Not So Well-Known in the West

I knew nothing of the Soong sisters. But I had heard of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Madame Chiang was a second tier dragon lady, less colorful than Turandot or Cixi, and less scary than Madame Mao. In the kind of books I read, Madame Chiang intrudes in men’s stories, with her luggage and her demands. War books are notably impatient with women as a rule, but to read some of them, you would believe that Madame Chiang was the curse of the China Burma India theater. And of course Madame Chiang laughed last, outliving all her contemporaries before dying at the age of 105.

While I was in Beijing, I walked by a beautiful walled compound, the “Former Residence of Soong Qing-ling,” open to the public. The compound had been the birthplace of Emperor Pu Yi, but it is now occupied by an exhaustive museum covering the life and the achievements of one Soong Qing-ling, a name that meant nothing to me.

Soong Qing-ling was the wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. (There was a name I recognized, the father of modern China, the founder of the Kuomintang party, and the first President of the Republic of China.)  She was a tireless supporter of children and the downtrodden. On her deathbed, she was made Honorary Chairman of (red) China. She was also the sister of (rabidly anti-red) Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Now that is heavy. How could two sisters have ended up at such political antipodes? As soon as I came home I set out to find out more about the Soong sisters.

It Started with a Father

The sisters’ father was Han Chiao-shun (1864-1918) an ethnic Hakka Chinese from Hainan. Han worked at one point at his uncle teahouse in Boston before becoming a sea hand on a Coast Guard ship in 1879. On the ship, he received Christian teachings from the captain, and thereafter, Han became a Methodist Christian. He also changed his name to Charlie Soong.

Charlie Soong was ambitious and bright. He completed his education at Trinity College (today Duke University) and returned to China in 1886 as a Methodist missionary! There, he married a young Chinese Episcopalian girl, Ni Kwei-tseng. Charlie became very wealthy printing and selling Chinese bibles. He and his wife had three sons, and three daughters with destinies: Soong Ai-ling (Nancy) was born in 1890; Soong Qing-ling (Rosamond) was born in 1892; Soong Mei-ling was born in 1897.

China at the beginning of the twentieth century was convulsed with xenophobia, including anti-Christian paranoia. Charlie and his wife feared for their children’s safety. Having received an American education that had served him well, Charlie sent his daughters one after the other to Wesleyan College, in Macon, Georgia. There, the gifted and exotic sisters made quite a splash.

Back in Shanghai, Charlie was closely associated with revolutionary personalities, including the charismatic Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925). When first daughter Ai-ling came back from college, she became Sun Yat-sen’s assistant. Although she wouldn’t attain the level of publicity reached by her sisters, Ai-ling did have an eventful life. She married H. H. Kung, at one point the richest man in China, and both were involved in much political string-pulling.

Substitute Secretary

After she married, Ai-ling was too busy to work. But by that time, her sister Qing-ling had graduated too and she in turn took over as SunYat-sen’s secretary. Sun Yat-sen already had a wife, Lu Muzhen, whom he kept far in the background, partly because the poor woman had old-fashioned bound feet. Nevertheless, in 1915, Qing Ling and Sun Yat-sen fell in love and married, to the consternation of Charlie Soong. Charlie thought his friend was much too old and his daughter much too young, but their love was in fact strong and based on noble and generous goals.

When Mei-ling returned from Georgia, she also found a husband, wily General Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975). The general courted the young girl assiduously, and Madame Soong finally consented to let him marry Mei-ling if he divorced his first wife and became a Christian.

Sun Yat-sen was a unifying figure during the early days of the Chinese republic. Alas he died in 1925 and the country lacked a convincing leader. Soon, China was divided between two movements: the communists and the progressively anti-communist Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), led by Mei-ling’s husband, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

Although not a communist, Qing-ling left China for Moscow temporarily when the Kuomintang expelled communists from its ranks in 1927. The constant struggle for control between the communists and the nationalists during the 1930’s weakened China and left the country vulnerable to Japan’s expansionist ambitions.

Sisters at War

Chiang Kai-shek was more focused on the enemy within (the communists) than on the enemy without (the Japanese). Nevertheless, thanks in part to the efforts of Qing-ling and Mei-ling, there was an effort at communist and nationalist cooperation – the United Front – against the Japanese.

While Qing-ling did her bit for the war effort at home, Mei-ling went on a ground breaking tour of the United States to ask for help (just like Winston Churchill, she must have slept soundly on the night following the attack on Pearl Harbor). As Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Mei-ling was all over the place, charming most but rubbing a few, such as Pearl S. Buck and Eleanor Roosevelt, the wrong way.

During the later phases of the war, the Generalissimo and his wife were the public face of China in the U.S., earning the “Man and Wife of the Year” issue of Time magazine. Mei-ling was also the first Chinese national to address the U.S. Congress. In reality, Chiang Kai-shek was a mediocre general, obsessed with his fight against the communists, and an infuriatingly unreliable ally to the British and American generals in Burma.

After the war, as we all know, the long running Chinese civil war accelerated and the communists took control of the Mainland. The Kuomintang faithful retreated to Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek ruled under martial law for decades.

Scattered Endings

Where did that leave the sisters?

Ai-ling, the wealthiest, left for the United States in the 1940s. There, she lived privately and died in New York in 1973.

Mei ling was first lady of Taiwan, seeking and garnering less publicity than one might have expected. Mei-ling left Taiwan after the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 (Chiang was succeeded by a son from his first marriage who had a poor relationship with his stepmother). Mei-ling then also moved to New York where she was unaccountably quiet and obscure, albeit luxuriously so. When she died in 2003, many were shocked to learn that she had been alive all that time.

The one who never left, Qing-ling, pursued worthier goals. She became a saint of sorts, the “Mother of China.” She worked for children and for women. She represented her country in communist and third world nations. She wrote. She received the 1951 Stalin Peace Prize (hmmmm). In 1981, two weeks before her death, she was admitted into the Chinese Communist Party, so that she could be made Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China.

What a great story. Like a dream collage of Kennedy brothers and Gabor sisters painted in shades of red.
If you want to  put the prettiest faces on the characters, there is a Hong Kong movie, The Soong Sisters, with Maggie Cheung as Qing-ling, Michelle Yeoh as Ai-ling and Vivian Wu as Mei-ling. The movie is a series of gorgeously photographed scenes that don’t quite add up to a coherent whole. Some parts, like Qing-ling’s Moscow venture feel as primitive as a silent movie.  With its memorable music score, the film is reminiscent of another coloring-book epic, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. But if you are interested in the sisters (and knowing their story, who wouldn’t be?) the movie is a good way to learn the basic lines of their destinies.

Madame’s Biography

After writing this page I read a long and, at times, almost jaundiced biography of Mei-ling, The Last Empress, by Hannah Pakula. It is a flawlessly researched biography, with valuable insight into the secretive Ai-ling, and the less known, yet just as bright and manipulative Soong brothers.

Mei-ling herself comes across as more of a caricature, especially during her much publicized trips to the United States, which were never far from degenerating into PR disasters. Chiang Kai-shek is described most of the times as a stooge – which may be a bit much.

You should only read this book if you are willing to change your romantic views of the sisters and their hangers on. Ai-ling and the Kung branch, notably, could be described as war profiteers. Most poignant is finding out that neither of her sisters attended Ai-ling’s funeral services, because by then, they were just terrified at the idea of meeting each other.