The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave

The Soong Dynasty Seagrave

Rating: 3 Stars ★★★☆☆

Shanghai no longer smells like the Mysterious East.

About

Descendants of a Chinese runaway who grew up in America under the protection of the Methodist church and who returned to his homeland to make a fortune selling Western bibles, the Soong family became the principal rulers of China during the first half of the 20th century and won the support of the American government and press for many decades.

Sterling Seagrave describes for the first time the intricate and fascinating rise to power of Charlie Soong and his children: daughters Ai-ling, who married one of China’s richest men, H.H. Kung; Ching-ling, who married Sun Yat-sen, leader of China’s republican revolution; May-ling, who married Chiang Kai-shek, the autocratic ruler of Nationalist China whose ties to the Shanghai underworld the author has documented; and son T.V. Soong, who at various times served as Chiang’s economic minister, foreign minister and premier. How all of the Soongs except Ching-ling amassed enormous wealth while millions of Chinese starved or were killed in the long fight against Japan and the equally bitter struggle with Mao are just some of the revelations in this explosive book.

 

Review

The beginning of the 20th century was a tumultous time for China. Between the influence of the West, the old dynasty headed by the Empress Cixi and revolutionaries looking to either create a new China or bring the old one back, there were many different factions striving to fulfill very different goals.

It is against this background of corruption, revolution, hypocrisy, and greed that the Soong legend begins.

Few families since the Borgias have played such a disturbing role in human destiny. For nearly a century they were key players in events that shaped the history of Asia and the world.

One family plays a pivotal role in China in the first half of the century: the Soongs. They start small. Charlie Soong is the younger son of a merchant, who finds his way to America, where he becomes a Christian and is educated as a missionary.

Back in China, however, he proceeds to built his dynasty. But it is the second generation, his son T.V. and his three daughters, that really made the Soongs the political powerhouse in China.

The “Soong Sisters” – Ai-ling, Ching-ling and May-ling – provoked a now-famous Chinese saying: “Once upon a time there were three sisters: One loved money, one loved power, one loved China.”

They were all educated in America, but they played their part in Chinese politics extremely well – mostly for their own financial gain.

T.V. Soong, eldest son, was the finance minister of Kuomintang China and one of the richest men in the world. The eldest daughter, Ai-ling, is rumoured to be the mastermind behind the family’s fortune and influence. Ching-ling, the second daughter, married Doctor Sun, broke with her family and later became a honoured figure in communist China. The youngest, May-ling, married Chiang Kai-Shek.

The book focussed a lot on Chiang Kai-Shek, his criminal background and the atrocities he committed during his reign. The Soongs were sometimes lost in the background.

Chiang became what Karl Marx, referring to Louis Napoleon, once called “a man who did not decide at night and act during the day but decided during the day and acted at night.

Overall, it was a fascinating, well-written account of this time in China, though the author’s biases sometimes show (Ching-ling is clearly his favourite, he hasn’t much to say about Ai-ling except some vague notions she was the mastermind and May-ling is shown as a frivolous, luxury-loving woman).

Conclusion

A well-written account of the Soong dynasty during the Kuomintang reign.

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