By marrying men of political distinction and adhering to their own political pursuits, the Song sisters— who included Ailing (1890-1973), Meiling (born 1897), and Qingling (1892?-1981) Song— participated in Chinese political activities and were destined to play key roles in Chinese modern history.
Charlie Song and Guizhen Ni had three daughters and three sons, all of whom received American educations at their father’s encouragement. Though dissimilar political beliefs led the Song sisters down different paths, each exerted influence both on Chinese and international politics; indeed, Meiling’s influence in America was particularly great.
In childhood, Ailing was known as a tomboy, smart and ebullient; Qingling was thought a pretty girl, quiet and pensive; and Meiling was considered a plump child, charming and headstrong. For their early education, they all went to McTyeire, the most important foreign-style school for Chinese girls in Shanghai. In 1904, Charlie Song asked his friend William Burke, an American Methodist missionary in China, to take 14-year-old Ailing to Wesleyan College, Georgia, for her college education. Thus, Ailing embarked on an American liner with the Burke family in Shanghai, but when they reached Japan, Mrs. Burke was so ill that the family was forced to remain in Japan. Alone, Ailing sailed on for America. She reached San Francisco, to find that Chinese were restricted from coming to America and was prevented from entering the United States despite a genuine Portuguese passport. She was transferred from ship to ship for three weeks until an American missionary helped solve the problem. Finally, Ailing arrived at Georgia’s Wesleyan College and was well treated. But she never forgot her experience in San Francisco. Later, in 1906, she visited the White House with her uncle, who was a Chinese imperial education commissioner, and complained to President Theodore Roosevelt of her bitter reception in San Francisco: “America is a beautiful country,” she said, “but why do you call it a free country?” Roosevelt was reportedly so surprised by her straightforwardness that he could do little more than mutter an apology and turn away.
In 1907, Qingling and Meiling followed Ailing to America. Arriving with their commissioner uncle, they had no problem entering the United States. They first stayed at Miss Clara Potwin’s private school for language improvement and then joined Ailing at Wesleyan. Meiling was only ten years old and stayed as a special student.
The First and Second Revolutiona
Ailing received her degree in 1909 and returned to Shanghai, where she took part in charity activities with her mother. With her father’s influence, she soon became secretary to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary leader whose principles of nationalism, democracy and popular livelihood greatly appealed to many Chinese. In October of 1911, soldiers mutinied in Wuhan, setting off the Chinese Revolution. Puyi, the last emperor of China, was overthrown and the Republic of China was established with Sun Yat-sen as the provisional president. Charlie Soong informed his daughters in America of the great news and sent them a republican flag. As recalled by her roommates, Qingling climbed up on a chair, ripped down the old imperial dragon flag, and put up the five-colored republican flag, shouting “Down with the dragon! Up with the flag of the Republic!” She wrote in an article for the Wesleyan student magazine:
One of the greatest events of the twentieth century, the greatest even since Waterloo, in the opinion of many well-known educators and politicians, is the Chinese Revolution. It is a most glorious achievement. It means the emancipation of four hundred million souls from the thralldom of an absolute monarchy, which has been in existence for over four thousand years, and under whose rule “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” have been denied.
However, the “glorious achievement” was not easily won. When Qingling finished her education in America and went back in 1913, she found China in a “Second Revolution.” Yuan Shikai, who acted as president of the new Republic, proclaimed himself emperor and began slaughtering republicans. The whole Song family fled to Japan with Sun Yat-sen as political fugitives. During their sojourn in Japan, Ailing met a young man named Xiangxi Kong (H.H. Kung) from one of the richest families in China. Kong had just finished his education in America at Oberlin and Yale and was working with the Chinese YMCA in Tokyo. Ailing soon married Kong, leaving her job as secretary to Qingling, who firmly believed in Sun Yat-sen’s revolution. Qingling fell in love with Sun Yat-sen and informed her parents of her desire to marry him. Her parents, however, objected, for Sun Yat-sen was a married man and much older than Qingling. Charlie Soong took his family back to Shanghai and confined Qingling to her room upstairs. But Qingling escaped to Japan and married Sun Yat-sen after he divorced his first wife.
Meanwhile, Meiling had transferred from Wesleyan to Massachusetts’s Wellesley College to be near her brother T.V. Song, who was studying at Harvard and could take care of her. When she heard of her parent’s reaction to Qingling’s choice of marriage, Meiling feared that she might have to accept an arranged marriage when she returned to China; thus, she hurriedly announced her engagement to a young Chinese student at Harvard. When her anxiety turned out to be unnecessary, she renounced the engagement. Meiling finished her education at Wellesley and returned to China in 1917 to become a Shanghai socialite and work for both the National Film Censorship Board and the YMCA in Shanghai.
Ailing proved more interested in business than politics. She and her husband lived in Shanghai and rapidly expanded their business in various large Chinese cities including Hongkong. A shrewd businesswoman, who usually stayed away from publicity, Ailing was often said to be the mastermind of the Song family.
Qingling continued working as Sun Yat-sen’s secretary and accompanied him on all public appearances. Though shy by nature, she was known for her strong character. After the death of Yuan Shikai, China was enveloped in the struggle of rival warlords. Qingling joined her husband in the campaigns against the warlords and encouraged women to participate in the Chinese revolution by organizing women’s training schools and associations. Unfortunately, Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and his party, Guomindang (the Nationalist party), soon split. In the following years of struggles between different factions, Chiang Kai-shek, who attained the control of Guomindang with his military power, persecuted Guomindang leftists and Chinese Communists. Qingling was sympathetic with Guomindang leftists, whom she regarded as faithful to her husband’s principles and continued her revolutionary activities. In denouncing Chiang’s dictatorship and betrayal of Sun Yat-sen’s principles, Qingling went to Moscow in 1927, and then to Berlin, for a four year self-exile. Upon her return to China, she continued criticizing Chiang publicly.
In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek married Meiling, thereby greatly enhancing his political life because of the Song family’s wealth and connections in China and America. Whereas Qingling never approved of the marriage (believing that Chiang had not married her little sister out of love), Ailing was supportive of Chiang’s marriage to Meiling. Seeing in Chiang the future strongman of China, Ailing saw in their marriage the mutual benefits both to the Song family and to Chiang. Meiling, an energetic and charming young lady, wanted to make a contribution to China. By marrying Chiang she became the powerful woman behind the country’s strongman. Just as Qingling followed Sun Yat-sen, Meiling followed Chiang Kai-shek by plunging herself into all her husband’s public activities, and working as his interpreter and public-relation officer at home and abroad. She helped Chiang launch the New Life Movement to improve the manners and ethics of the Chinese people, and she took up public positions as the general secretary of the Chinese Red Cross and the secretary-general of the commission of aeronautical affairs, which was in charge of the building of the Chinese air force. Under her influence, Chiang was even baptized.
Meiling’s marriage to Chiang meant that the Song family was deeply involved in China’s business and financial affairs. Both Ailing’s husband Kong and her brother T.V. Song alternately served as Chiang’s finance minister and, at times, premier. In 1932, Meiling accompanied her husband on an official trip to America and Europe. When she arrived in Italy, she was given a royal reception even though she held no public titles.
The Xi-an Incident
In 1936, two Guomindang generals held Chiang Kaishek hostage in Xi-an (the Xi-an Incident) in an attempt to coerce him into fighting against the Japanese invaders, rather than continuing the civil war with Chinese Communists. When the pro-Japan clique in Chiang’s government planned to bomb Xi’an and kill Chiang in order to set up their own government, the incident immediately threw China into political crisis. In a demonstration of courage and political sophistication, Meiling persuaded the generals in Nanjing to delay their attack on Xi-an, to which she personally flew for peace negotiations. Her efforts not only helped gain the release of her husband Chiang, but also proved instrumental in a settlement involving the formation of a United Front of all Chinese factions to fight against the Japanese invaders. The peaceful solution of the Xi-an Incident was hailed as a great victory. Henry Luce, then the most powerful publisher in America and a friend to Meiling and Chiang, decided to put the couple on the cover of Time in 1938 as “Man and Wife of the Year.” In a confidential memo, Luce wrote "The most difficult problem in Sino-American publicity concerns the Soong family. They are … the head and front of a pro-American policy.
"The United Front was thereafter formed and for a time it united the three Song sisters. Discarding their political differences, they worked together for Chinese liberation from Japan. The sisters made radio broadcasts to America to appeal for justice and support for China’s anti-Japanese War. Qingling also headed the China Defense League, which raised funds and solicited support all over the world. Ailing was nominated chairperson of the Association of Friends for Wounded Soldiers.
Meiling’s Appeal to United States for Support
The year 1942 saw Meiling’s return to America for medical treatment. During her stay, she was invited to the White House as a guest of President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. While there, she was asked by the President how she and her husband would deal with a wartime strike of coal miners, and she was said to have replied by drawing her hand silently across her throat. In February of 1943, she was invited to address the American Congress; she spoke of brave Chinese resistance against Japan and appealed to America for further support:
When Japan thrust total war on China in 1937, military experts of every nation did not give China a ghost of a chance. But, when Japan failed to bring China cringing to her knees as she vaunted, the world took solace ….Letusnot forget that during the first four and a half years of total aggression China had borne Japan’s sadistic fury unaided and alone.
Her speech was repeatedly interrupted by applause. In March, her picture again appeared on the cover of Timeas an international celebrity. She began a six-week itinerary from New York to Chicago and Los Angeles, giving speeches and attending banquets. The successful trip was arranged by Henry Luce as part of his fund-raising for United China Relief. Meiling’s charm extended past Washington to the American people, and the news media popularized her in the United States and made her known throughout the world. Indeed, her success in America had a far-reaching effect on American attitudes and policies toward China.
Soon afterward, Meiling accompanied Chiang to Cairo and attended the Cairo Conference, where territorial issues in Asia after the defeat of Japan were discussed. The Cairo Summit marked both the apex of Meiling’s political career and the beginning of the fall of Chiang’s regime. Corruption in his government ran so rampant that—despite a total sum of $3.5 billion American Lend-Lease supplies—Chiang’s own soldiers starved to death on the streets of his wartime capital Chongqing (Chungking). While China languished in poverty, the Songs kept millions of dollars in their own American accounts. In addition to the corruption, Chiang’s government lost the trust and support of the people. After the victory over Japan, Chiang began a civil war with Chinese Communists, but was defeated in battle after battle. Meiling made a last attempt to save her husband’s regime by flying to Washington in 1948 for more material support for Chiang in the civil war. Truman’s polite indifference, however, deeply disappointed her. Following this rebuff, she stayed with Ailing in New York City until after Chiang retreated to Taiwan with his Nationalist armies.
Ailing moved most of her wealth to America and left China with her husband in 1947. She stayed in New York and never returned to China. She and her family worked for Chiang’s regime by supporting the China Lobby and other public-relations activities in the United States. Whenever Meiling returned to America, she stayed with Ailing and her family. Ailing died in 1973 in New York City.
Differing Beliefs and Efforts for a Better China
Meanwhile, Qingling had remained in China, leading the China Welfare League to establish new hospitals and provide relief for wartime orphans and famine refugees. When Chinese Communists established a united government in Beijing (Peking) in 1949, Qingling was invited as a non-Communist to join the new government and was elected vice-chairperson of the People’s Republic of China. In 1951, she was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize. While she was active in the international peace movement and Chinese state affairs in the 1950s, she never neglected her work with China Welfare and her lifelong devotion to assisting women and children. Qingling was one of the most respected women in China, who inspired many of her contemporaries as well as younger generations. She was made honorary president of the People’s Republic of China in 1981 before she died. According to her wishes, she was buried beside her parents in Shanghai.
Because of their differing political beliefs, the three Song sisters took different roads in their efforts to work for China. Qingling joined the Communist government because she believed it worked for the well-being of the ordinary Chinese. Meiling believed in restoring her husband’s government in the mainland and used her personal connections in the United States to pressure the American government in favor of her husband’s regime in Taiwan. Typical of such penetration in American politics was the China Lobby, which had a powerful sway on American policies toward Chiang’s regime in Taiwan and the Chinese Communist government in Beijing. Members of the China Lobby included senators, generals, business tycoons, and former missionaries. In 1954, Meiling traveled again to Washington in an attempt to prevent the United Nations from accepting the People’s Republic of China. After Chiang’s death and his son’s succession, Meiling lived in America for over ten years. The last remaining of three powerfully influential sisters, she now resides in Long Island, New York.
Further Reading on The Song Sisters
Eunson, Roby. The Soong Sisters. Franklin Watts, 1975.
Fairbank, John. China: A New History. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.
Hahn, Emily. The Soong Sisters. Greenwood Press, 1970.
Li Da. Song Meiling and Taiwan. Hongkong: Wide Angle Press, 1988.
Liu Jia-quan. Biography of Song Meiling. China Cultural Association Press, 1988.
Seagrave, Sterling. The Soong Dynasty. Harper and Row, 1985.
Sheridan, James E. China in Disintegration. The Free Press, 1975.