There were once three sisters. The first loved money; the second loved her country; the third loved power. What a great idea for a novel!
Let’s see … First sister marries a banker and becomes immensely rich. Second sister elopes with a middle-aged revolutionary. Marvellous! You can imagine the publisher reaching for his cheque-book already. But wait — what about Third Sister? Well, she married Chiang Kai-shek. And this is not fiction, but something much more improbable: this is Chinese history.
During the second quarter of this century the Soong sisters — together with their in-laws and a brother — played major roles in the tragedy of Nationalist China. Sterling Seagrave’s book tells the story of this remarkable family.
Along the way it tells other stories, too: of Big-Ears, the vicious Shanghai gangster who ran China as a personal racket (there is a blood-chilling photograph of him); of Chiang Kai-shek, whom Big-Ears promoted from a career in extortion and assassination to become the Supreme Leader of his country; and of the gulling of America, at which the Chinese quickly became — and have remained — grand masters.
Charlie Soong, the patriarch. was one of China’s first westernised millionaires. He put his money behind Sun Yat-sen’s dream of a modernising revolution by and for the Chinese people. When it became clear that no such revolution was possible, the family went feral. They joined forces with Big-Ears and set about plundering their country.
The common people of China no longer figured in their schemes, except as a sort of livestock. It was this attitude that at last undermined Chiang Kai-shek’s rule. By displaying one side of the national character with dreadful clarity, he and the Soongs ensured that the other side would eventually triumph. Much they cared. By the time they had to flee the advancing communist armies, the family was worth billions.
Only Second Sister kept her humanity intact. She married Sun and held true to his rather woolly ideals until she died in 1981, an honoured citizen of the People’s Republic — whose leaders had by then made a joke of all ideals. Poor China!
The author has done his work well, picking his way skilfully through historical sources heavily doctored by surviving Chinese politicians of all factions. He knows China and has caught the atmosphere of that weird, melancholy place.
I could have done without Mr Seagrave’s occasional lapses into Creative Writing (“The walls of the Forbidden City were all whispering to themselves as I walked by …”), but perhaps people expect that sort of thing in books about China. In any case, this is a small complaint to make against an author who has shed light into so many dark places and turned a difficult piece of history into an engrossing narrative.