Corruption, like so many things in life, is in the eye of the beholder.

Consider, for example, the timeless scenario of the government functionary who gives his nephew a promotion instead of a more qualified candidate. Most post-Enlightenment Western societies believe such blatant nepotism to be inefficient, unethical, and profoundly destructive of institutional morale. Yet a more traditionalist society — of the kind which prioritizes the family above other, less organic social groupings — might regard such behavior as perfectly normal and morally justified.

Count turn-of-the-twentieth-century China among this group. Confucianism did, after all, emphasize one’s duty to one’s own family as the supreme social good. While the Westerner screamed, “Corruption!”, the Chinese scratched his head and wondered what his counterpart was on about.

This dichotomy is what caused such would-be reformers as Liang Qichao to throw up their hands in despair at their country’s entrenched value system, which created “clansmen rather than citizens,” thereby making it impossible for China to rise to the existential challenge it was facing from the West. And yet to ask China to abandon the old values was no easy thing. If China was no longer to be Confucian and imperial, then what was China to be? The country would be racked by this identity crisis throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, it has arguably yet to fully emerge from it today.

Given the traditional Chinese focus on the family, it seems poetically apt that the first half of its twentieth century can be read quite successfully as the drama of a single family. The Soong family of Shanghai was omnipresent in Chinese politics and culture for 75 years or more. It included in its trunk and branches many of the most important names of this tumultuous period of Chinese history, while virtually all of the rest of them crossed its orbit in one way or another, as did countless other pivotal characters and events from the world beyond China. The Soong story is a soap opera blown up to epic proportions — albeit one whose entertainment value is rather tempered by the fact that its various dramas caused the deaths of millions of people, and led finally to the establishment of what is today the most powerful authoritarian regime on the planet, with the blood of many more millions upon its hands. Small wonder that Sterling Seagrave, in his perceptive if sometimes catty biography of the family, labelled his subject “the Soong dynasty.” It really can be seen as China’s last dynasty, in terms of influence if not official title.

The Soong origin story is a Horatio Alger tale, a bildungsroman of one man’s journey from utter obscurity to the heights of wealth and political influence, on the strength of little more than an extraordinary self-belief. Prior to 1892, no family by the name of Soong existed; just a few years later, the family not only existed but was one of the most important in all of China.

To understand how that could be, we must turn the clock back to the 1860s, and turn the pages of our atlas to the one showing Hainan, an island in the South China Sea which marked then, as it still does today, the most southerly outskirt of the nation of China. Hainan was a place of sturdy farmers and fishers, who avoided all of the chaos of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion by virtue of their isolation from the proverbial corridors of power. Nevertheless, a butterfly flapped its wings there, and a seemingly inconsequential little boy was born in 1863. His name was Han Jiaozhun, the latest member of an extended family of traders whose junks sailed all over the South China Sea.

By the time he was ten years old, the boy had joined the family trade, plying the sea lanes alongside his near and far relations. But already he was dreaming of even wider horizons. In 1878, opportunity knocked, when a man who may or may not have been in family with him — in later years Jiaozhun would claim he was an uncle, but never gave his name — offered to take him to Boston, Massachusetts, to work in a tea shop he planned to open there, one which would serve other Chinese immigrants, who were now arriving in large numbers to become cheap factory labor. Probably without obtaining permission from his father, a cardinal sin by the lights of Confucianism, Jiaozhun joined his “uncle” on a ship that sailed from Java all the way to Boston. At just fifteen years old, his life had already taken a most unlikely turn — but his adventures were only just beginning.

Once settled in the tea shop, Han Jiaozhun’s restless nature took hold of him again. He itched to learn English properly, in school, and to move from Boston’s tiny Chinatown to the mainstream of American society. When his uncle proved implacable in the face of his entreaties, he ran away for the second time in his young life, stowing away aboard, of all ill-considered ships, a cutter that belonged to the Department of the Treasury’s small fleet, the forerunner to the present-day United States Coast Guard. He was caught within hours of the ship’s putting to sea.

But, in addition to energy and bravery, Jiaozhun always seemed to have luck on his side. The captain of the cutter was a Norwegian immigrant named Eric Gabrielson, a kind and honest man who took a shine to the bright, personable boy. A devout Methodist, he took it as his Christian duty to save Jiaozhun from a wasted life in the sweatshops of Boston. Instead of evicting him from the ship, he gave him a job. Thus Jiaozhun became a paid employee of the American government, the ship’s boy of the Treasury cutter Albert Gallatin — another supremely unlikely turn. Our first written evidence of his life dates from these events. In his log marked January 8, 1879, Gabrielson recorded the addition to his crew. Jiaozhun could speak only a handful of words in English and could write none at all, which made getting his name for the logbook difficult. To Western ears, “Jiaozhun” sounded a bit like “Charles Sun.” So, that is how Gabrielson wrote it down.

“Charlie,” as he quickly became known to one and all, spent more than two years with Captain Gabrielson, even following him when he was given a new command, based this time out of Wilmington, North Carolina. Stocky and energetic, with an infectious smile, he was a hard worker and a good shipmate, who never took offense at the constant ribbing he was subjected to on account of his bad — but steadily improving, mind you — English, not to mention his status as a cultural and racial Other. Gabrielson came to believe that Charlie was capable of serving a higher purpose than that of a ship’s boy. After much proselytizing from his captain and mentor and others in the Methodist community which surrounded him, Charlie agreed to be baptized on November 7, 1880. The church records give his name as “Charles Soon”; he had apparently switched to this surname after he had begun to learn some written English because he deemed it to be a more accurate transliteration of the Chinese pronunciation of his original name.

In the wake of his conversion, a new vision of Charlie’s future seized the imagination of Captain Gabrielson and the rest of Wilmington’s thriving Methodist community: they would give him a good Christian education, then send him back to China to convert more of his people. With no more tempting prospects on offer, Charlie acquiesced to their plans for him. To fund his education, his brothers in Christ turned to one Julian Carr, a wealthy Durham, North Carolina, businessman, peddler of the ubiquitous Bull Durham brand of tobacco. Carr agreed to the scheme, and in April of 1881 Charlie said goodbye forever to his life as a sailor and boarded a train that would take him on to its next phase. He was to live with the Carr family whilst attending Trinity College (the forerunner of the institution we know today as Duke University). A course of American higher education seems like a tall order for an almost entirely uneducated Chinese boy. And yet he did amazingly well. Within weeks, one of his professors wrote to his sponsors to tell them that he “studies closely and will be successful.”

Alas, his progress at Trinity was derailed after barely six months by a different sort of challenge. It appears that Charlie, now a handsome eighteen-year-old, was developing an eye for the ladies — specifically, for a distant cousin of Julian Carr, with whom he was discovered one afternoon in the midst of an inappropriate “entanglement,” as the euphemism went. The Carr family’s reaction was to get him out of town forthwith, to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The whole incident serves to highlight the tensions at play in the relationship between these devout Methodists and their “Celestial” prodigy. On the one hand, they treated him with incredible generosity. But on the other, they did so in the service of an agenda, and not without a distinct whiff of condescension. He was never really one of their own, as Sterling Seagrave notes.

The position the Methodists had assumed in Charlie’s life was beginning to exhibit the strains of a double standard. It was right and proper for Charlie to fill a role in the fantasy world of missionary endeavor. If he was willing to go preach the Southern Methodist gospel to the Chinese, and to help put things right in China after 4000 misguided years, his sponsors would provide him with an abbreviated education and feed and clothe him modestly for the duration. Both parties thus had their cravings gratified. He was their token Celestial, but they had to draw the line at intimacy between a Chinaman and one of their own daughters.

Charlie Soon, as he was known at the time, had this portrait taken just after he reached Nashville, then sent it to Ella Carr, his brief-lived sweetheart back in Durham, as a goodbye memento. She treasured it until her death. Charlie, for his part, maximized his investment by giving the photo to at least one other American girl whom he met later. (Public Domain)

Another sort of personality might have been embittered by this clear testimony as to the limits of his benefactors’ respect for him and his race, but Charlie took it all in stride. He was by nature an optimist and a pragmatist, more than willing to accept their help on whatever terms they chose to offer it, then figure out how he might bend it to suit his own agenda when the time came. He spent the next three and a half years at Vanderbilt, perfecting his English, learning the Bible backward and forward, having one or two more discreet romantic flings, and ingratiating himself with his fellow students as thoroughly as he had with his shipmates on the Albert Gallatin. After he graduated in May of 1885, he asked the missionary council to whom he reported for permission to go on to medical school — perhaps out of a genuine interest in becoming a doctor, perhaps merely in a bid to remain for a while longer in a country in which he now felt much more comfortable than he likely would back in China. But again, the request only served to point out the transactional nature of the relationship: although Julian Carr was willing to continue financing him, the missionary council made the absurd claim that there were already “too many” Western-trained doctors in China. They expected him to minister to souls there, not bodies.

In December of 1885, Charlie Soon, now an ordained deacon of the Southern Methodist Church, entered a train in Wilmington for the transcontinental journey to San Francisco. There he boarded a steamship to complete his voyage to Shanghai. His feet would not touch American soil again for almost twenty years, but the things he had learned and experienced there over the course of the last seven and a half years would define the rest of his life, and that of the dynasty he would found.

When he stepped off his ship that January in Shanghai, the nerve center of the Western missionary effort in China, it was the first time he had set foot on the Chinese mainland in his life. He was a fish out of water in countless ways, being almost more American than Chinese after his long sojourn abroad during some of the most formative years of anyone’s life. Having spoken virtually no Chinese since fleeing his uncle’s tea shop, he struggled to express himself in his native language, especially given that the dialect of Shanghai was quite different from that of Hainan. The missionaries in Shanghai saw no alternative but to enroll him in a language school for six months in order to help him rediscover his inner Chinese. Then they sent him off to the nearby town of Kunshan to preach the gospel — and thus to justify at last all the time, money, and effort they had invested in him over the past five years.

But Charlie was still having trouble reconciling himself to his new life. Although his Christian faith was sincere, his natural disposition was that of a hail fellow well met rather than a pulpit thumper. One day he broke down and confessed his feelings of loneliness and isolation to a Chinese acquaintance, whereupon the latter told him that what he really needed was a wife, and even suggested an eligible girl to him, offering to serve as the third-party matchmaker which Chinese tradition demanded. Nyi Kwei-twang lived in Shanghai, a daughter of one of the oldest Christian families in all of China, adherents of the one true faith since 1601. An unusually bookish teenage girl, she was considered less desirable than her older sisters because her mother, in a sudden fit of compassion, had elected not to bind her feet as she had theirs; this liability was the only reason she might be made available to the likes of Charlie Soon. But thanks to that happy accident, the match was made, and the two were married in the summer of 1887. What followed was by all indications a devoted and loving relationship.

Yet Charlie still felt vaguely dissatisfied with his lot. Having experienced life in the big cities of the United States, he found provincial China intensely dull. “Charlie’s genius was not for steadfast missionary endeavor,” writes Sterling Seagrave. “He was an unusual character, a runaway, full of charm, energy, restlessness, and mercurial adaptability. Charlie was, in the end, gifted at breaking rules, not at keeping them.”

The meager salary he received for preaching to an often disinterested flock also chafed. So, Charlie looked around for a side gig to earn some extra money. He decided to become a Bible salesman, peddling a Chinese translation of the good book to the converted and the curious. But he quickly realized that his product, which was printed on the best paper and bound in fine leather, was far too expensive for most of his potential customers. Surely, he reasoned, it would be better for both his faith and his pocketbook to get more Bibles into the hands of ordinary Chinese, even if it meant scrimping a bit on quality.

A born entrepreneur if ever there was one, the well-nigh penniless Charlie Soon set out to raise the necessary capital for his scheme. It is not known for sure where he found it; some have suggested his old benefactor Julian Carr, while others hew more to Shanghai’s thriving Chinese mafia, which had its hands in every conceivable pie, both disreputable and reputable. Wherever his startup costs came from, the new Bibles he produced, printed on thin rice paper with flimsy cardboard binding, could be profitably sold for a third of the price of the old ones. And profit from them Charlie did. He identified a hole in the market and exploited it with the efficiency of any dyed-in-the-wool American capitalist.

Not only was he soon making more money from selling Bibles than from preaching, but he was finally getting fed-up with the double standard that had always marked his interactions with missionary communities; even now, he was still treated “more like a servant than a colleague,” as he wrote in a letter, was required to stand when giving a report to the missionary council while all of his foreign-born peers sat. He told the missionaries that he was through with preaching for them and moved back to Shanghai permanently. He found the Westerners in the amoral world of Shanghai business, where money was the only arbiter, to be ironically more willing to accept him on equal terms. Those infamous park signs that read “No dogs or Chinese” turned out to apply only to a certain kind of Chinese; the social divide in Shanghai was more a question of wealth than of race. As a budding man of means, Charlie found that he could go where he wished.

Shanghai was in fact awash in Westerners and well-off Chinese who were itching to do business with one another, only to be stymied by barriers of language and culture. Charlie, having by now thoroughly reintegrated his Chinese roots, was able to move effortlessly back and forth across the divide, making him a natural intermediary and partner in all sorts of transactions. His next great coup was serving as the mostly ceremonial head of a flour mill that was being set up by a wealthy Chinese family with the goal of mass-producing noodles for the domestic market. Charlie met with Western representatives and arranged to purchase the modern machinery that would be required for the endeavor. In return, he was rewarded with a well-paid but seldom taxing position in the new company, one that would last for the rest of his life. Similar arrangement followed. Before long, Charlie was moving about the city in a private rickshaw and was drawing up plans for a new home in one of the swankiest neighborhoods of Shanghai, a stately townhouse that blended Eastern and Western influences much as he himself was doing so successfully in his business career. In a scant few years, he had risen from the status of an unknown preacher on a sustenance-level salary to that of one of the most prominent up-and-comers on the Shanghai business scene. The word “breathtaking” hardly does his ascent justice.

In a letter to the American magazine Christian Advocate, dated September 8, 1892, Charlie signed his surname as “Soon” for the last time. From that point forward, he added the letter G to the end when he wrote it in English, to arrive at “Soong.” In written Chinese, he adopted the same glyph that was used to signify the old Song dynasty of China. Although he never explained the change in any document that has reached us, we do know that his fellow Chinese had often found the name of “Soon” confusing, possibly to the detriment of his businesses; it sounded to their ears not at all Chinese. And of course it was only natural for a proud man like Charlie to want to associate himself with one of the great dynasties of Chinese history. Even he had no idea how appropriate that association would come to seem for at least a brief span of modern history.

While Charlie was thus making a name for himself in the world, his wife Kwei-twang was having children. The couple’s first daughter was born in 1888, and was named Ai-ling (“Pleasant Mood”). She was followed by a second daughter, Ching-ling (“Happy Mood”), in 1892. The first son, Tse-vung (“Hardworking Son”), came in 1894, followed by a third daughter, Mei-ling (“Beautiful Mood”), in 1897. Two more sons would join the flock in later years, but they would play little role in China’s history in comparison with their siblings. The three Soong sisters in particular have gone down in Chinese folklore in the parlance of a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, and one loved China.” As we see their story develop, we will slowly begin to divine which was which. For now, though, we return to Charlie.

Charlie had never been notably political prior to coming into his own as a businessman. Now, though, witnessing the backwardness of the Qing dynasty and contrasting it with his experiences in the United States, he was changing. In 1894, he forged a friendship which gave a fresh purpose to his life.

Sun Yat-sen (Public Domain)

The name of Sun Yat-sen tends to ring few bells in the memories of Westerners today, but in the historical orthodoxy of present-day China he is a man of almost mythological importance, arguably second in honor only to Mao Zedong; while Chairman Mao is the Father of the Revolution, Sun is the Forerunner of the Revolution. Remarkably, he is held in equally high regard in the breakaway Chinese republic of Taiwan; the two governments can agree on little, but they can agree on their respect for Sun Yat-sen. Some Western historians say that this is indicative of the universality of the philosophy he preached. Others say it is more a tribute to his fuzzy-headedness.

Sun was born in 1866 into circumstances every bit as humble as those of Charlie Soong: he was the son of the night watchman of a village near Guangzhou. But he was fortunate enough to have an older brother who had emigrated and made a nice life for himself in Hawaii, who agreed to let him stay with his family and attend school there from the age of twelve. Much to his brother’s chagrin, the influence of his surroundings proved a bit too strong: he came home one day at the age of sixteen and announced that he intended to be baptized a Christian. Appalled, his brother sent him back home to China.

A boy every bit as strong-willed as the young Charlie Soong, Sun smashed the wooden idols in his village’s temple and ran away to the British island of Hong Kong, where he found Christian benefactors who ensured that he was properly baptized at last and enrolled in a religious school. With his conversion now a fait accompli, his father eventually reconciled with his wayward son. In exchange for his family’s clemency, Sun agreed to an arranged marriage with a respectable girl from his village, although he saw very little of her afterward; she lived with his parents, while he mostly stayed in Hong Kong. He graduated from the College of Medicine for Chinese in Hong Kong in 1892 as a surgeon — albeit one certified only to operate on his countryfolk, never Westerners; the double standard that clung to these arrangements between Western patrons and their Eastern charges remained as strong as ever.

As it happened, Sun worked only briefly as a doctor, for he was developing the passion for political change that would become the thoroughgoing obsession of his life. He decided that the Qing simply had to go if China as a whole was ever to raise itself up again and become something other than “the poorest and weakest state in the world,” as he put it with only slight hyperbole.

By now, Charlie Soong over in Shanghai was starting to think in much the same way. Indeed, both Charlie and Sun became members of a loosely organized underground brotherhood of anti-imperial dissidents. In 1894, a mutual acquaintance introduced them personally. They hit it off immediately, which is unsurprising in light of the many similarities in their backgrounds and beliefs. Both had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps from humble origins; both were converted Christians; both were as comfortable conversing in English as Chinese; both had thought of becoming doctors before life led them in a different direction; both were inextricable hybrids of West and East in terms of personality and worldview. Most of all, though, both were committed to overthrowing the current rulers of China. The story goes that Charlie told his new friend at the end of one of their first meetings that “what China needs is a man like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.”

“You’re right,” replied Sun. “But who could be the Washington or Lincoln of China?”

“You,” said Charlie. And then, in a scene that was probably intended as a deliberate echo of the famous peach-grove oath of allegiance in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the two swore on a Bible not to rest until the Qing were driven out of China and a modern republic had been established to take their place. They decided that Sun would become the active leader of the revolution, while Charlie would continue to run his successful businesses in order to finance their efforts; call him the Alexander Hamilton of the operation. With one additional stipulation, that is: if the money spigot was to stay open, Charlie would need to keep well away from the gory details of revolution, would need to seem to the Qing authorities to be nothing more than another opportunistic Shanghai mogul. If his covert activities were detected, the consequences would surely be fatal, not only to him but to his family as well; Qing justice was especially swift and cruel when it came to the crime of sedition.

Not long after the conspiracy was founded, Japan declared war on China, initiating the short, decisive conflict that would cost the latter the island of Taiwan. With the Qing thus distracted, Sun was convinced that now was the ideal moment to touch off the revolution. He sent some of his associates to buy several thousand pistols off the black market in Hong Kong and ship them up the Pearl River to Guangzhou — the same method by which the British had smuggled opium into the country for so long. These smugglers, however, would be met in Guangzhou by a hastily recruited rebel army of true believers, adventurers, and mercenaries, who would use their cargo to take over the city. Sun’s plans were uncertain even to himself after that point, beyond an assumption that the example of righteous defiance would lead to more revolts in other places and, eventually, the downfall of the Qing regime.

As matters played out, the would-be first battle of the revolution was managed so ineptly that the question of what to do next needed never come up. A mix-up in coordination led to the weapons arriving in Guangzhou a day late, where they were met not by Sun’s ragtag army but by most of the city’s imperial police force. It turned out that the revolutionaries’ cover had been blown weeks ago in Hong Kong, whose British police force, being perfectly happy with the status quo on the mainland, had been keeping their counterparts up the Pearl River updated on the rebels’ activities ever since. Sensing something was amiss, Sun had tried to call off the attack at the last minute, but his message hadn’t reached those in possession of the weaponry. In the end, the Qing police arrested about 500 members of the plot, executing many of them in brutal fashion and nailing their bodies up around the city as a warning to others. Sun Yat-sen, however, escaped under the cover of darkness, to embark upon the life of a wandering principled exile, ceaselessly exhorting his countrymen to revolution from abroad, whilst pleading with the rest of the world to lend them moral, material, and financial support, subsisting all the while on the money which Charlie Soong channeled to him from Shanghai.

His profile in the world outside China was elevated enormously in October of 1896, when he found himself at the center of an international diplomatic incident. Staying in London at the time, he rather foolishly allowed himself to be lured into the vicinity of the Chinese embassy there by a friendly-seeming gentleman, whereupon some of the embassy guards rushed out onto the street, seized him, and locked him up inside the building while they made arrangements to ship him back home for trial and punishment. He was saved from a doubtless grisly fate by a British employee at the embassy, who told journalists of his plight. His kidnapping on British soil being blatantly illegal, the London police barged in and freed him, and the whole affair briefly captured headlines in Britain and elsewhere.

So, Sun was able to continue his quest to remake his country, with the halo of a near-martyr for the cause now crowning him. He even wrote a short book about his ordeal, a sort of nonfiction thriller that Charlie arranged to have published in both English and Chinese editions. He wrote extensively in other modes as well, formulating a doctrine that he called the “Three Principles of the People” as a guide to China’s necessary future. The principles in question were Nationalism, Democracy, and Socialism: they stood for one strong and united China (Nationalism), with a democratic system of government (Democracy) and an equitable division of wealth (Socialism). Ironically given how he is feted today by China’s current Communist regime, his guiding light during this period at least was not the nascent international Marxist movement, but rather the representative democracy of the United States. Taking Charlie’s injunction that he become China’s Abraham Lincoln to heart, he liked to explain his Three Principles by riffing on the Gettysburg Address: “Government of the people” (Nationalism), “by the people” (Democracy), and “for the people” (Socialism).

Still, it must be acknowledged that the Three Principles weren’t especially deep or original as political philosophies went. And as a practical plotter, Sun was nothing short of a disaster; this he first demonstrated in Guangzhou and London and then proceeded to prove over and over again. Between 1896 and 1910, he was instrumental in planning no less than ten separate rebellions and coup attempts against the Qing, all of which failed, more often than not in downright slapstick fashion. Why, you might wonder, did people like Charlie, who was certainly no fool, continue to admire and support him? He was a genuinely inspiring orator, for one thing, whose complete commitment to his cause could not be doubted. And for another, there was the plain fact that he was alive and vocal, out there in the world saying things that his followers believed desperately needed to be said. He stood alone on his bully pulpit, and so Chinese like Charlie, nursing dreams of a better future for their country, continued to gravitate to him. Where else did they have to go? “Sun’s true art was levitation,” writes Sterling Seagrave, “and his leadership endured, like that of many famous leaders, simply because he survived while all those around him were dying.” The main reason he was able to survive, of course, was Charlie Soong’s burgeoning fortune, which made it possible for him to stay out of reach of the Qing authorities who so badly wanted him dead.

And so the years went by, forcing Charlie and Sun to accept that their revolution would be a far longer-term project than they had first bargained for. The latter spent an increasing amount of his time in Japan, which granted him a cynical form of asylum, having as it did a vested interest in seeing China destabilized by his efforts and very existence. Charlie and Sun greeted the Boxer Rebellion with as much horror and incomprehension as the West did. This reactionary xenophobia was the polar opposite of their own dream for China. It, like Empress Dowager Cixi and the rest of the Qing, was a product of the hidebound North, while they were children of the progressive, dynamic South — as they saw things, anyway.

This latest Chinese humiliation on the world stage did prompt Cixi to loosen the screws just a little bit, instituting in a limited fashion some of the same changes that had gotten Emperor Guangxu exiled to a private island when he had tried to implement them in the previous decade. Yet these reforms had little impact on Charlie and Sun’s zeal. They had long since decided that the only path forward for China was revolution; as far as they were concerned, the ship of internal government reform had sailed.

In the meanwhile, daily life too went on for the Soong family. Charlie and Kwei-twang were determined to give not just their sons but also their daughters all of the culture-straddling advantages their father enjoyed. The heart of this program was to be an education in the United States. Oldest daughter Ai-ling was the first to go, leaving home in 1904 to spend five years at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.

Early during her time at the college, there came an example of the uncanny proximity to history which she and her siblings would continue to enjoy throughout their lives: she was selected to travel to a White House reception hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt himself. Making casual conversation, the president asked her what she thought of the United States. “America is very beautiful,” she replied, “and I am very happy here, but why do you call it a free country?” Then she related a few of the incidents of naked racism she had endured. “We would never treat visitors to China like that. America is supposed to be the land of liberty!” Taken aback, Roosevelt muttered something noncommittal and turned hastily to the next student in the line.

The year after Ai-ling began attending college there, Charlie made his second and final trip to the United States. The ragamuffin who had arrived in steerage class a quarter-century before had now become a suave and sophisticated titan of business, traveling in a first-class stateroom. When he returned to Shanghai several months later, he brought with him a raft of new business deals and more than $2 million in pledges to aid Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, thanks to Julian Carr and his other contacts in the American evangelical community. Suitably impressed, his colleagues back home named him the official treasurer of their underground Revolutionary Alliance.

Ching-ling and Mei-ling went to New Jersey to attend a boarding school in 1907. The former began at Wesleyan the following year, while Mei-ling switched to a nearby Georgia primary school. The personality differences that would distinguish the four elder siblings throughout their lives were obvious by now. Ai-ling was serious and driven in a take-no-prisoners sort of way, very much in the habit of speaking her mind no matter what the circumstances, as her lecture to President Roosevelt about the prejudices of his country’s citizens had demonstrated. Ching-ling, who was universally considered the sole beauty of the family at this juncture, was preternaturally grave and thoughtful for her age, with limpid eyes that always seemed to be gazing at some tragedy that was unfolding off in the middle distance. Mei-ling was a cheery little butterball of a girl who was already learning that charm could open doors for her that could never have been battered down by Ai-ling’s full-frontal assaults. As for Tse-vung, whom everyone inside and outside the family referred to as simply “T.V.”: he would have been called a nerd if he had been born a century later. Peering out at the world from behind a pair of thick spectacles, he was more comfortable with a slide rule than a party favor in his hand. Unlike his sisters, T.V. remained in Shanghai for the time being, attending the English-speaking St. John’s University with Westerners and a smattering of other privileged Chinese. He would later be accepted at Harvard University.

Wily old Empress Dowager Cixi finally died in 1908, just one day after Emperor Guangxu, her longstanding prisoner. There were rumors that Cixi, aware that her own time was running out, had poisoned Guangxu in order to prevent him from implementing his full program of reforms after her death. (These rumors were all but confirmed in 2008, when scientists exhumed his body and discovered that he did indeed appear to have died of arsenic poisoning.) In Guangxu’s absence, the throne passed to a two-year-old boy named Puyi. But the real power fell to a grizzled general named Yuan Shikai, who had been commanding the imperial army for many years now. All of this was presumably what Cixi had intended; she was still getting her way from beyond the grave.

Yuan Shikai (Public Domain)

Nevertheless, Sun Yat-sen was inspired by these developments to mount another attack on Guangzhou, the tenth would-be revolution of his career. It turned into yet another ill-crafted, mismanaged fiasco, resulting in the death of over 100 insurgents by gunfire, strangulation, or decapitation. Undaunted as usual, Sun went back to the drawing board to start planning the next attempt. But then the revolution happened without him.

Traveling through Denver, Colorado, on one of his lobbying trips in October of 1911, Sun espied a shocking headline at a newspaper stand: “Wuhan occupied by revolutionists!” That state of affairs had arisen out of another comedy of errors. It seemed that a group of disillusioned imperial soldiers stationed in the Southern Inner Chinese city of Wuhan had been somewhat lackadaisically mulling the prospect of mounting a rebellion of their own, only to accidentally explode one of the bombs they had been collecting for that eventuality. When the police came to the scene to investigate, the soldiers had no choice but to gird their loins and advance their timetable if they wished to avoid arrest and execution. They drove off the police and, pulling their commander from the bed under which he was hiding, offered him a choice between death and the issuance of a proclamation asserting the overthrow of the Qing and the establishment of a Republic of China. He chose to live. Just like that, a helter-skelter bunch of malcontents got farther along than Sun Yat-sen ever had in all his years of principled striving.

And it didn’t stop there. One after another, the other cities and provinces of Southern Inner China declared themselves also free of Qing rule in the weeks and months that followed. China was split in two, fracturing along the familiar fault line of the Qinling Mountains. All eyes now turned to General Yuan in the North, who still had the best divisions of the imperial army at his beck and call. Would he invade the South in order to preserve the dynasty he had served all his life? Would he allow the South to go its own way while the North went its? Or would he seize this moment for his own glory?

At this fraught juncture, on Christmas Day, 1911, Sun Yat-sen returned to China from his long exile. The revolution may have happened without his direct participation, but he was widely regarded in the South at least as its spiritual father, the natural man to take its reins now: the rebels named him provisional president of their new republic. Soong Ai-ling, now finished with her studies in the United States, volunteered to become Sun’s secretary, to record for posterity every instant of his — and her father’s — time of triumph. Thus she was at his side when Sun announced a new political party, the first of the modern stripe ever to exist in China, formed from all of the various underground factions that he had associated with over the past two decades, along with the many newcomers who had effected the recent rebellions in Wuhan and elsewhere. It was to be called the Kuomintang, or “National People’s Party.”

But there still remained the problem of that other government in Beijing, which General Yuan and his formidable army ostensibly still served. A frantic negotiation ensued, during which Yuan proved himself to be more ambitious than he was loyal. He would join the Kuomintang and do away with the Qing once and for all, he said, on one condition: he rather than Sun Yat-sen must be given the presidency. Sun agonized, but he had no confidence in his rebels’ ability to win a war against Yuan’s army. The progress that had been made was too precious and fragile to risk. He accepted the general’s terms. “Yuan is the only man who can rule China today,” Sun publicly declared, very graciously under the circumstances.

Thus on February 12, 1912, the six-year-old Emperor Puyi formally abdicated; as a last gesture on the part of General Yuan toward the regime he had served for so long, he was allowed to escape the Forbidden City with his life. On that anticlimactic note, the two-millennium-plus epoch of imperial China came to an end. It is understandable if this presumed moment of vindication, so long dreamed of by the likes of Charlie Soong and Sun Yat-sen, felt a bit less propitious in reality than they had imagined it would. Their new republic was to be led by a general in uniform rather than a civilian — not a terribly auspicious harbinger for any freshly minted government’s liberal future. Of Sun’s vaunted Three Principles, Democracy and Socialism were still well out of reach, while even Nationalism, in the sense of national unity, was destined to prove a stretch.

Any misgiving the two friends might have felt were very well-founded. In many ways, the tragedy of modern China was only just beginning.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. Pledge any amount you like on Patreon.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

6 Comments for "Chapter 17: A Family Affair"

  • Peter Olausson

    Another tremendous chapter! Can’t wait for the next one. Also satisfying to learn I’m no “average Westerner”. 😉

    Erratum: “Jiaozhum”.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Epistaxis

    Excellent post! Typo: “have gone done in Chinese folklore”

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Andrew Pam

    A great read as always! Minor suggestion: “Already by the time he was ten years old, the boy had joined the family trade, plying the sea lanes alongside his near and far relations. But already he was dreaming of even wider horizons.” – I think the first “Already” is somewhat superfluous and leads the second to seem repetitious. You could safely dispense with the first one and start with “By the time…”

    • Jimmy Maher

      I was going for parallel structure rather than thoughtless repetition there, but it appears not to have worked out. 😉 Thanks!


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RSS Articles Feed
RSS Comments Feed
Twitter: DigiAntiquarian

All writings on this site except reader comments are copyright Jimmy Maher. All rights reserved.