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Real Soong Sisters

Zhang Kun wrote in the China Daily: “There has never been a trio of sisters more famous in China than the Soongs, The three women - Ai-ling (1888-1973), Ching-ling (1893-1981) and Mei-ling (1898-2003) - are well-known for their key roles in China's political scene throughout the 20th century. Two were once the first ladies of China - Ching-ling married Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), also known as the Father of Modern China while Mei-ling wedded Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), the former leader of the Kuomintang government and president of the Republic of China. The eldest sibling, Ai-ling, was married to Kung Xiang-hsi (1881-1967), the richest man in China in the early 1900s. [Source: Zhang Kun, China Daily, June 3, 2016]

“While Mei-ling and Ai-ling were ardent supporters of the Kuomintang, Ching-ling was steadfast in her Communist beliefs. Despite their differences in ideology, the three sisters nonetheless joined hands to lend vital support to war relief efforts in the fight against Japanese invaders. “In 1940, when the Japanese occupied the capital city of Nanjing, the three reunited in Chongqing and established the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives. The three sisters provided aid to numerous schools, hospitals, air raid shelters and war-torn communities.

It was said of Soong sisters: “One loved money; one loved power; and one loved China.” Madame Chiang Kai-shek was the one who loved power. Soong Ching-ling, the wife of Sun Yat-sen. was the one who loved China. The third sister Soong Ai-ling, who married the banker H.H. Kung, a scion in one of China’s wealthiest banking families, was the one who loved money. The sister’s brother T.V. was an influential politician, serving as the Kuomintang finance minister and prime minister at various times.

Film: The Soong sisters were the subject of the1995 film by Cheung Yuen-ting, "Three Sisters".

Lives of the Soong Sisters

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Movie Soong Sisters
Zhang Kun wrote in the China Daily: "The Soong sisters were born and raised in Shanghai. "Chen Qiwei, chief editor of Xinmin Evening News. said, "They were the elites of their time and role models for women in China.” The Soong sisters were born to American-educated Methodist minister Charles Soong, a Shanghai-based missionary turned publishing tycoon who made a fortune selling Bibles. Charlie was brought up on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. He was taken by Methodist missionaries to North Carolina where he converted to Christianity (all the Soong sisters were Christians).

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: In Shanghai, “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. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 11, 2012 \~/]

All the Soong sisters were educated at Wesleyan College for women in Macon, Georgia. , Soong Mei-ling's eldest brother and the republic's finance minister, went to Harvard; his rival, the financier H. H. Kung, went to Oberlin and Yale. Mei-ling left Wesleyan College and later graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She spoke excellent English, and with a Georgia accent, which helped her to connect with American audiences, according to records from Wellesley College. “Neither Ching-ling nor Mei-ling had children, while Ai-ling was survived by two sons and two daughters.

Marriages of the Soong Sisters

Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling in 1943

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: And in 1914 the eldest, Ailing, made a strategic match with a young man, H H Kung, who traced his ancestry back to Confucius. 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. 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... All three sisters were very much in the public eye, and in the news magazines almost as often as film stars, Verity Wilson, an expert on Chinese culture, told the BBC. "They were constantly on show in a way that the imperial family in days gone by, had never been," she says. \~/

Careers of the Soong Sisters

Mei-ling married Chiang Kai-shek and later became known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Zhang Kun wrote in the China Daily: “In the 1930s, Mei-ling and her husband initiated the New Life Movement, combining Confucianism with Christianity, and encouraged self-cultivation among the Chinese people. [Source: Zhang Kun, China Daily, June 3, 2016]

“When World War II broke out, she initiated a welfare project to establish schools for orphans of Chinese soldiers and referred to these children as her "warphans". To better provide for them, she established the Chinese Women's National War Relief Society. Mei-ling also played an active role in the political scene and was the English translator, secretary and adviser to her husband Chiang.

By the time the People’s Republic of China was created in 1949 and the KMT had moved to Taiwan the three sisters had gone their separate ways, “After the fall of the KMT in 1948, Mei-ling and Ai-ling moved to Taiwan with their families, while Ching-ling stayed in the Chinese mainland. The three sisters never again met in person. Ai-ling and Mei-ling later moved to New York, where they spent their last days, while Ching-ling died in Beijing.

Qingling, being the wife of Sun Yat-sen, was regarded by some as the first lady of modern China. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Soong remained on the mainland, where she was revered by the communists because she provided a symbolic link between the People’s Republic and the older revolutionary movement of Sun Yat-sen. She became an important official within the new government, focusing on the welfare of women and children. In 1951, she was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize for her work on welfare and peace committees. She was named honorary Chairman of the People’s Republic in 1981, shortly before her death. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Ching-ling received a medal from the KMT government in recognition for her contributions during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45). Ching-ling was also the person who had introduced Western authors and journalists to Mao Zedong, who was based in Yan'an in Shaanxi province. “"Despite their differences, the three sisters each made great contributions to the victory of the war. When you put together the stories of all the three sisters, you'll get a complete picture of the war," says Xiao Guiyu, chairman of the management council of Sun Yat-sen cultural relics in Shanghai. “Xiao adds that the Soong sisters are fine examples of the fusion of Chinese and Western cultures who have made a significant impact on generations after them.

Chiang Kai-shek's Marriage to Madame Chiang Kai-shek

Chiangs wedding's
In 1927, a year after he became leader of the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-shek married Soong Mei-ling. The wedding gown that Mei-ling wore was a white dress with a Chinese qipao-style collar line and a drop-back hem. Zhang Kun wrote in the China Daily, “It is believed that Mei-ling, who was later known as Madame Chiang, had contributed to the design. This bridal look, complete with a white headscarf fastened with a hair clasp, was widely copied at the time, as evidenced by vintage photographs showing a number of celebrities donning similar gowns. [Source:Zhang Kun, China Daily, June 3, 2016]

In her letters to her American friends, Madame Chiang Kai-shek wrote that her husband had the power and charisma of a military man and the charm and tenderness of a poet, sometimes suprising her with presents of plum blossoms.

Even so Chiang Kai-shek and his wife had a notoriously tempestuous relationship. He converted to Christianity They had no children. Chiang had a son from his first, marriage, who later became leader of Taiwan. Chiang had a second, adopted son, from his second marriage to a woman he chased when he was 32 and she was 13 and who later got a doctorate at Columbia University in New York. Chiang Fang Chi-yi is the widow of Chiang Xiao-yung, the son Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek and his first wife, Mao Fumei. Fang Chi-yi has been the keeper of the diaries of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo. Part of the Chiang Kai-shek diaries is now open to the public at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Divisions Between the Soong Sisters

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “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." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 11, 2012 \~/]

“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. \~/

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. \~/

“After 1949, the three sisters were never together again, estranged by history... All three have taken their thoughts on that separation to the grave. 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.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek and China

Soong Mei-ling giving a special radio broadcast

Known to some people as the "Dragon Lady," Soong Mei-ling was born in 1897 in Shanghai. She grew up in Piedmont, Georgia in the United States and graduated from Wellesley College in 1917. Her English was better than her Chinese.

In 1936, Madame Chiang Kai-shek came to her husband's rescue when he was held hostage by rebel troops sympathetic with the Communists. She is also believed to have played a part in convincing her husband to form an alliance with the Communists to fight the Japanese. At one point, she led the Chinese air force.In the 1920s Madame Chiang Kai-shek set up schools for orphans of the revolutionary army. During the eight-year war with Japan, she visited combat units and hospitals.

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: Mei-ling “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." \~/

Madame Chiang Kai-shek's Appeal

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “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.'"[Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 11, 2012]

In his diary the American General Joseph Stilwell described her as a “clever, brainy woman....Direct, forceful, energetic. Loves power, eats up publicity and flattery, pretty weak on her history. Can turn on charm at will and knows it.”

“Without the victory of the war against the Japanese invaders, there would not be today's China," says Hau Pei-tsun, a politician from Taiwan who was in the KMT army during the war, told the China Daily. “Hau adds that he remembers Mei-ling as a "warm and friendly lady, who treated us like her own children" and notes that she would often crack jokes and evoke much laughter at banquets.” [Source: Zhang Kun, China Daily, June 3, 2016]

In his book "Enter the Dragon: A Look at the Western Fever Dream of Insatiable Chinese Power" Tom Scocca wrote, “Madame Chiang comes and goes in the struggle — now managing the air force, now smuggling furs and other goods through the overstrained military supply lines. She risks her life in the mud and chaos helping war victims and writes chatty letters back to a Wellesley classmate about the experience.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek in America

In 1943, she toured the U.S. and spoke twice before the U.S. Congress, trying to drum support for China in their struggle against the Japanese. In one speech she said, "The only thing oriental about me is my face."

Zhang Kun wrote in the China Daily:“In 1943, Mei-ling became the first Chinese national and only the second woman to make a public address to both houses of the US Congress, speaking about the Chinese people's determination to fight against the Japanese. “In 1995, she made a rare public appearance when she attended a reception held on Capitol Hill in her honor as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. "It was her last visit to Washington, DC, and again, her appearance and speech reflected the spirit of Chinese people, which won the respect of the American people.

Tom Scocca wrote, “She achieves her apotheosis not in China but in the US, on a prolonged lobbying tour seeking more aid in the fight against Japan: enrapturing Congress and lecture crowds with her speechmaking (and her wardrobe), convincing her hosts that they are in the presence of a great leader of a great democratic nation. She urges lawmakers to “help bring about the liberation of man's spirit in every part of the world” and is at the center of a star-studded extravaganza for thirty thousand US sympathizers in the Hollywood Bowl...while she carried on a torrid and barely concealed affair with former Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie.

Image Sources: Chiang Kai shek, Ohio State University; Chiangs wedding, wikipedia ; Soong sisters, wikipedia; 5) Soong Sisters film ; Kuomintang army, wikipedia

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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