Author Jung Chang tells the story of the remarkable Soong sisters, who influenced the course of Chinese history

'May you live in interesting times,' runs the old Chinese curse. It could have been minted for the remarkable Soong sisters, whose absorbing story is told Jung Chang's latest, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister.

In their different and dramatic ways, Ei-ling, Ching-ling and May-ling influenced the course of 20th century China. Remarkably, two of these three sisters were married to two great leaders of the era: Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen.

Author Jung Chang. Picture: Getty Images

Author Jung Chang. Picture: Getty Images

They were thus positioned at either end of the political spectrum, between the soviet- dominated beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalists who retreated to Taiwan.

Outliving their husbands, they carried their legacies forward in indomitable but cosmopolitan fashion, arguably consolidating their reputations more effectively than did the famous deeds at the time.

The sisters were born in the last years of Imperial China and were sent by their progressive parents to the United States to be educated.

'Big sister' Ei-ling, who later became one of the wealthiest women in China with her husband HH Kung, was charged with looking after her younger sisters when they came as teenagers to Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.

Ever after, and despite being positioned at opposite poles of political crises, the women retained a strong feeling for each other and a sense of family identity.

'Big sister' was the first to fall under the eye of Sun Yat-sen, when she worked for him as his private secretary because of her father's dedication to his cause.

Although Sun was already married, he courted Ei-ling, but she prudently rejected him.

Jung Chang does a skillful job of pulling together the threads of the sisters' lives, which also provides a thread through a tumultuous century of Chinese history.

Not so her younger sister - 'Red Sister', Ching-Ling - who later reflected that hero-worship of Sun had been the basis of her accepting his proposal.

The account of his self-centred courtship of her and their elopement makes for poignant reading, for the young Ching-ling, many years his junior, ran away to be with him against her parents' wishes.

She then became his private secretary and wife, seemingly very much in love until a harrowing episode in which Sun allowed her to become bait in a trap for military purposes.

She nearly lost her life in escaping, and she lost her pregnancy, after which she could never conceive. Sun, having secured his own safety, did not move to protect her and the scales fell from her eyes.

This however did not prevent her from becoming the legendary wife of the 'Father of China' - 'Madame Sun' - and following Sun's death, playing her own part in Mao's Communist regime.

'Little sister' took a diametrically opposed course, through marriage to another political luminary Chiang Kai-shek, creating around his memory a similar cult of celebrity.

'Little sister' lived into the 21st century (she died in New York aged 105), living to see Taiwan under the dictatorship of Chiang become a democracy and a highly prosperous economy.

Jung Chang does a skillful job of pulling together the threads of the sisters' lives, which also provides a thread through a tumultuous century of Chinese history.

It provides an interesting prequel to our own time, when China is again tipping into the imperial mode.

The country's brief fortunes as a republic, and then its fierce phase as a Communist totalitarian state, are placed in context through the stories of these lives, as the aftermath of colonialism.

Jung Chang's observation of the part the women played in this history is piquant, given their sphere of influence grew at all times out of their place beside their husbands.

If the book has a fault, it is that it tends to dwell on the deeds of these famous men.

But perhaps this is a product of the task - women's lives, even where they are born into notable families, tending to be less documented than their men. Yet the three sisters, the first Chinese women to be educated at an American university, wrote fluently and in English on their own account in articles and in correspondence.

The force of their personalities is visible in the details Jung Chang researches, although their feeling for each other is strangely muffled by the politics. They had as much to pull them apart as to draw them together.

The author had earlier success with another biographical portrait of Chinese women, Wild Swans.

In the intervening time, she has also written a biography of the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi, whom she credits with reforms that made China successful into the 20th century.

As a biographical territory, the role of sisters is perhaps under-explored. We can think of other famous sisters like Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, who have often been biographed in accounts of Bloomsbury England.

The Soong sisters lived in a similar time but a very different place, and their story offers an unparalleled adventure.

  • Robyn Ferrell is a Canberra writer and academic.
  • Big sister Little Sister Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, by Jung Chang. Jonathan Cape. $35.
This story Strong portrait of Chinese women first appeared on The Canberra Times.