Book Review: Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China by Jung Chang

by @edent | , | 500 words

Book cover featuring photos of three Chinese women.

Meet the three women who helped shape the course of modern Chinese history; a gripping story of sisterhood and betrayal from the bestselling author of Wild Swans.

They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled seismic transformations these three women left an indelible mark on history.

Red Sister rose to be Mao's vice-chair.
Little Sister became first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China.
Big Sister made herself one of country's richest women.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister takes us on a sweeping journey from exiles' quarters in Japan and Berlin to secret meeting rooms in Moscow, and from the compounds of the Communist elite in Beijing to the corridors of power in democratic Taiwan. By turns intimate and epic, Jung Chang reveals the lives of three extraordinary women who helped shape twentieth-century China.

I'm trying to read wider on feminism outside of the Western world and Anglosphere. Jung Chang's book isn't quite about feminism - rather it is a specific look at three very different women who ended up shaping modern China.

Except... it isn't. In order to understand the history of China, you need to know about the men who shaped it. So the book almost relentlessly focuses on the men in the sisters' lives. I get that it is necessary - but it means we get endless passages about what the menfolk were doing, with nary a mention of what the sisters did or felt.

But even this falls a little short. At no point did the book ever explain what Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek wanted. Were they just egomaniacs who wanted to rule? Did they have political demands? Were they reasonable? There's no real explanation of the politics behind any of the people, so it becomes a bit of a soap opera.

It is a sweeping epic. A worldwide struggle for the heart of a nation - and for the hearts of the sisters. It's exciting and enlightening. It's also slightly infuriating. There are lots of "missing steps". There's very little discussion about the impact these people's actions had on ordinary people.

It is an excellent, if somewhat uncritical, biography of the power-players at the rebirth of a nation.

A few technical criticisms. The book file is 50MB due to its lavish use of photographs. But, annoyingly, all of the images appear at the end! This isn't a paper book, it doesn't need special paper inserts. It would have been great to see the people and places while they were being discussed.

The eBook is badly formatted. It is full of hard-hyphens. Again, it looks like the typesetting was just copied over from the paper book.

There's also a complete lack of Chinese characters. All the names and places have been Romanised - which feels a little patronising. There's also no Pinyin, which makes pronunciation difficult.

It's certainly an interesting biography (triography?) but I wish it went a little deeper.


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