The Story of the Soong Sisters

“Once upon a time in distant China, there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power and one loved her country.”

Such is the opening of the 1997 historical drama directed by Mabel Cheung on the legendary Soong sisters, three women who had tremendous influence on China’s political world in the 20th century.

Once upon a time in distant China…

The story begins with the young Han Jiaozhun, who travelled to the United States in order to work for his uncle’s shop in Chinatown. A stint in the marines, a conversion to Christianity, and a baptism later, Han, now known as Charlie Soong, returned to China as a Christian missionary. It was in Shanghai, in an atmosphere of political change, that he had his six children: three sons and three daughters.

One loved money…

Ailing, the eldest daughter, born in 1888, was the first to leave China and pursue an education at Wesleyan College. In 1914, she returned to marry the up and coming banker H.H. Kung who would eventually become the finance minister of China, making them China’s soon-to-be richest couple.

One loved power…

The youngest, Meiling, who had followed her sister to America, spent much of her formative years abroad, graduating from Wellesley College in 1917 as one of the 33 ‘Durant Scholars’. During WWII she made several tours in the United States to gain support for the Nationalist Party, becoming the first Chinese person to give an address in the US Congress and charming many along the way. Her active role in politics was aided by her marriage in 1927 to Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Republic of China from 1928-49. Along with her role as First Lady, she was a member of the Legislative Yuan, Secretary-General of the Chinese Aeronautical Affairs Commission, Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang, and acted as translator and advisor to her husband. After fleeing China in 1949, she spent her life between Taiwan and the United States, dying in her sleep in 2003 at the age of 105.

One loved her country...

The middle sister, Qingling, passionate about her country, jumped out of a window and eloped with Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary leader of China who had overthrown the imperial Qing dynasty in 1912. Believing passionately in a New China, free from the restrictions of the imperial age, she dreamed of equal rights for all, including women. She stood by the revolution, and her dream of New China, for her entire life. Even through the Cultural Revolution, despite both her sisters fleeing, she remained in China until her death in 1981.

Their Legacy

These three sisters were instrumental in bringing together the feuding Nationalist and Communist Parties in 1937 to fight against the Japanese, running field hospitals and literacy projects at the same time. Their intelligence, wit, and education gained them an influence in 20th century politics with which few could even dare compete.