Wild Swans remains one of the most radical and influential books that I have ever read and Jung Chang’s talent for pivoting Chinese history and examining it from new – often female – angles is laid out for all to see again in this tremendous epic work of non-fiction that reflects on the three Soong sisters from Shanghai who, through marriage and unmatched acumen, found themselves at the heart of twentieth century China.
But though these three extraordinary women were bound by blood, the tumultuous politics of China also drove a stake through the heart of their bonds. For elder sister, Ei Ling – the smartest person in the room – became a chief political advisor to Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek (in the process making herself one of China’s richest women); whereas the youngest sister, May-Ling – the pretty one – married Chiang Kai-Shek and became the First Lady of pre-Communist China and, subsequently, Taiwan.
But the middle sister, Ching Ling – the political crusader – abhorred her sisters’ politics; she married Sun Yat-Sen, coined the ‘Father of China, and (extraordinarily) rose to be Mao’s vice-chair; a visible woman in a regime dominated by men.
Just getting my head around the set up was a challenge – three sisters from one family and each of them rising to extraordinarily influential positions of immense power and privilege. That really is something. Like Little Women on political steroids. And then for that very same family to cut across the most seismic of political divides in the 20th century… Just extraordinary.
In China, the Soong sisters are household names (from what I understand) but this is not the case in the UK so I was knocked for six by this book. And not just because of its factual accuracy. Jung Chang’s writing is awesome. Now, I admit, 20th century Chinese politics is something I know more than a bit about so it was easy for me to follow but even for those unfamiliar, the writing is clear and a truly impressive blend of the political and the personal, Jung juggling private titbits with big political repercussions.
And it’s that mix that keeps you engaged from start to finish – that we can follow the politics but also see how these sisters both shaped and were impacted by the circles they moved in. And, as always with Jung, her commitment to centring women’s stories is emphatic. She brings to life the wrestling these women had to be both feminine and masculine, how their private lives as wives were deeply intertwined with their public duties (which took a huge physical toll and required immense sacrifice), and the tension that came from being both powerful and powerless – how their power could often only be manifested through the men they could influence.