on a sweeping journey from Canton to Hawaii to New York, from exiles' quarters in Japan and Berlin to secret meeting rooms in Moscow, and from the compounds of the Communist elite in Beijing to the corridors of power in democratic Taiwan. In a group biography that is by turns intimate and epic, Jung Chang reveals the lives of three extraordinary women who helped shape twentieth-century China.


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They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, the three Soong sisters from Shanghai were at the center of power, and each of them left an indelible mark on history. Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the 'Father of China', Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao's vice-chair. Little Sister, M They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, the three Soong sisters from Shanghai were at the center of power, and each of them left an indelible mark on history. Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the 'Father of China', Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao's vice-chair. Little Sister, May-ling, became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China and a major political figure in her own right. Big Sister, Ei-ling, became Chiang's unofficial main adviser - and made herself one of China's richest women. All three sisters enjoyed tremendous privilege and glory, but also endured constant mortal danger. They showed great courage and experienced passionate love, as well as despair and heartbreak. They remained close emotionally, even when they embraced opposing political camps and Ching-ling dedicated herself to destroying her two sisters' worlds. Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is a gripping story of love, war, intrigue, bravery, glamour and betrayal, which takes us on a sweeping journey from Canton to Hawaii to New York, from exiles' quarters in Japan and Berlin to secret meeting rooms in Moscow, and from the compounds of the Communist elite in Beijing to the corridors of power in democratic Taiwan. In a group biography that is by turns intimate and epic, Jung Chang reveals the lives of three extraordinary women who helped shape twentieth-century China.

30 review for Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

  1. 4 out of 5

    Veronica ⭐️

    Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is the biography of the amazing Soong sisters who together made a huge impact on history. The three sisters became a modern Chinese fairytale. They were much talked about and fanciful gossip about them was often passed around. “In China there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country.” Charlie Soong being very forward thinking sent each of his daughters to an American boarding school at a young age. He made influential frie Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is the biography of the amazing Soong sisters who together made a huge impact on history. The three sisters became a modern Chinese fairytale. They were much talked about and fanciful gossip about them was often passed around. “In China there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country.” Charlie Soong being very forward thinking sent each of his daughters to an American boarding school at a young age. He made influential friends who were then introduced to his daughters. The sisters were very intelligent and interested in the politics of their country. They also believed that women should be man’s equal and the three sisters all rose to positions of influence. Jung Chang divides the book into five parts spanning the years 1866 – 2003. It features the rise of Sun Yat-Sen and the overthrow of the Chinese monarchy to May-Ling’s marriage to Chiang Kai-Shek. I’m not normally a great fan of non-fiction, especially political tales, however this riveting biography is so well written it at no time becomes weighed down. The three sisters, their lives and loves, make for some fascinating reading. Moving from grand parties in Shanghai to penthouses in New York, from exiles’ quarters in Japan and Berlin to secret meetings in Moscow we read about power struggles, godfather style assassinations, secret talks and bribes making this a book that is compulsive reading. I received an uncorrected proof copy from the publisher

  2. 5 out of 5

    Lorna

    Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China by Jung Chang, was a sweeping and gripping account of the Soong family of Shanghai, not only of these three sisters that played a large part in the shaping of the history of China in the twentieth century, but it also tells about their three brothers, each making history in their own right, as part of the inner circle of the Chiang Kai-shek regime. This is a magnificent biography of the three Soong sisters Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China by Jung Chang, was a sweeping and gripping account of the Soong family of Shanghai, not only of these three sisters that played a large part in the shaping of the history of China in the twentieth century, but it also tells about their three brothers, each making history in their own right, as part of the inner circle of the Chiang Kai-shek regime. This is a magnificent biography of the three Soong sisters, Ei-ling, Ching-ling, and May-ling. Each of the girls were sent, as young children, to be educated in the United States. Ei-Ling, known as "Big Sister," married H.H. Kung, a business man, and ultimately became the wealthiest woman in China. Ching-ling, known as "Red Sister," married the "father of China," Sun Yat-sen, and ultimately rose to be Mao Zedung's Vice-Chair. May-ling, known as "Little Sister," became Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and first lady pre-Communist Nationalist China. This is an extraordinary and riveting account of the life stories of the Soong sisters and their involvement and influence in the sweep of the turbulent history in China during the twentieth century. "Shanghai was then already of the most spectacular and cosmopolitan cities in the world. Situated near the place where the Yangtze, the longest river in China, flows into the sea, it had been marshland only a few decades previously, before the Manchu government allowed Westerners to develop it. Now solid European-style buildings rubbed shoulders with fragile bamboo houses, paved broad streets meshed with wheelbarrow-trodden mud alleys, and parkland jutted into rice paddies. Outside the Bund, the waterfront, under the still gaze of the skyscrapers, numerous sampans rocked with the waves, offering a stirring sight of the city's vitality."

  3. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    This is an ambitious undertaking, pruning the eventful lives of these 3 women to fit into one book. Jung Chang takes this on and covers all the highlights. The book is easily readable. The presentation is neutral to positive. The sisters's loyalty to one another is stressed. In each of the marriages, the Soong sister appears to be the better partner. It is fitting, given their roles in history, that Ching-ling and May-ling have the most text. Ei-Ling is in the background. Sun Yat-sen’s status as This is an ambitious undertaking, pruning the eventful lives of these 3 women to fit into one book. Jung Chang takes this on and covers all the highlights. The book is easily readable. The presentation is neutral to positive. The sisters's loyalty to one another is stressed. In each of the marriages, the Soong sister appears to be the better partner. It is fitting, given their roles in history, that Ching-ling and May-ling have the most text. Ei-Ling is in the background. Sun Yat-sen’s status as the Father of Modern China is shown to be dubious. He wasn’t even in China when it overthrew its monarch. He was said to be raising money in Hawaii and elsewhere but what funds he got for this seem to come from his Maui based brother. It was convenient for the Nationalists and later the Communists to use Sun as a symbol. He is shown to be a total cad towards his wife Ching-ling. She may have never found out that her Japanese marriage was a fake, but she figured out that he used her as a decoy and risked her life. The best thing about this marriage was Sun's death and the special treatment his role as a China’s”father” accorded her. Highlights of her life under Mao and her household, her alleged affair and her adopted daughters are page turners. While first lady of China, and later Taiwan, May-ling gets away (she loves New York) every chance she gets. As a translator and advisor she is important to her husband (he also seems co-dependent, with her, later his son and maybe his previous wife and concubines). She returns if her husband really needs her. She only modestly curbs his most authoritarian tendencies. Most interesting here is the story of Chaing’s son and his hostage days in the Soviet Union. Years ago I read Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady which, overall, paints a very different picture of "Little Sister". Ei-ling's husband, said to be one of the richest men in China, served as China’s premiere for two years. Ei-ling has the only children of the 3 sisters: two sons and a daughter, who served the family in various capacities and Louis, a paranoid TX oilman who married an American actress and produced the sole heir to the Kung-Soong wealth, now in his 70's with no children. Ei-ling is the one who brought Chaing Kai-shek (who married May-Ling) into the family's orbit. While the book is fairly positive on this family you see the Soong's and Kung’s helping themselves to public funds. You see Sun-yat-sen only interested in being president and creating the civil war the ended China’s democracy (that he supposedly founded) to have this status/power. There is some description of Chaing and his 2 million nationalists taking over the 7 million people of Taiwan and how his dictatorship was set up. You see May-ling is only concerned about who will run Taiwan after Chaing’s death because she wanted to keep her large staff (in New York City). This will not be the last word on the Soong sisters. There are a lot of pictures and they are of the people and events you would like to see. The complicated story is easily presented for westerners and the index is very good. If you are interested in this topic it is a good place to start; for those who know the story of the Soong’s there is new information and perspective.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Anne M

    Published by: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing Jonathan Cape Pub Date 17 October 2019. Reviewed 20 October 2019. The official description: They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, the three Soong sisters from Shanghai were at the centre of power, and each of them left an indelible mark on history. Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the ‘Father of China’, Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao’s vice-chair. Published by: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing Jonathan Cape Pub Date 17 October 2019. Reviewed 20 October 2019. The official description: They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, the three Soong sisters from Shanghai were at the centre of power, and each of them left an indelible mark on history. Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the ‘Father of China’, Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao’s vice-chair. Little Sister, May-ling, became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China and a major political figure in her own right. Big Sister, Ei-ling, became Chiang’s unofficial main adviser – and made herself one of China’s richest women. Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is a gripping story of love, war, intrigue, bravery, glamour and betrayal, which takes us on a sweeping journey from Canton to Hawaii to New York, from exiles’ quarters in Japan and Berlin to secret meeting rooms in Moscow, and from the compounds of the Communist elite in Beijing to the corridors of power in democratic Taiwan. In a group biography that is by turns intimate and epic, Jung Chang reveals the lives of three extraordinary women who helped shape twentieth-century China. My review: For a biography supposedly focussing on the three most famous women in Chinese history I found it strange that the initial chapters deal with men (Sun Yat-sen and the girls’ father). And this, I think, is the problem with the book. The sisters are viewed through the lens of their role relative to men, rather than in their own right. And so the book has become a history of Chinese politics and the roles the men in the sisters’ lives played, rather than a group biography of these three remarkable women. The book is meticulously researched and filled with page after page of facts and details. Unfortunately, so many irrelevant details left me emotionally unengaged and frankly uninterested. I kept skimming through pages to get to the bits that actually told me something about the sisters. Somewhere in these pages there is a good biography, if the book was re-focussed and irrelevant facts, details and chapters were trimmed off. Then what is a book on Chinese history might become what it promised to be: a biography of three most powerful Chinese women and their roles in shaping 20th century China. My rating: 3 stars Thanks to #NetGalley for eARC. #BigSisterLittleSisterRedSister #NetGalley

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jemima Pett

    This is an epic undertaking by an excellent writer and historian. Jung Chang brings the early twentieth century to life as she explores the world of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-Shek. She shows their progress towards revolution, seen through the lives of the family who knew them.  Taking the three sisters as the focal point is a clever way of exploring the twists and turns of Chinese society and politics as it moves from a monarchy through to communism. The author crafts the extraordinary story thr This is an epic undertaking by an excellent writer and historian. Jung Chang brings the early twentieth century to life as she explores the world of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-Shek. She shows their progress towards revolution, seen through the lives of the family who knew them.  Taking the three sisters as the focal point is a clever way of exploring the twists and turns of Chinese society and politics as it moves from a monarchy through to communism. The author crafts the extraordinary story through writings of many people who knew them at the time. These include letters from lovers, teachers and acquaintances, and reminiscences of fellow-students. It seems well researched, with occasional footnotes to help you place subsidiary events in context. I wouldn't call it easy reading, although it is interesting. I definitely wouldn't call it gripping unless you are a real fan of political intrigue and China in particular. It's not one I'd place on the level of Wild Swans.  But it is definitely worth reading if it piques your interest.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Hadrian

    20th-century Chinese history as viewed through three sisters, who each married major figures and at times played a role themselves in that history. There is a saying dating from the Maoist era that one sister loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country, although Chang at least attempts to add some nuance and perspective. She relies on memoirs and biographical sources for this. Mostly, I get the impression that this book is mainly notes - some interesting tangents are not discussed at 20th-century Chinese history as viewed through three sisters, who each married major figures and at times played a role themselves in that history. There is a saying dating from the Maoist era that one sister loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country, although Chang at least attempts to add some nuance and perspective. She relies on memoirs and biographical sources for this. Mostly, I get the impression that this book is mainly notes - some interesting tangents are not discussed at all, and other lines of discussion are ignored, some events are just strung together. I almost get the feeling that Chang might have been able to write a much longer book but never had the time or resources to.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tanja Berg

    An absolutely fascinating tale of three sisters at the heart of the events in China last century. A well written, interesting read that mixes historical facts with personal lives.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    this book has indeed educated me on the history of China and introduced me to the historical figures behind the founding of CCP and the Nationalist Party. It was a great reading experience in terms of gaining insights on the political stances of these founding members and especially the Soong sisters. The writing style helps readers who are not used to reading biographies understand the context of the book easily. It was as if I was reading a historical fiction novel. However, I must say that the this book has indeed educated me on the history of China and introduced me to the historical figures behind the founding of CCP and the Nationalist Party. It was a great reading experience in terms of gaining insights on the political stances of these founding members and especially the Soong sisters. The writing style helps readers who are not used to reading biographies understand the context of the book easily. It was as if I was reading a historical fiction novel. However, I must say that there were certain parts that felt unnecessarily long. There were some details that could be taken out because they are simply not needed for the readers to understand certain events that were taking place. If those unnecessary details were taken out, it would be a much compact and straight to the point kinda book. There is another aspect of this book that I didn’t like as much. I was confused with main focus of this book. The title clearly emphasizes on the sisters but we were given a whole lot introduction to the men: Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek. The sisters were merely on the background, supporting their husbands and the highlight is hardly on them until maybe, the last 100 pages or so. I wish the focus is more on the sisters right from the start because that last 100 pages was really interesting on how the sisters were being manipulative, empowering and they did play significant roles in China history. Note: I received this book from definitelybooks in exchange for an honest review.

  9. 5 out of 5

    morgan

    I am so happy I've learnt about these women. I cannot believe I've never heard of them before. this was so gripping and felt so personal I am so happy I've learnt about these women. I cannot believe I've never heard of them before. this was so gripping and felt so personal

  10. 4 out of 5

    Moonkiszt

    This book ended out on my list due to a challenge from a friend to read something way out of my comfort zone. I know very little about China or its history, and was invited into this wing of the library because there were three women who were important and relevant as to how China shaped into the nation it has today. Three daughters of Charlie Soong are introduced and their lives and impacts on society skillfully unfolded for a neophyte reader on this topic. Author Jung Chang does a clear and com This book ended out on my list due to a challenge from a friend to read something way out of my comfort zone. I know very little about China or its history, and was invited into this wing of the library because there were three women who were important and relevant as to how China shaped into the nation it has today. Three daughters of Charlie Soong are introduced and their lives and impacts on society skillfully unfolded for a neophyte reader on this topic. Author Jung Chang does a clear and compelling job at showing how their parents' and their childhood in various places informed life choices, while keeping the threads of family bonds in place no matter how far they traveled. Not that they were non-contentious - they were, but they needed each other if only to keep each other close and know who was doing what through all the societal changes that happened during their lifetimes. This was a beginner book for me in this part of world history. But it makes me smile to think, I will probably always follow a good story about brave, forthright women, wherever and whenever they pull back the curtain of history and step forward. This particular curtain revealed the three Soong sisters who changed China. 4 stars. A great place to start if you are like me. . .

  11. 5 out of 5

    Carol Douglas

    As a person who loves China and is fascinated by Chinese history, I was captivated by this book. I had already learned a great deal from Jung Chang's book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. I appreciate how Jung Chang has brought to light the lives of important Chinese women. Before she wrote this book, Jung Chang had wanted to write about Sun Yat-sen, who has been called the Father of (Modern) China. She had done a great deal of research about him before she moved on As a person who loves China and is fascinated by Chinese history, I was captivated by this book. I had already learned a great deal from Jung Chang's book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. I appreciate how Jung Chang has brought to light the lives of important Chinese women. Before she wrote this book, Jung Chang had wanted to write about Sun Yat-sen, who has been called the Father of (Modern) China. She had done a great deal of research about him before she moved on to write about these women: Ching-ling, his wife; Ei-ling, the wife of tycoon and Nationalist politician H.H. Kung; and May-ling, who married Chiang Kai-shek. The three women were sisters, the daughters of Soong Charlie, who rose from poverty to become a prominent business owner and supporter of a republic for China, and his devout Christian wife. Soong spent much of his money seeing that all of his children were educated in the United States. There was a strong bond between the sisters, who were alone together getting an education at Wellesley College. But eventually they were divided by politics because Ching-ling sided with the Communists and the other two were involved with the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). Sun Yat-sen, who pioneered the idea that China should become a republic, became angry when he was not elected as the republic's first president. He did everything he could to supplant the elected government, even soliciting funds from Germany and Japan, so that he could be the leader. He died without achieving his goal. Ching-ling was devoted to him until she learned that even her life was expendable. Later, as his widow, she became a symbol for the Communists. Chiang Kai-shek started his political career as an assassin, and went on to also put his own desire to be leader at the forefront of his concerns. He was violent and temperamental. But he and May-ling apparently did love each other. Big sister Ei-ling was his adviser and the brains behind her husband's business. This saga is well researched and well written. If you have any interest in 20th century China, you should read it. The author, who grew up in the People's Republic of China, has no love for the Communists, but she has no love for the Kuomintang, which also has violent history, either.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ellie

    4.5 stars - but only because I just slightly prefer Wild Swans. Jung Chang is such an excellent writer. She makes such complicated moments in history so easy to understand and after reading this I feel like I’m a FOUNTAIN of knowledge on the politics of twentieth-century China.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mal Warwick

    The three sisters’s lives spanned three centuries of Chinese history. Born late in the nineteenth century, the youngest of them died at the age of 105 in 2003. Together, these three extraordinary women helped shape the destiny of the world’s most populous nation from the closing days of the Manchu dynasty to the dawn of China’s ascension into a superpower. In Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, the acclaimed Chinese-British historian Jung Chang tells their story with compassion and an obsessi The three sisters’s lives spanned three centuries of Chinese history. Born late in the nineteenth century, the youngest of them died at the age of 105 in 2003. Together, these three extraordinary women helped shape the destiny of the world’s most populous nation from the closing days of the Manchu dynasty to the dawn of China’s ascension into a superpower. In Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, the acclaimed Chinese-British historian Jung Chang tells their story with compassion and an obsessive attention to historical fact. In the process, she illuminates the story of twentieth-century Chinese history from a new perspective. Three sisters who were at the forefront of twentieth-century Chinese history In outline, the basic facts are these: ** The three sisters’s father, Soong Charlie, grew up poor but gained the advantage of a missionary education. Trained as a missionary himself in the United States, he found ways for all six of his children to gain American college degrees. They all became fluent English speakers. ** Soong May-ling (Little Sister) was the youngest of the three girls. (Their three brothers were all younger.) Having lived in the US from age nine to nineteen, she spoke English but was illiterate in Chinese, which she had to learn later in life. She married Chiang Kai-shek, the Soviet-backed soldier who became Generalissimo and later president of the Nationalist forces that dominated China until 1949. He then led the exodus to Taiwan, where he ruled until his death in 1975. ** Soong Ching-ling (Red Sister), married Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who has been credited as the “Father of China” for having played a leading role in the movement to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty. After his death in 1925, she sided against her family with the Communists. During the last three decades of her life she held an honored role in Red China as Vice-Chairman under Mao Ze-dong and Deng Tsiao-peng. ** Soong Ei-ling (Big Sister), the eldest of the children, was “the first Chinese woman to be educated in the United States.” She married an American-educated Christian banker named H. H. Kung. She guided him to an enormous fortune, much of it gained during the war with Japan when Kung served as finance minister and sometime prime minister in the Nationalist government. In fact, it was Ei-ling who was her brother-in-law Chiang Kai-shek’s most influential advisor, even though much of her advice had to be funneled through her husband or a younger brother who also served in Chiang’s cabinet. ** Ei-ling supported others in the family for many years through the fortune she and Kung had amassed, largely through commissions and kickbacks on weapons and other supplies from the US. “Eventually, the wealth amassed by the Kungs,” Chang reports, “may have reached, or even surpassed, $100 million” (the equivalent of at least $1.4 billion in 2019 dollars). And the corruption was anything but hidden. As President Harry S Truman famously said of the Soong and Kung families, “They’re all thieves, every damn one of them.” However, you can’t understand twentieth-century Chinese history without knowing about the role of this remarkable family. Updating an earlier biography of the three Soong sisters More than thirty years ago, I read an earlier biography of the three sisters: The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave, a bestseller published in 1985. That book, which “portrayed the Soong family in a highly unfavourable light,” shaped my views of some of the major figures in twentieth-century Chinese history, including Dowager Empress Cixi, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong, as well as the three Soong sisters themselves. Jung Chang’s treatment, benefiting from several decades of additional documents that have come to light, conveys a somewhat different picture. The Dowager Empress emerges in Jung Chang’s book as a committed and effective reformer, not the greedy and self-indulgent figure portrayed in the Communists’s rewriting of history. Both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek come across as scheming and amoral, the one incompetent at politics, the other disastrous as a military leader. And the three sisters, in Chang’s telling, are all fallible but believable human beings. Because of decades of propaganda on all sides, the three sisters came to be regarded as what Chang refers to as “fairy-tale figures.” She cites the “much-quoted description: ‘In China, there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country.'” The reference to Big Sister, Little Sister, and Red Sister (in the same order) is, of course, a gross oversimplification. They and their lives were anything but simple. Refuting the myths spread by propaganda Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister upends a great many myths that have been propagated both by the Chinese government in Beijing and the China Lobby in the US. Dowager Empress Cixi The subject of an earlier biography by Jung Chang, the Dowager Empress was in reality a far worthier person than she is generally portrayed as being. “A former imperial concubine, this extraordinary woman had seized power through a palace coup after her husband’s death in 1861, whereupon she had begun to bring the medieval country into the modern age.” After earlier efforts at reform that are generally credited to the men in her court, she doubled down on the effort after the turn of the century. “In the first decade of the twentieth century,” Chang writes, “she introduced a series of fundamental changes. These included a brand-new educational system, a free press, and women’s emancipation, beginning not least with an edict against foot-binding in 1902. The country was to become a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament.” Sun Yat-sen Although Sun Yat-sen is typically referred to as the first president of China, in fact he was only acting president, and for a very short time. For more than a decade he struggled with opponents within the Nationalist Party (which he did not found) to gain the presidency. Allied with gangsters, Sun employed hardball tactics, including assassination, to gain power but was never successful. He was a womanizer and treated all three of his wives (Ching-ling was the third) very badly. “A friend once asked him,” Chang writes, “what his favourite pursuits were; he replied without hesitation: ‘revolution’ followed by ‘women’.” Chiang Kai-shek Chiang Kai-shek is one of the most controversial figures of the twentieth century, particularly in the United States, where he was lionized by the China Lobby advanced by TIME Magazine publisher Henry Luce. Although Chiang did in fact lead the resistance to Japan (1937-45) despite Beijing’s propaganda crediting Mao Ze-dong, senior American military officers assigned as his aides universally regarded him as an utterly incompetent soldier and blamed him for the loss to the Communists. And he was a violent man with a volcanic temper who frequently beat his first wife and concubines (Little Sister was effectively his fourth wife). Like Dr. Sun before him, he partnered with Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang; although Chiang was trained in the Soviet Union and controlled by Stalin for several years, he put the gangsters to work murdering Communists once he broke publicly with the Party in 1928. He was also himself a murderer who assassinated one of Sun Yat-sen’s opponents. (“He shot Tao dead in the bed at point-blank range.”) Mao Ze-dong Mao’s impulsive and brutal policies that led to the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese people are well documented and widely acknowledged. What is less well known are the facts surrounding the Long March and the Red Army’s performance in World War II. As Chang reveals, when Mao’s forces were holed up in the southeast, they were highly vulnerable. Chiang’s army might well have annihilated them when they drove them from the region. But Chiang was negotiating with Stalin at the time and dependent on Soviet arms; murdering the Reds might even have triggered a Soviet invasion. Thus, he was content to herd the Red Army into the arid far northwest where he might later bottle up and kill them. Chang relates a strange story that explains how Chiang managed to lose to Mao even though his armies were battle-tested and much stronger than the guerrillas who made up the Red Army. Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, had been imprisoned in the USSR on Stalin’s orders to maintain leverage over the Nationalist leader. To secure his release after a dozen years, Chiang agreed to a meeting with Zhou En-lai at which the two men cut a deal “which led to the two parties forming a ‘united front’ as equal partners when the war against Japan started, within months.” The Nationalist cause quickly went downhill after that. About the author Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is Jung Chang’s fifth biographical treatment of twentieth-century Chinese history. Her earlier subjects included Dowager Empress Cixi, Mao Zedong, Madame Sun Yat-sen, and her own family. Born in China, she lives in London with her husband, Jon Halliday, her coauthor on two of those books.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Patricia Kitto

    It was refreshing to learn about the history of 20th century China through the lives of women. The sisters involvement in and influence on government figures and policy was extraordinary and compelling (the male leaders of China didn’t exactly come out smelling like a rose that’s for sure!). The writing was good although at times got lost in the details. I found myself wanting to get back to the story about the sisters instead of the minutiae of the rise to power of this leader and the fall from It was refreshing to learn about the history of 20th century China through the lives of women. The sisters involvement in and influence on government figures and policy was extraordinary and compelling (the male leaders of China didn’t exactly come out smelling like a rose that’s for sure!). The writing was good although at times got lost in the details. I found myself wanting to get back to the story about the sisters instead of the minutiae of the rise to power of this leader and the fall from grace of that leader. The audiobook sure helped with the Chinese pronunciation. Googling a map of China was also helpful.

  15. 5 out of 5

    George1st

    Jung Chang is probably best known for her hugely successful family autobiography Wild Swans, however she has also written two historic books Mao: The Unknown Story and Empress Dowager Cixi. Now she tells the extraordinary story of three sisters who due to marriage and family association found themselves at the centre of the tumultuous events that engulfed 20th century China. We have Red Sister, Ching-ling who married the still revered ‘Father of China’, Sun Yat-sen and due to our allegiance to t Jung Chang is probably best known for her hugely successful family autobiography Wild Swans, however she has also written two historic books Mao: The Unknown Story and Empress Dowager Cixi. Now she tells the extraordinary story of three sisters who due to marriage and family association found themselves at the centre of the tumultuous events that engulfed 20th century China. We have Red Sister, Ching-ling who married the still revered ‘Father of China’, Sun Yat-sen and due to our allegiance to the Communist cause went on to become Mao’s vice-chair and remain diametrically opposed to her nationalist supporting sisters. There is Little Sister, May-ling, who would marry the nationalist leader of pre-Communist China Chiang Kai-shek and as first lady insert much influence and there is Big Sister, Ei-ling who again exerted much influence over Chiang Kai-shek and controversially through undoubted corruption (ably supported by her husband who himself became President of the Republic of China) became one of China’s richest women. This is a fascinating, immaculately researched and referenced historical work that tells a gripping story of power, intrigue and shifting alliances together and with how personal relationships effected the political and historic outcome of one of the World's most important and enigmatic countries. We learn how the sisters from colonial influenced Shanghai grew up as Christians and were all educated in the USA and became so "westernised" that at times they struggled to speak their own native language. Like I suspect a lot of people my understanding and knowledge of pre-Communist 20th century China was until reading this book somewhat limited and I did not for instance know that for a time in the 1920's China was with limitations a functioning democracy, having a free press and a flourishing art scene and therefore it's subsequent history could have been so different. This was in part attributable to the malevolent and destabilising influence that Stalin's Soviet Union exerted. If you want to make sense of modern China and its policies then an understanding of its history is required and a book like this will help you towards this goal. A recommended read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Rhiannon

    Where do you draw the line between your convictions and the desires of your heart? Jung Chang’s book was an informative and comprehensive look at the Soong Dynasty, specifically the lives of the Soong sisters. I’d heard my parents talk about them in passing, but I had never really given them much thought. All I knew was that one sister married Sun Yat-sen and another married Chiang Kai-shek. Their unions would influence the history of the world, yet all I could recite was the fairytale-like adag Where do you draw the line between your convictions and the desires of your heart? Jung Chang’s book was an informative and comprehensive look at the Soong Dynasty, specifically the lives of the Soong sisters. I’d heard my parents talk about them in passing, but I had never really given them much thought. All I knew was that one sister married Sun Yat-sen and another married Chiang Kai-shek. Their unions would influence the history of the world, yet all I could recite was the fairytale-like adage, “One loved money, one loved power, one loved her country.” The full story, as Chang argues, is much more complicated than that. The Soong sisters came from a world of privilege—they had every comfort they could want and were the first Chinese women to be educated at American universities. They even spoke English more comfortably than their native tongues. What set them on their paths to destiny was perhaps their father’s love for the country. By quietly funding Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary schemes to democratize China, Charlie Soong inadvertently introduced his daughters to the world of politics. Ei-ling, the eldest daughter, worked as Sun Yat-sen’s secretary but rebuffed his advances. She went on to marry H.H. Kung, a wealthy businessman who would later become Chiang Kai-shek’s finance minister. Ching-ling, or Red Sister as Chang refers to her, would become the Madame Sun Yat-sen, and later served as vice-chairman to Mao Zedong. Little Sister May-ling would become Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and, arguably, one of the most notable sisters for her contributions to the war efforts against Japan, her publicized mission in the United States, and her crucial role to Chiang Kai-shek as an interpreter during post-WW2 peace talks. The Soong sisters are not the only highlights, but also their 3 brothers and a powerful political dynasty this family forged. Despite their differing political views, it was clear the sisters loved each other deeply. They protected each other from the political whims of their husbands and showered each other with gifts and letters. With the start of the Nationalist-Communist civil war, however, the sisters were permanently separated. Red Sister died in Communist China alone. Despite their divergent destinies, the Soong sisters were clearly emboldened by their life of plenty. They were wealthy, educated, and ambitious. They had the confidence to pursue their passions and align (and parrot) their political beliefs to that of their husbands. For better or for worse, they were wealthy girls whose dreams were able to come true. They made their country fit their ideals and appetites (Big Sister and Red Sister, in particular) so much so that I found myself asking—if the Soong sisters had not met men like Sun or Chiang, would they still have been together? If their passions had not materialized into men that echoed their own convictions, would they have remained as they were? Chang’s book was an engrossing and wonderful introduction to 20th century China. Her painstaking efforts to acquire accounts, records, and interviews are well-paid off as the research comes together to create a cohesive narrative of country, family, and longing.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    I was a little disappointed in this book. From the title and subtitle ('Three women at the heart of twentieth-century China) I expected much more personal detail about the sisters themselves. Sure, they were married to or associated with, arguably, the three most important figures in twentieth century China, but, to me, the book marginalized them to concentrate on the history itself. I would have preferred to get to know them a little better, rather than read pages of detail about the men they w I was a little disappointed in this book. From the title and subtitle ('Three women at the heart of twentieth-century China) I expected much more personal detail about the sisters themselves. Sure, they were married to or associated with, arguably, the three most important figures in twentieth century China, but, to me, the book marginalized them to concentrate on the history itself. I would have preferred to get to know them a little better, rather than read pages of detail about the men they were associated with.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Furniss

    An epic group biography detailing the lives of three woman who helped shaped twentieth century China and also their three brothers who also made history. The story is crafted cleverly through research to bring alive the tale through memories and letters of acquaintances. Not a light read but very rewarding. I dipped in and out of this around my other books and learnt something new every time. I would like to thank the author, publisher and Netgalley in providing this arc in return for a honest rev An epic group biography detailing the lives of three woman who helped shaped twentieth century China and also their three brothers who also made history. The story is crafted cleverly through research to bring alive the tale through memories and letters of acquaintances. Not a light read but very rewarding. I dipped in and out of this around my other books and learnt something new every time. I would like to thank the author, publisher and Netgalley in providing this arc in return for a honest review.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Christian

    A fascinating history of three sisters and their incredible influence over the tumultous political landscape of China and Taiwan. From monachy to democratic republic to dictatorship to communism their lives connected and shaped it all.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kate Walton

    Disappointing. The (lack of) focus on the Soong sisters was not at all as described. This book reads as through the author had begun researching Sun Yat-sen (which is true) and then realised the Soong sisters were more interesting, yet decided she couldn't bear to lose all that research work so incorporated it anyway. Ultimately the book ends up presenting the women in relation to the men. Frustrating. Disappointing. The (lack of) focus on the Soong sisters was not at all as described. This book reads as through the author had begun researching Sun Yat-sen (which is true) and then realised the Soong sisters were more interesting, yet decided she couldn't bear to lose all that research work so incorporated it anyway. Ultimately the book ends up presenting the women in relation to the men. Frustrating.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Sadler

    Wild Swans remains one of the most radical and influential books that I have ever read and Jung Chang’s talent for pivoting Chinese history and examining it from new – often female – angles is laid out for all to see again in this tremendous epic work of non-fiction that reflects on the three Soong sisters from Shanghai who, through marriage and unmatched acumen, found themselves at the heart of twentieth century China. But though these three extraordinary women were bound by blood, the tumultuou Wild Swans remains one of the most radical and influential books that I have ever read and Jung Chang’s talent for pivoting Chinese history and examining it from new – often female – angles is laid out for all to see again in this tremendous epic work of non-fiction that reflects on the three Soong sisters from Shanghai who, through marriage and unmatched acumen, found themselves at the heart of twentieth century China. But though these three extraordinary women were bound by blood, the tumultuous politics of China also drove a stake through the heart of their bonds. For elder sister, Ei Ling – the smartest person in the room – became a chief political advisor to Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek (in the process making herself one of China’s richest women); whereas the youngest sister, May-Ling – the pretty one – married Chiang Kai-Shek and became the First Lady of pre-Communist China and, subsequently, Taiwan. But the middle sister, Ching Ling – the political crusader – abhorred her sisters’ politics; she married Sun Yat-Sen, coined the ‘Father of China, and (extraordinarily) rose to be Mao’s vice-chair; a visible woman in a regime dominated by men. Just getting my head around the set up was a challenge – three sisters from one family and each of them rising to extraordinarily influential positions of immense power and privilege. That really is something. Like Little Women on political steroids. And then for that very same family to cut across the most seismic of political divides in the 20th century… Just extraordinary. In China, the Soong sisters are household names (from what I understand) but this is not the case in the UK so I was knocked for six by this book. And not just because of its factual accuracy. Jung Chang’s writing is awesome. Now, I admit, 20th century Chinese politics is something I know more than a bit about so it was easy for me to follow but even for those unfamiliar, the writing is clear and a truly impressive blend of the political and the personal, Jung juggling private titbits with big political repercussions. And it’s that mix that keeps you engaged from start to finish – that we can follow the politics but also see how these sisters both shaped and were impacted by the circles they moved in. And, as always with Jung, her commitment to centring women’s stories is emphatic. She brings to life the wrestling these women had to be both feminine and masculine, how their private lives as wives were deeply intertwined with their public duties (which took a huge physical toll and required immense sacrifice), and the tension that came from being both powerful and powerless – how their power could often only be manifested through the men they could influence.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Gisela Hafezparast

    Very interesting biography of the three Soong sisters, whom I had known nothing about. Whilst I have read quite a few books fiction and non-fiction of the time period of the lives of the sisters as well as Mao, I have never heard of them. I am not sure how I feel about them. I definitely admired their parents, who not only decided early that their girls wound not be crippled by bound feet as was the custom when they were little, but also to give them the best education they could give them by se Very interesting biography of the three Soong sisters, whom I had known nothing about. Whilst I have read quite a few books fiction and non-fiction of the time period of the lives of the sisters as well as Mao, I have never heard of them. I am not sure how I feel about them. I definitely admired their parents, who not only decided early that their girls wound not be crippled by bound feet as was the custom when they were little, but also to give them the best education they could give them by sending them to the USA. Each one made their mark on the country for sure and they all seem to have known how to live and survive their powerful husbands/lovers in a very dangerous times. Especially Little Sister and Red Sister definitely also seem to have done some good for the Chinese people. However, and Jung Chang, also shows how incredible selfish and spoiled each of the sisters were. In times when lots of the country were starved, murdered, raped, etc. they often went back to the USA and lived in luxury and often they used funds which were supposed to help the Chinese people for their own and their families need for luxury. Big sister, profiteered from the wars and the hardship of her country. Big and Little Sister professed to be religious and I have no idea how they squared this with their their Christianity. Especially Little Sister and Red Sister are still very revered in China because of the men they married, so it is not easy to critizise them. However, Jung Chang has found a very clever way of both the good and the bad side of this family in this book. She has also very much kept the focus on them. She could have just blamed the men and the times for what the sisters and other family members did, but she showed very clearly that these definitely remarkable women, were responsible for their actions. What you also come away with from this book and from most of Jung Chang's non-fiction books is a thorough dislike of any politician! Given many of the leaders the world has and is saddled with at the moment, it seems as they don't seem to change! Highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in China.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Carole

    This is the fourth book I've read by this author, starting with Wild Swans, which recounted the experiences of three generations of her family during the cataclysmic 20th century transitions through imperialist, nationalist, and finally communist China. Her books are abundantly researched and documented, including first person interviews with witnesses and government figures. Her massive Mao: The Unknown Story and Empress Dowager Cixi substantially revise the prevailing popular judgment of these This is the fourth book I've read by this author, starting with Wild Swans, which recounted the experiences of three generations of her family during the cataclysmic 20th century transitions through imperialist, nationalist, and finally communist China. Her books are abundantly researched and documented, including first person interviews with witnesses and government figures. Her massive Mao: The Unknown Story and Empress Dowager Cixi substantially revise the prevailing popular judgment of these figures. In this book, she traces the drama of 20th century Chinese history through the lives of three women of the Soong family. These sisters individually became the wife of Sun Yat-Sen and vice chairperson of Communist China, the wife of Chiang Kai-Shek and the powerful Madame Chiang of Nationalist China, and the wealthiest woman and most powerful woman in Nationalist China. Jung Chang knows how to tell a story. It is very readable and with impressive documentation and illustrations. It is a fascinating view of recent Chinese history, told by a woman through the lives of three outsized female influencers of that history.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Debbie Gayle

    No doubt there is a ton of information contained in this book but with the vast amount of characters it was very difficult to keep up with who she was writing about and what year it was. I know almost nothing of the more recent history of China and through this book I was able to piece together the rise and fall of leaders like Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong and the pivotal roles of the three Soong sisters, Ei-Ling (Big Sister), May-Ling (Little Sister) and Ching-Ling (Red Sister). Q No doubt there is a ton of information contained in this book but with the vast amount of characters it was very difficult to keep up with who she was writing about and what year it was. I know almost nothing of the more recent history of China and through this book I was able to piece together the rise and fall of leaders like Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong and the pivotal roles of the three Soong sisters, Ei-Ling (Big Sister), May-Ling (Little Sister) and Ching-Ling (Red Sister). Quite often when reading a non-fiction book, especially one of such great historical value, I'm left with wanting to know more of at least a few of the characters. However, even though I learned a lot from this book it left me feeling rather bereft of caring about any of them. The narration (which was quite helpful with the pronunciation of many of the names and places) was very well done by Catherine Ho.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lynda

    This was a fascinating, but not easy, read. The Soong sisters of 20th century China were amazing women and Jung Chang is a meticulously researched reviewer. Red Sister married Sun Yat Sen and was the elegant, charming face of Chinese communism. Little Sister married Chiang Kai Shek and was the elegant, charming face of Chinese Nationalism in Taiwan. Big Sister was the brains and power of the family and indeed, the Government (whoever was in power). She married into business and became extremely This was a fascinating, but not easy, read. The Soong sisters of 20th century China were amazing women and Jung Chang is a meticulously researched reviewer. Red Sister married Sun Yat Sen and was the elegant, charming face of Chinese communism. Little Sister married Chiang Kai Shek and was the elegant, charming face of Chinese Nationalism in Taiwan. Big Sister was the brains and power of the family and indeed, the Government (whoever was in power). She married into business and became extremely wealthy. All 3 were devoted to each other and to their country, benefiting from the American education their enlightened parents insisted on. They were kind and generous and often selfless, as well as looking after themselves financially and in comfort. The early part of the book is dense with history and incidental characters which makes for difficult reading but the second part concentrates more on the women and is fascinating. Nobody in Chinese history comes out with very much credit and I cannot see that that has changed very much today.

  26. 5 out of 5

    baibai

    As always, Jung Chang's books are really good to read, even though it is non-fiction and historical it is really easy to read, i really enjoyed it I had no clue how much power this family had and i really enjoyed learning about pre-1949 from the point of view of people, not textbooks i had an issue with the part about the 228 Incident as i felt it was glossed over even though this was a major incident and i wanted to know what May-ling thought about it but it wasn't really mentioned, it was kind o As always, Jung Chang's books are really good to read, even though it is non-fiction and historical it is really easy to read, i really enjoyed it I had no clue how much power this family had and i really enjoyed learning about pre-1949 from the point of view of people, not textbooks i had an issue with the part about the 228 Incident as i felt it was glossed over even though this was a major incident and i wanted to know what May-ling thought about it but it wasn't really mentioned, it was kind of implied that Chiang Kaishek didnt have anything to do with it which i think it wrong also i found it difficult to distinguish sometimes between her opinion of the people and the facts sometimes

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    The story of three sisters who were being in an important family at the turn of the 20th century. Little Sister became Madame Chiang Kai Shek, the laser of Chinese Nationalism who ended up in Taiwan. Red Sister married Sun Yat Sen, the Vice Chairman of Communist China, Big Sister Chaing’s second in command. An interesting story that I never knew about.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Crystal Gao

    It is a fascinating book to read. The three Song sisters were the royals of the recent Chinese history - they were rich, beautiful, and married to powerful men. I heard their names often growing up. Has been very curious about them, but don't quite trust the "official" stories. Still not sure Chang's book is entirely truthful or accurate, but it is a good start. Chang clearly had done her research - there are a lot of details in the book, which I appreciate. That said, there are places where I f It is a fascinating book to read. The three Song sisters were the royals of the recent Chinese history - they were rich, beautiful, and married to powerful men. I heard their names often growing up. Has been very curious about them, but don't quite trust the "official" stories. Still not sure Chang's book is entirely truthful or accurate, but it is a good start. Chang clearly had done her research - there are a lot of details in the book, which I appreciate. That said, there are places where I felt how things happened are not clear (maybe no one will ever know), for example, Little sister had a fall-out with her husband once, and she stayed in US and refused to go back to TW, it is not clear to me what caused the fall-out. In addition, I don't understand why the Song brothers were not close to the sisters. Chung tried to state the facts and stayed away from judging. She speculated that Big sister became grossly corrupt because she wanted to take care of the sisters, as true as it might be, it is hard for me to read it without a "come on!". The biggest suprise is the description of Dr Sun. It is not positive at all, such an opposite to the Dr Sun I've been hearing about. Dr Sun in the book was selfish, cunning, opportunistic, a dictator and a womanizer. I pity the Red sister for her fate (though again I don't understand her choice). Red sister is the mystery that remains - the book does not show enough of her for me to understand how she came to the fateful choice of marrying Dr Sun, and why she stayed. Seemed to me there were plenty of chance for her to run back home to her sisters, which would have been more prefereable than staying in Red China. All in all, it is a great book for any history book fans to read. I really enjoy it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Lee Candilin

    Entertaining read. At times, reads like a gossip column, full of juicy details. At others, filled with historical details. Information on Sun and Chiang is quite different from what I had read during my school years. So all those wonderful things about these two were not exactly true? It reminded me of what a friend once commented, "History is written by (for) the winners"(paraphrase). I trust there is much truth in this book as it has been thoroughly researched. Entertaining read. At times, reads like a gossip column, full of juicy details. At others, filled with historical details. Information on Sun and Chiang is quite different from what I had read during my school years. So all those wonderful things about these two were not exactly true? It reminded me of what a friend once commented, "History is written by (for) the winners"(paraphrase). I trust there is much truth in this book as it has been thoroughly researched.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Heidi Larson

    With so much drama, I'm surprised this hasn't been made into a mini series or movie... With so much drama, I'm surprised this hasn't been made into a mini series or movie...

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