Jung Chang, the historian whose acclaimed family biography, Wild Swans, has been translated into 37 languages but is banned in her native China, is shortlisted for the 2020 HWA Non-fiction Crown Award for Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister. Her book explores the lives of the influential Soong sisters, Ei-ling, Ching-ling and May-ling; three remarkable women who helped shape early 20th-century China. She talks to Historia about her writing and some little-known periods of democracy and of freedom for women in China.
The HWA Non-fiction Crown celebrates the best in historical non-fiction writing. When did you first become interested in history?
I became interested in history in the mid-1960s. I was in my early teens and Mao was about to launch his Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution. His first victims were historians: he accused them of attacking him through the historical books and plays they had written. (There is a tradition in China for the critics of a tyrant to make a veiled attack through a historical analogy.)
The persecution of the historians frightened me, and also drew my attention to the historical stories involved. But my interest was totally frustrated because there was no way to find out more about those stories; there were only vague sketches in the official propaganda.
It was only when I was writing Wild Swans in the years as the 1980s drew to an end that my interest in Chinese history became serious. From then on, as I got deeper and deeper into research, I was constantly astonished by the huge gap between what had really happened and what was written in history books. I realised that there was much detective work to do. I loved doing detective work and so I was completely hooked.
My three books after Wild Swans are about the most important historical figures in modern China: Mao, Empress Dowager Cixi, and the Soong sisters together with their husbands, especially Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.
How do you approach research – and how do you know when you’ve done enough?
Research for me always starts with questions in my mind about my subjects and their times. The process is one of seeking answers. When one question is answered, another emerges. When a basic picture has formed in my head, I start writing.
Then, writing always asks for more details in order to sharpen the picture, and I do more and deeper research. I stop when I feel that the picture is clear and complete and I have really got to know my subjects.
Did you come across anything unexpected during your research for Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister?
There were many things unexpected. My biggest discovery writing this book is that China was a vibrant and functioning democracy in the first 16 years of the Republic: 1912 – 1928.
Elections, however imperfect, were held, and a parliament functioned. Tolerance of dissent was extraordinarily high. Free speech, including a free press, thrived. So did the activities of competing political parties. An independent legal system was working. And a host of literary and artistic giants flowered. Creativity was at a height unsurpassed to this day.
Women’s liberation, which had started with Empress Dowager Cixi (whose biography I wrote) and her edict against foot-binding in 1902, gathered stunning pace. Within a couple of generations, women went from being prisoners in their own homes to appearing in public linking arms with men; and from being kept largely illiterate to enjoying equal educational opportunity.
The Soong sisters were the first generation of women to have benefited from this liberation movement. Those 16 years were the golden era of 20th century China.
What would you say is the biggest misconception that non-historians have about China in the early and mid-20th century?
The biggest misconception that non-historians – and historians for that matter – have about China in 1912 – 1928 is that the country was torn apart by ‘warlords fighting’, was in a dire state, and it was a good thing that it ended.
In fact, ‘warlords fighting’ was not the dominant feature of the time (the major wars were actually conducted by Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, whom history books do not classify as ‘warlords’). The main fact about this period is that China was a thriving democracy, even though there were many problems.
The democratisation process had begun with Empress Dowager Cixi in the first decade of the 20th century, when she decided to turn China into a Constitutional Monarchy. After she died in 1908, China became a Republic (1912), and the commitment to democratisation continued. In fact, the country moved from monarchy to a democratic republic with stunning ease.
The Republican Beijing government held three general elections in those 16 years, and was only overthrown in 1928 by Chiang Kai-shek’s military machine, which had been built by the Soviet Union. Chiang’s Nationalist party (the Kuomintang) was for many years a Leninist party organised under Soviet supervision, and Chiang himself was the first dictator of Republican China.
What myths are we were telling ourselves about China these days?
After the Nationalists seized power in 1928, they started to falsify history to suit their dictatorship. The re-writing of history became more stringent and thorough under the Communists when they threw Chiang Kai-shek out of Mainland China in 1949. So, the falsification of modern Chinese history has been going on for nearly a hundred years.
Standard history books today are the results of this process. Of course, those history books also contain facts and truth, but they are mixed up with lies. From my own experience of studying modern Chinese history for the past 30 years, I feel that much original work is needed for research into primary sources, to separate truth from lies, and to produce history books that are nearer the truth.
One big myth that lingers is about Mao. People are still reluctant to place him in the league of Hitler and Stalin, and many still regard him as a great man who made mistakes. This myth is enduring because it is promoted by the powerful Chinese regime.
Today Mao’s portrait still hangs on Tiananmen Gate; his corpse is lying in the centre of Beijing for people to worship; and his face is on every Chinese banknote. There is a total ban on any discussion about him that does not toe the Party line. Anyone who criticises Mao, however mildly, is harshly punished. They lose their jobs, pensions, and some are imprisoned.
As a result, people in China are unable to speak up about their experiences of living under Mao and their views about him. In the absence of their voice, Western apologists for Mao are able to help perpetrate the myth.
Which history books would you recommend to Historia readers who want to know more about this period?
The leading liberal of China, especially in the early and mid-20th century, Hu Shih, has written incredibly perceptive and brilliantly articulated essays. Any work of his is worth reading. I myself have benefited much from his insight and I love his style of writing.
If there were one thing you hope readers will take away from your book, what would it be?
I want people to know that China is capable of being a democracy that works, as the country was for 16 years in the early 20th century.
This book about the Soong sisters, along with my biography of Mao (written with my husband, Jon Halliday, and published in 2005), and my biography of Empress Dowager Cixi (published 2013), are for me a trilogy of modern China and its major players.
I hope this trilogy can offer my readers an alternative picture about the country’s recent history which differs from the versions established by both the Nationalist and Communist regimes.
If you could time travel for a day, what time and place would you go to? And what object would you bring back?
I would like to time travel back to the mid-7th and early 8th century in the Tang Dynasty. At that time, there was no foot-binding, and women were relatively well-treated, compared to most times.
For decades the country was ruled, directly and indirectly, by Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in the country’s long history. She did a lot for the women of her time, as well as for Chinese culture. But her regime also has a reputation of treating her political opponents with appalling cruelty. I am keen to feel what living under her was really like.
This female emperor was something of a fashion designer and created fabulous and comfortable costumes for women. Her favourite colour was the type of red that graces pomegranate flowers. In fact, the ‘pomegranate skirt’ entered the Chinese language as a symbol of ‘falling in love’, most likely after she used it in a poem to express her love for a man.
This lover was actually the son of her late husband, the emperor, whose concubine she had been. She managed to marry the son, who was the next emperor. This lady was extremely unconventional in her approach to sex and, after she made herself the emperor, installed her male lovers in court.
As I adore the pomegranate red, and as I like the poetic association of the colour with love, I would like to bring back such a skirt.
What are you planning to write next?
All my books are the result of pursuing my own curiosities which have arisen from writing the previous books. At the moment, there are indeed a few questions that intrigue me. I need to do some initial research to find out how much primary information might be available and whether I will have something original to say, before I make the choice.
Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China by Jung Chang is published by Jonathan Cape.
Historia is featuring interviews with other writers who’ve made it through to the final round of judging, including John Larison and Tim Mohr. The winners of the three HWA Crown Awards will be announced on 25 November, 2020.
Portrait of Jung Chang: supplied by the publisher
The Soong sisters, Ching-Ling (left), Ei-Ling and May-Ling, in the 1890s: via Wikimedia
Chiang Kai-shek in 1943: via Wikimedia
Portrait of Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Gate: via Wikimedia
Painting of the Dowager Empress Cixi by Hubert Vos, 1906: via Wikimedia
Empress Wu Zetian from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes: via Wikimedia