There is a common adage in China that remains to this day, “One loved money, one loved power, and one loved the country” (一个爱钱，一个爱权，一个爱国). This notable saying, popularized by none other than Chairman Mao himself, pays homage not to any man, but to three of the most powerful and influential women in Chinese history, together known as the Soong Sisters (宋家姐妹, Sòngjiā Jiĕmèi).
That three women should be accorded such respect and admiration is indeed a very uncommon occurrence, especially in a society that has been traditionally male-dominant such as China. Nonetheless, it was these three women who rose to such prominence and influence not only through their respective husbands, but in their very own rights as well, so much so that their very lives shaped much of modern China and Taiwan throughout much of the 20th century.
The Soong Sisters were born to the prominent American-educated Chinese Methodist missionary-cum-revolutionist Charlie Soong (宋嘉树, Sòng Jiāshù) (1863 – 1918), also known by his courtesy name Song Yaoru (宋耀如, Sòng Yàorú), who was then based in Shanghai (上海, Shànghăi). Their mother was Ni Guizhen (倪桂珍, Ní Guìzhēn) (1869 – 1931), a descendant of the renowned Ming Dynasty Chinese Catholic scholar Xu Guangqi (徐光启, Xú Guāngqĭ) (1562 – 1633), who is commonly hailed as one of the “Three Pillars of Chinese Catholicism.” Besides the three sisters, Charlie and Ni also had three other sons, one of whom was T.V. Soong (宋子文, Sòng Zĭwén) (1891 – 1971), an influential businessman and one of the former Premiers of the Republic of China.
Charlie Soong (宋嘉树, Sòng Jiāshù) (1863 – 1918)
Before proceeding further in this article, let me introduce to you the three sisters themselves. They are none other than (in birth order):
1. Soong Ai-ling (宋霭龄, Sòng Àilíng) (1888 – 1973), christened Nancy Soong
2. Soong Ching-ling (宋庆龄, Sòng Qìnglíng) (1893 – 1981), popularly known as Madame Sun
3. Soong May-ling (宋美龄, Sòng Mĕilíng) (1898 – 2003), popularly known as Madame Chiang
The Soong Sisters. From left: May-ling, Ai-ling and Ching-ling
The Soong sisters led very unique lives in the sense that not only did they marry influential husbands and become indispensable driving forces behind China and Taiwan’s modern destinies, they also had the opportunity to receive sound American education – a rare privilege for even many American girls at that time, let alone three young Chinese girls from an impoverished land. With the incessant uprisings against the declining Qing Dynasty and continued political instability throughout China, Charlie Soong foresaw the need to send his children overseas for their safety as well as to allow them to obtain a good education for a brighter future. The eldest of the three, Soong Ai-ling, was thus sent to America to pursue further education at the ripe age of 16, being enrolled in Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, upon the recommendation of one of Charlie’s close missionary associates. She arrived in America in 1904, and four years later, in the fall of 1908, she was joined by her two sisters.
Their college years in Georgia as a whole proved to be a remarkable turning point in their lives. It was during these years that they were exposed to many Western ideas regarding education, politics, religion, literature and society, besides acquiring a fluent command of English with a distinctly Georgian accent. In fact, their command of English was so exceptional that the youngest of the sisters, Soong May-ling, once noted that she had to relearn all the Chinese that she had forgotten during her years in America, stating that “the only thing oriental about me is my face.” As a result of their extensive foreign education and exposure, the Soong Sisters came back to China, in 1909, 1913 and 1917 respectively, with refreshed outlooks and progressive ideas for China’s post-Qing Dynasty future.
Wesleyan College, Macon, Georgia - the alma mater of the Soong Sisters
Having lived in America for so long since her teenage years, Ai-ling initially faced problems adjusting to the local culture upon returning to Shanghai, but she was soon able to overcome them and became actively engaged in charity activities with her mother. Nevertheless, unlike her youngest sister, Ai-ling still retained an excellent fluency in her Shanghainese dialect. Through her father’s networks, Ai-ling was able to secure a job as secretary to the renowned Chinese revolutionist and later founder of the Republic of China, Dr Sun Yat-sen (孙中山, Sūn Zhōngshān) (1866 – 1925), who was also one of his father’s good friends. In 1913, when Dr Sun and the Soong family were seeking refuge in Japan after a failed revolution against General Yuan Shikai (袁世凯, Yuán Shìkăi) (1859 – 1916), Ai-ling met and subsequently married Dr H. H. Kung (孔祥熙, Kŏng Xiángxī) (1881 – 1967), after which she left her job and started teaching English to children. Dr Kung was from one of the richest families in China, was also an American graduate himself, and was at that time working with the Chinese Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Japan. He later went on to become a prominent and wealthy banker and politician, and the Republic of China’s Minister of Finance under the Kuomintang (国民党, Guómíndăng) government.
Dr H.H. Kung (孔祥熙, Kŏng Xiángxī) (1881 – 1967)
Ching-ling graduated and returned in 1913, and when her elder sister left her job as secretary to Dr Sun, she took over the job the following year. Ching-ling was an ardent supporter of Dr Sun’s political cause. She then married him in 1915 in Japan, much against her parents’ wishes due to the fact that Dr Sun was 27 years her senior. May-ling, who returned in 1917, was so adapted to American life that she found returning to impoverished China and re-adapting to the traditional lifestyle of her native homeland a great chore. Regardless, since she returned to Shanghai, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石, Jiăng Jièshí) (1887 – 1975), who was a prominent leader of the Kuomintang and a close ally of Dr Sun, incessantly pursued her and sought her hand in marriage, more for political reasons than true love, since her family had extensive connections both in China and America. Because of the fact that General Chiang was 11 years her senior, already married, and a Buddhist, May-ling’s mother opposed any matrimonial alliance between the two, but she finally agreed after he was able to present proof of his divorce and converted to Methodist Christianity. The marriage thus took place in Shanghai in 1927.
Dr Sun Yat-sen (孙中山, Sūn Zhōngshān) (1866 – 1925)
If the respective marriages of the three sisters caused their drifting apart from one another, the death of Dr Sun in 1925 and the consequent break in the Kuomintang following internal strife proved to further aggravate this. While Dr Sun’s leadership over the Kuomintang generally glued all its top leaders and members under a common agreed goal, his death consequently meant the breaking of the party into left and right wings, each accusing the other of betraying Dr Sun’s original principles and ideals, and each claiming the right of succeeding the leadership of the party. General Chiang, who led the right wing, emerged victorious and subsequently helmed the party’s top leadership, while the left wing was purged into oblivion under the general’s orders. Ai-ling and May-ling supported General Chiang’s right-wing struggles, seeing it as the better alternative for China’s future, but Ching-ling, who felt that his ideals were a stark betrayal of her husband’s founding principles, associated herself with the left-wing instead.
General Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石, Jiăng Jièshí) (1887 – 1975)