Her initial plan was to write about Sun Yat-Sen, the so-called father of modern China and ‘‘the man most responsible for how China moved from the Empress Dowager’s death to 40 years later Mao taking power”. “But after I’d done a lot of research, I realised he was a consummate political animal who was single-minded in pursuing his political goal. In a way, he is similar to Mao in that respect. I got a little bored. But in the meantime, I realised how extraordinary his wife and her sisters were. What extraordinary lives’’.
They were lives lived in extraordinary times. All three Soong sisters, along with their three brothers, were sent to college in America. Their father was a banker and a staunch Methodist. The family, wealthy and relatively liberal, had numerous ties to the nascent Nationalist movement in the early 20th century. As the wives of revolutionary leaders, Ching-ling and May-ling came close to death more than once, while the Big Sister bankrolled uniforms and hospitals for the wounded.
What becomes simply staggering as their stories unfold, however, is the sheer scale of two richest sisters’ greed. In the 1930s, they were the two richest women in China. Ei-ling was a shamelessly corrupt kingmaker, protecting her favourites. May-ling’s self-indulgence, especially during her decades in Taiwan as the wife of a dictator, was at the Xanadu end of the luxe scale.
She spent her last years in New York, surrounded by 37 loyal retainers including chefs flown back and forth from a grand hotel in Taiwan that existed in order to provide for her. In Taiwan, the Chiangs moved between dozens of palaces and villas they had built on prime beauty spots – mountains and coastlines – that were ostensibly closed off for fear of a communist invasion.
‘‘I was appalled, of course, as you say you are,’’ says Chang. ‘‘But I noticed that people in Taiwan didn’t hate them, in spite of all this, because Chiang Kai-shek defended Taiwan so the island didn’t fall to Mao. And although May-ling had her excesses, she was a kind person and did no harm to anyone, treating the staff courteously. The mainland first lady would send a staff member to prison at the drop of a hat, so there is a different perspective.’’
Chang’s own life, familiar to Wild Swans readers, has been extraordinary in its own quieter way. Born in 1952, she was raised in the thick of the Cultural Revolution. One of her earliest engagements with politics, just before the Cultural Revolution began, was helping tear up the lawn at her school because Mao had pronounced the cultivation of grass and flowers to be bourgeois.
‘‘We all had to do it, the whole class. I was very sad, but then I immediately criticised myself for feeling sad.’’ She was often guilty of what Red Sister had condemned in letters to May-ling during her most fervent communist phase: the crime of ‘‘warm-feelingism’’.
When the Cultural Revolution accelerated, her parents were denounced, imprisoned and tortured. Chang destroyed the diaries her father had encouraged her to keep, but secretly held on to her longing to be a writer. ‘‘To be a writer was the most dangerous profession,’’ she said later. A local black market sold books that had been banned. Now her own books are smuggled in.
‘‘I’m completely censored in China. I am a non-person,’’ she says. Not only are her books banned but, since Mao: The Unknown Story was published, she has been permitted to visit her family for only 15 days a year, under restrictions on where she can go and whom she can see. Her mother is 88 and frail.
‘‘Of course, I live in dread that this privilege may be revoked and I would never see my mother again. But I also realise that is the price I pay for writing my books honestly. And she never asks me to mince my words or pull punches. My mother is, at 88, still a tower of strength for me.’’
In 1978, Chang went to Britain on a year-long study program. ‘‘There were 14 of us at what was then Ealing College of Higher Education. We were all wearing the Mao suits and we were quite a sight, you know. We were not allowed to go out on our own initially.’’ She was brave enough, however, to slip out for long enough to look inside a forbidden London pub – disappointing, she says – and make her own friends.
‘‘I even had a boyfriend. I had come from China with a cautionary tale which I completely believed, which was that anyone who had a foreign boyfriend or girlfriend would be carted off back to China, drugged and in a jute sack.’’
Chang and I meet in a luxurious hotel near London’s Oxford Street, right across from the BBC: the heart of the city. Just up the road is the Chinese consulate.
She says: ‘‘Whenever I was anywhere near here, my legs would turn to jelly. Of course, the embassy was not doing that kind of surveillance in those years but, coming from China, the fear had been deeply embedded in my heart.’’
Asked how that fear tells on her now, she answers obliquely: ‘‘We all had to toe the line, but behind the surface, underneath, people do have a mind. My family became very close in the Cultural Revolution, with an intensity that would not have existed in normal times.’’
That knowledge makes her optimistic for the future of China, even as Xi Jinping’s administration tightens the screws on dissidents and Hong Kong’s determined demonstrators.
‘‘Certainly, some leaders would like to turn the clock back and make China more like Mao’s time,’’ she says. ‘‘But I think this won’t succeed.’’ The spread of the internet has been matched by an increase in official efforts to suppress people’s voices. ‘‘But on the other hand, it’s also true that the old-style repression, indiscriminate arrests and torture are not happening, certainly not on the scale they were in Mao’s time or Chiang Kai-shek’s time.
‘‘I think the country has now opened the door wide enough, making economic connections with the rest of the world that can’t be separated. I think it’s a setback we are experiencing today, but I think these factors will compel China to go forward.’’
Nor does she believe that people can be bought off with consumer goods.
‘‘I think some people have been, but for other people, it’s not enough. You constantly see this in the comments on the Chinese internet: ‘people are not pigs’. They don’t want just to eat and sleep, they have minds, they need to think, they need to express themselves.
“So no, it’s not true. People may not be out in the streets in mainland China but there are many other ways of resisting the country becoming more repressive. Because I have studied history, I know many things are not what they seem to be. All I can say is that I’m holding my breath.’’
Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is published by Jonathan Cape at $35.
Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.