In a group biography, the author reveals the lives of three extraordinary women who helped shape the history of 20th-century China. 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. Big Sister, Ei-ling, became Chiang's main adviser and one of China's richest women.
Ms. Chang seems to delight in the opportunity to 'discover' new facts about famous people. There is not much that is revelatory in Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, but her account of the Song sisters takes the trio beyond the reductive assessment by which they are most widely known. She treats each as a unique individual who deserves to have her story told ... Ms. Chang admirably strives to flesh out the inner lives of the Song sisters and treat them as more than simply the wives of important men. Indeed, each woman could have been a formidable figure in her own right, had times and opportunities been different. From a distance, it might have appeared that the Song sisters were living a fairy tale. But at the end of Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, the question remains: Did they all live happily ever after?
The book’s strongest point is its nuanced sympathy for the sisters ... A little oddly for a group biography of three remarkable women, however, the book sometimes veers off into male-dominated accounts of their context. The opening chapter focuses entirely on Sun Yat-sen; the second on the girls’ father. This periodic sidelining of the women expresses, of course, the paradox of their status (a paradox that applies to many other female Chinese politicians of the past 100 years). They were able to exercise influence only through association with powerful, deeply flawed men. The book would have benefited from more reflection on the tensions and limits faced by ambitious women in 20th-century China – and on the challenges this poses for telling their stories.
Deeply researched, Chang’s book is a riveting read, but at times her focus — on disproving her initial bland impression of the sisters — can feel narrow ... Chang’s desire to credit the sisters’ contributions can overshadow the crucial question of how Ching-ling came to be so deluded about Mao’s revolution and why May-ling and Ei-ling were ultimately unable to save the Nationalist regime, with its many financial and tactical advantages, from devouring itself.