“Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister” by Jung Chang – a story of three women at the heart of change in China

Jung Chang’s biography Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is the story, unsurprisingly, of three sisters. Ai-ling, Ching-ling and May-ling Soong were born to a wealthy family in China and went to America for their education. On return they were attracted to powerful men and made significant marriages. This put them at the forefront of Chinese history during the early twentieth century and they were deeply involved in political action.

In the early twentieth century China was struggling its way to revolution, the overthrow of the emperors, and democracy. The leader of this movement was Sun Yat-sen who was the husband of Ching-ling who was as committed to these ideals as he was. After his death she kept his ideals alive and became an ally of Mao. Ai-ling also married a prominent politician and became the wealthiest woman in China and May-ling became the wife of the nationalist leader Chiang-Kai-shek. Don’t worry if you don’t know about any of the politics in China at the time as I didn’t but I still managed to follow the story because of the excellent way in which the author fills in details and helps you see things in context.

Because of the different views of their husbands and the politics they themselves espoused the sisters were often at odds with each other although they always maintained a relationship of sorts. Because of the turmoil of the times the sisters were often in peril of their lives and faced extreme physical danger – their circumstances changed as events changed. The sisters had to respond to events and obviously wanted to preserve their lives and they didn’t always behave well, backing actions which resulted in death to others. They seemed to have an ability to survive whatever the issues facing them but the ways in which they did it aren’t always laudable. All three sisters came with a sense of privilege and wanted to maintain their position and it is obvious that they didn’t always understand or bother too much about the conditions and lives of ordinary people. On the other hand, they often did a lot of good, they loved their country even though they had differing views on what that meant in practice, and they survived when so many others didn’t.

I really enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about Chinese history which I hadn’t previously known. I engaged with the story although I didn’t always like the sisters themselves. I found this book easy to read and understand and really enjoyed reading it – I was hooked from a very early stage and knowing nothing about the sisters before I read the book I always wanted to see what would happen next.

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