The Soong sisters: Women of influence in 20th Century China
- 12 October 2012
- From the section Magazine
There will be no women at the helm of China's Communist Party when the leadership is reshuffled next month, but there are many more opportunities for women in today's China than there were 100 years ago. Then the only way to achieve influence was to marry it - and three sisters from one family showed how.
On one bank of the Huangpu river in Shanghai stands a forest of steel and glass skyscrapers, but on the other - colonial splendour.
A century ago, foreigners unpacked a whole new fascinating way of life on the docks here.
From Western ships came bicycles, engine parts and young Chinese with a vision of modernity - adventurers like Charlie Soong who had been out to see the world and had come back with ideas about revolution and the role of women.
A Bible publisher and pillar of Shanghai society, Charlie had sons, and in any earlier generation he'd have ignored his daughters.
But he had been educated by American Methodists and he believed in Christian virtue, democracy and the dignity of women.
From this waterfront, he sent his daughters to America to get a grounding in all three.
"It was the hope of the father that these women would come back from the West with the knowledge that they can change China, and change the fate of the people, of the women, and eventually of themselves," says Mabel Cheung, director of a film about the Soong sisters.
As Shanghai boomed, their horizons expanded. And in 1914 the eldest, Ailing, made a strategic match with a young man, H H Kung, who traced his ancestry back to Confucius.
One scene in Mabel Cheung's film shows Shanghai's finest in Western dress, listening to Western music, while the groom tells wedding guests there will be no Chinese-style squat toilets in the marital home, only the best sit-down contraptions imported from America.
Money was no object. He and his bride would become China's richest couple.
Once Kung became finance minister, Ailing discovered a useful way of making her investments grow, explains Jonathan Fenby, who has written a history of modern China.
"He would sit at home and conduct various negotiations about revaluing the currency, or doing this that or other. And she would be taking notes, and get on the phone to her broker afterwards and place large investments," he says.
Qingling, the second sister, married a very different kind of politician - Sun Yatsen, the revolutionary leader of China, who had become President of China after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1912.
As Sun was an older man and already married, Qingling's parents objected - so she jumped out of a window and eloped with him.
Like many other young Chinese people at the time she believed passionately in the idea of a new China, a country freed from feudalism, poverty and imperial dynasties. A country with an equal role for women.
Qingling became Sun Yatsen's constant companion as he struggled to make peace between republicans and warlords.
The youngest sister, Meiling, did not immediately marry.
But all three sisters were very much in the public eye, and in the news magazines almost as often as film stars, says Verity Wilson, who has written several books on Chinese clothing and culture.
"They were constantly on show in a way that the imperial family in days gone by, had never been," she says.
But life wasn't just a round of photo opportunities and jazz. Qingling's husband Sun Yatsen died in 1925 and his movement split into warring camps.
His successor, Chiang Kaishek, was a no-nonsense military man, some would say a fascist.
Qingling was horrified by his tactics. And doubly horrified when she discovered her younger sister Meiling was planning to marry him.
In Mabel Cheung's film, she complains to her elder sister Ailing that Chiang Kaishek is just trying to use the Soong family name to boost his career.
"So what?" retorts the hard-nosed Ailing. "Everyone will benefit. With Chiang's political power, my husband's money and Soong family prestige, we'd become the most powerful group in China."
But ideology drove a wedge between the sisters.
In 1927, Meiling married Chiang Kaishek, who soon afterwards launched a bloody purge of communists in Shanghai.
Qingling left for the Soviet Union, and the following year Meiling became the first lady of China.
"Qingling was making a lot of demonstrations and making a lot of noises, which really irritated Chiang Kaishek," says Mabel Cheung.
"It was rumoured that he really wanted to assassinate Qingling, and it was really only Soong Meiling who tried to hold him back."
In 1937, when Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China, Chiang's nationalists and the communists were briefly reunited against the common enemy.
The sisters ran field hospitals and literacy projects together.
Meiling was something of an ambassador for her country, becoming the first private citizen of any country to address the House of Representatives in Washington.
But her command of English and familiarity with America were not her only weapons.
"Many foreign journalists visiting her found her the kind of embodiment of the mysterious, beautiful Chinese woman," says Fenby.
"There was one visiting American journalist, Edward Murrow, who simply wrote in his book, 'She is pure sex appeal.'
"And there's a wonderful bit in the diaries of Alan Brooke, the British Chief of Staff, who depicts her sitting there with a slit skirt, slit to the hip almost, jewelled high-heeled shoes and dark glasses. And Alan Brooke said, I may not quote it exactly: 'From time to time she crossed her legs, and I heard a suppressed neigh, like a horse, from our younger officers.'"
As soon as the Japanese had surrendered in 1945, the nationalists and communists turned on each other again - and this time it was a fight to the finish.
Meiling fled with the nationalists to Taiwan and for the next two decades did her bit to ensure that the US sided firmly with the island against the mainland.
Ailing went to America and Qingling stood by the revolution, showered with honours for the rest of her life by a grateful communist state.
In the Soongs' day women could only exert influence through their husbands.
Now China has women running multinationals and going into space but top-tier politics remains off-limits. There are no women on the standing committee of the Communist Party politburo.
This may be partly because, in tales from Chinese history, women are often depicted as a danger, a threat, says Xun Zhou, a historian at Hong Kong university, who detects a tendency to blame wives for the bad luck or bad judgment of their husbands.
Take Mao and his wife Jiang Qing. It's often said that Mao's only mistake was to listen to Jiang Qing in old age.
"But in fact Jiang Qing was just Mao's tool," says Xun. "Mao was really behind all of it but this is how in China they see women."
And then there is the case of Gu Kailai, wife of the disgraced Chongqing party boss, Bo Xilai, points out John Fenby.
"The whole story of the poisoning of the British businessman in the hotel… it's a 'dragon lady' or Lady Macbeth scenario."
Traditionally these scenarios involve dynastic rivalries at court between different concubines and their offspring. Neither Qingling or Meiling had children so could never be accused of playing that game.
Meiling nonetheless became a convenient hate figure for China's leftists. Until the reform era in the 1980s, all good communists were taught that she was a wicked bourgeois.
"As I was growing up, she was seen as a bad character," says Xun Zhou.
"They always referred to those beautiful dresses - she used make-up and wore necklaces, all those things, as bourgeois elements do. And also she was on the nationalist side, which was the enemy."
Chairman Mao died in 1976 and the idea of socialism with Chinese characteristics was dreamed up to bridge the divide between capitalism and communism. Make-up and necklaces didn't seem so wicked after all, and Meiling was rehabilitated.
"In the past 10 or 15 years, she's more represented as this modern, beautiful, intelligent woman. In fact, there's probably more talk about her than her sister Qingling now."
In a cemetery in Shanghai there are tall cedars and flowers in gold and red, the colours of the Chinese flag. Qingling is buried here and there's a dazzling white statue of her.
Her sisters are buried in America. Ailing died in 1973 and Meiling led a quiet life in a Manhattan apartment dying at the grand old age of 105, in 2003.
After 1949, the three sisters were never together again, estranged by history. But all three have taken their thoughts on that separation to the grave.