Meticulously researched story of four sisters, teeming with ideas and characters like an intellectual marketplace as it draws on their lives to illustrate the cultural, social, and political history of 20th-century China.
At times, the biographical details are swamped by the more impersonal facts as Chin (History/Yale) examines subjects like Chinese philosophy, literature, and opera. All relevant, but they often overwhelm the story of the Chang sisters, born between 1907 and 1914 in Hofei, an ancient provincial city. The four were still alive at the time of writing and in their later years have been able to meet again after years of separation following the communist revolution. Chin first introduces their parents, Lu Ying and Wu-ling, both members of wealthy families: Lu Ying’s dowry procession stretched along ten streets; in later years Wu-ling endowed a school for girls. As she records the birth of each daughter, beginning in 1907 with Yuan-ho, the author also describes their grandmother, the school Wu-ling founded, and the various nurse-nannies who helped raise them. Then she details the young women’s lives as civil war broke out in the 1930s, the Japanese invaded, the communists took over, and the Cultural Revolution erupted. Yuan-ho, who was happiest when onstage, married a noted actor. The only sister to remain in Japanese-occupied China, she moved to Taiwan in 1949. Second sister Yun-ho, fierce and feisty like the heroes of the past she admired, married a classmate’s brother. Because of her affluent background, she was persecuted by early communists as well as by the Red Guards, but survived it all; now in her 90s, she still lives in China. Chao-ho married a famous writer whose career was ended by the communists and tried to commit suicide. Youngest sister Ch’ung-ho, a distinguished calligrapher and teacher of classic Chinese literature, in 1948 married an American scholar she met at Peking University. They both taught at Yale, and she still lives in New Haven.
A remarkable story of survival amid extraordinary changes.