Book Reviews

Review: Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister

Wild Swans is one of the books that has had the most impact on me in my life. I read it as a teenager and it blew my mind that there was all this history that I’d never been taught about, and it showed the impact of these huge historical events, so easy to sweep over in a paragraph or two in a textbook, on individuals in a heartbreaking, personal way. Since then, I’ve faithfully read everything else by Jung Chang, and I was over the moon to have the chance to review her newest book, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister.

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Book: Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang

Read before: No

Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Penguin Random House. All opinions my own.

Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the ‘Father of China’, Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao’s vice-chair.
Little Sister, May-ling, became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China and a major political figure in her own right.
Big Sister, Ei-ling, became Chiang’s unofficial main adviser – and made herself one of China’s richest women.

All three sisters enjoyed tremendous privilege and glory, but also endured constant mortal danger. They showed great courage and experienced passionate love, as well as despair and heartbreak. They remained close emotionally, even when they embraced opposing political camps and Ching-ling dedicated herself to destroying her two sisters’ worlds.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is a gripping story of love, war, intrigue, bravery, glamour and betrayal, which takes us on a sweeping journey from Canton to Hawaii to New York, from exiles’ quarters in Japan and Berlin to secret meeting rooms in Moscow, and from the compounds of the Communist elite in Beijing to the corridors of power in democratic Taiwan. In a group biography that is by turns intimate and epic, Jung Chang reveals the lives of three extraordinary women who helped shape twentieth-century China.

What a fascinating read! After several books focusing on single figures, Chang returns to the group biography of Wild Swans, though this is definitely more historical facts than narrative non-fiction. It’s a little less easy to get swept away in without that emotional connection and storytelling tone, but it’s still well-written and easily comprehensible. The lives of these three sisters are utterly fascinating, and they were deeply involved in almost every twist and turn of Chinese history in the 20th century, which is just incredible.

Where Wild Swans showed the realities of the Kuomintang and Communist regimes for the people on the ground, this book gives more of an insight into what was happening at the top, but is no less personal. The sisters carved out spaces for themselves with astonishing effectiveness, even in a man’s world, and there is a sense that they were rather detached from ‘normal’ life, but the fact that they were able to exert such influence is really interesting. The book does a thorough job of showing exactly how circumstances aligned to set the events of their lives in motion, and there’s no doubt that there is meticulous research behind every chapter. I loved that there were so many examples of the sisters’ own letters used, as even in the most guarded of them you get a sense of their personalities. They are not necessarily likeable figures, but they are very human. 

The book suffers slightly towards the end from a confusing timeline, as it follows each of the sisters’ lives individually in their last years, and jumps back decades in places to pick up another thread. This made it a little hard to place some events, but it does mean that each sister’s story is given a little more focus on their personality and feelings as we focus exclusively on them, rather than on the intricacies of the political situation. It seems to encapsulate the tension between biography and political history that runs throughout the book – it’s a delicate balance, and those looking for wholly novel-esque biography in the vein of Wild Swans may be disappointed, but it does make for an exceptionally readable history.

All I can really say about this book is that it is utterly fascinating, and a must read for those who are interested in the period, or in women’s roles in history shaped predominantly by men. Interesting, readable, and important stuff. Four out of five cats!

new 4 star

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