She married Sun Yatsen, became a Communist and died as China’s honorary chairperson. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore takes a look at the life of Soong Qingling.

“Once upon a time in distant China, there were three sisters,” opens the 1997 historical drama The Soong Sisters“One loved money, one loved power and one loved her country.”

Directed by Hong Kong film-maker Mabel Cheung, The Soong Sisters tracks the lives of three real-life siblings, powerful women who lived through – and largely influenced – major upheavals in China in the last century.

Soong Ailing – the lover of money – married Kung Hsiang-hsi, a director of the Bank of China. Soong Meiling – the lover of power – married Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party. And Soong Qingling – the lover of the Chinese nation – married the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, founding father of the Republic of China.

To some Soong was China’s “conscience”… To others, she was a politically naive traitor

Together Ailing, Meiling, and Qingling represent China’s major ideological forces: capitalism, nationalism and communism, respectively. But of the three sisters, it is Soong Qingling (depicted in the movie by the iconic actress Maggie Cheung) who captured the public’s imagination, becoming in the process a political It Girl, national treasure and historical heroine.

The “mother of modern China”, as she is known, wed Sun Yat-sen in 1915, the man heralded with overthrowing the feudalistic, old-fashioned and elitist Manchu dynasty just four years earlier. As a widow, following her husband’s death from liver disease a decade later in 1925, Madame Sun Yat-sen became an important champion for Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.

To some Soong was China’s ‘conscience’, having broken ties with the Nationalist Party that her husband had founded, proclaiming it had strayed from his original ideals and intentions. To others, she was a politically naive traitor and ‘bird in a lacquered cage’, who was used and exploited by the Communists as a crucial link to the past and a route to legitimacy.

Soong Qingling personifies modern China – Israel Epstein

One thing is certain. As the Communist Party apologist Israel Epstein – a great friend of Soong’s – once stated: “Soong Qingling personifies modern China… [She] personally participated in all stages of the Chinese revolution.” 

In his 1993 biography Woman in World History: Soong Qingling, Epstein describes her as possessing a rare “internationalist and bicultural thinking” combined with patriotism. The latter was her “strong and eternal root… not only reflected in her political stance and actions but also suffused her entire mind and body.”

Chinese dream

The daughter of a Bible salesman and missionary, Soong was born in 1893 in Shanghai. Charlie Soong, her father, had spent years in the United States being trained as a missionary before returning to spread Christianity. In 1890 he started a Shanghai publishing house, printing cheap bibles in colloquial Chinese – and became rich. His business empire soon expanded to include food and textiles.

Above all, Soong was a champion of women

As the second eldest of six children, Soong was educated, like her siblings, in both China and the US. Fluent in English, she attended Wesleyan College in Georgia and took up the Christian name Rosamond. When the Republic of China was proclaimed, ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule, Soong was still at school in the States. As her friends watched, she took down the emperor’s banner from the walls of her room; in its place went Sun Yatsen’s flag of the Republic.

Education abroad had its impact: above all, Soong was a champion of women. Finding arranged marriages abhorrent (they would later be banned by Mao in the 1950s) she was adamant that she must marry a man of her own choice. Moving back to Asia, she became Sun Yatsen’s secretary. When she announced she would also become his wife her parents were appalled. Not only was Sun nearly three decades her senior, he already had a wife and three children. By taking up the mantle of “second wife” Soong's match would be at odds with the family’s Christian values.

Showing the determination, stubbornness and will that would define her long life, Soong ignored their concerns and married Sun in 1915. Although younger, richer, and at times offended by his lack of cleanliness, Soong became a much-loved companion and confidant to Sun, a revolutionary born into a peasant family. In an era when many respectable Chinese women were still kept behind shuttered doors, she also became a highly visible political figure. In her biography Madame Sun Yatsen, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday state that Soong became the earliest example in the world of a woman behaving like a “First Lady”.

In the early 1920, Soong’s initiatives included conducting studies of the squalid conditions of female factory workers, the founding of women’s clubs and heading up the Women’s Institute of Political Training. As well as providing a refuge for women fleeing arranged marriages, the Institute promoted the idea that women, like men, were equal benefactors of China’s political future and must be educated as such. Chinese women, she wrote in later life, must be unshackled from the three traditional obediences: to their fathers, their husbands, and their sons.

Soong, likewise, shifted between European and Chinese styles, showcasing a new, forward-thinking China

But while Soong campaigned strongly in women’s rights, she also believed that they must come under a transformation of society as a whole, stating in 1942: “From the very start, our women fought not under the banner of a Western feminism but as part and parcel of the democratic whole.”

One reflection of social reform was dress. In feudal China men wore their heads shaved, with a long plait, or queue, draped down their backs, as a physical incarnation of their humility. Sun Yatsen, however, popularised a modern new suit, a mixture of traditional Chinese and Western dress, known as the Sun-Yatsen – and later the Mao -– suit. Soong, likewise, shifted between European and Chinese styles, showcasing a new, forward-thinking China, one that could hold its head up high to the West.

A strange sisterhood

With power, however, came costs. Forced to flee a military coup in 1922, Soong miscarried her baby with Sun (later in life she adopted two daughters). The Soong family also suffered a vast split: during the Chinese Civil War, the Communist-sympathising Qingling became estranged from her sister Meiling, wife of the enemy Chiang Kai-Shek.

In 1927 – the same year of Meiling’s wedding – Chiang Kai-Shek led a brutal massacre of Communists across the country. Although Chiang had once been a close ally to Sun Yatsen, and had taken over as the leader of the Republic after his passing, Soong was horrified. She condemned the attacks, turned her back on the Nationalists, and led an incessant political campaign against her brother-in-law.

Soong’s sister Meiling – known for her beauty and sex appeal – had different ideas about how China should be shaped.

Meiling, however, successfully won over the American public, becoming only the second woman to address a joint session of Congress

In 1934 Meiling, alongside her husband, launched the New Life Movement, which sought to stop the spread of communism by harking back to traditional Chinese values. According to the Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, Meiling adopted “a conventional attitude toward women’s emancipation as a moral crusade confined to emphasising traditional virtues of modesty, chastity, and domesticity”. Qingling, by contrast, saw “precisely these traditional patriarchal attitudes as being at the root of the continuing subjection of Chinese women, even into the communist era.”  

Meiling, however, successfully won over the American public, becoming only the second woman to address a joint session of Congress. There she asked for support in the Sino-Japanese war, leading to her inclusion in a list of the 10 most admired women in the US.

It was during World War Two that the sisters were briefly reunited – running field hospitals and literary campaigns together – as the Nationalists and Communists dropped their differences to fight against a common enemy, the Japanese. Following Mao Zedong’s victory in 1949, however, Meiling fled with her husband to Taiwan where he set up a new government. The sisters were estranged for good.

In 1938, following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, Soong founded the China Defense League, later renamed the Chinese Welfare Institute, with the aim of funding children’s well-being and health, particularly in Communist controlled areas. When the Communists emerged triumphant in 1949, establishing the People’s Republic of China, Soong was rewarded for her loyalty with the role of vice chair in the newly formed nation.

Just weeks before she died Qingling was granted the title of Honorary Chairman of the People’s Republic of China

Other accolades followed. In 1951 Soong was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize. And in 1959, in a largely symbolic role, she became one of just two deputy chairmen of the Chinese Communist Party, under Mao Zedong. Just as Meiling courted the States from Taiwan, Soong Qingling also sought to shape the West’s perception of China. In 1952 she founded the magazine China Reconstructions (now China Today), broadcasting news of her homeland in English, as well as other languages. A collection of her writings was published in the 1950s under the apt title, Struggle for New China.

When Soong died in 1981 aged 90, the Chinese government lauded her as “a great patriotic, democratic, internationalist and Communist fighter and outstanding state leader of China.” Just weeks before she was granted the title of Honorary Chairman of the PRC and, for the first time, became a member of the Communist Party.

In death, as in life, Meiling took a different path. While Qingling had suffered and been publicly criticised during the brutal 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Madame Chiang Kai-shek was widowed in 1975. She moved to New York where she lived in relative seclusion in a plush Manhattan apartment, before passing away aged 105 in 2003. At news of her death George W Bush commended her “intelligence” and “strength of character”, calling her a close friend of the US.

For Qingling, it was China, not the States, who sung praises. After her death three days of national mourning were announced in China, a state funeral was staged and flags were lowered at Chinese embassies across the world. As Frommers aptly writes in a guide to one of Soong’s former residences in Beijing, this is a woman who “is as close as you'll get to a modern Chinese Communist saint.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.