Chang (Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, 2013, etc.) follows three renowned sisters across more than a century.
The story of the Soong sisters, writes the author, is a kind of modern fairy tale. The Christian Shanghainese family into which they were born was prosperous but not especially influential, and the girls themselves “were not great beauties by traditional standards.” Yet, self-confident and determined, each made her mark. Ei-ling, the oldest, born in 1889, became one of the richest women in the country; Ching-ling, born in 1893, married Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the republican movement in China, whose renown endures throughout the Chinese-speaking world; and May-ling, born in 1898, married Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist government of China. According to the fairy tale, one sister loved money, another power, and the third her country—though, depending on one’s politics, the third attribute could belong to any of them. Chang recounts the lives of the sisters and their deeds, as when May-ling, in the face of an impending Communist invasion, flew from the mainland to Taiwan, “a huge boost for the Nationalists’ morale”; after Chiang died in 1975, she lived in seclusion in New York, her life spanning across three centuries. Ching-ling embraced the Communist cause, though it was only on her deathbed that she joined the party, acclaimed as “Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China.” Of the three, Ei-ling’s life is the least compelling, though she had her accomplishments, as well. Chang’s story is worth attention on the strength of the three sisters’ notable doings, though her writing is often flat—“Above all, she had found fulfillment as a mother”; “The Generalissimo came to appreciate what his wife did”; “A whole new world opened up to Little Sister.”
Of middling quality, but a story full of twists that follow the course of modern Chinese history.