Customer Reviews: Soong Dynasty
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on December 6, 2005
Sterling Seagrave, a decent China scholar, has produced a punchy history of the Soong family and its marriages to the rich and powerful of republican China. This includes Chiang Kai Shek (Jiang Jie Shi, actually, aka CKS) and Sun Yat Sen.

The work is generally accurate about the dynasty's incredible greed, the tales of the three sisters including Dragon Lady Madame Chiang. The mainland Chinese still like to sum them up with the bon mot, "there were three sisters; one loved power, one loved money, and one loved China." This volume explains why.

The book is a splendid introduction to modern Taiwan and why it is as it is, why the Chinese Republic failed, and how drug dealing and corruption brought it down. It is a wonderful introduction to Tuchmann's classic "Stilwell and the American Experience in China."

The book is perhaps too hard on old CKS who had great strengths as an organizer and mollifier, and did make some attempts at land and fiscal reform. But it is broadly accurate and is a must read for any scholar of modern China.

The Soong Dynasty is why the mainland and Taiwan are what they are today!

reviewer note: I have lived in both places and speak excellent Mandarin.
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on December 9, 2000
Having read Seagrave's other works I have to say this is easily the best effort. People who wonder why Mao Tse Tung is still revered amongst many Chinese people should read this book.
The alternative to Mao was the 'Generalissimo' Chiang Kai Shek. Seagrave does a good job of underlining the fact that almost anyone would have been preferable to Chiang. He also clearly shows that Mao was the only leader capable of mobilising and motivating the peasants into an army capable of defeating the Japanese. It truly is a shame how Mao allowed absolute power to subsequently corrupt him into the vile creature he was to become. Chiang's long history of needless brutal murder and his seedy connections with the Shanghai Triads is also quite well covered.
What this book is really about though is the remarkable influence 3 sisters had on the history of the sleeping giant which was China. The book also presents the striking contrast between the motivations of each sister. One lusting for power, the other lusting for money and the third who was a true chinese patriot.
One does develop a strong connection with the third sister's strength of character. It's difficult to imagine anyone being able to maintain such honest, good intentions when surrounded by such ugly greed. While Chinese people were being slaughtered by the invading hordes of Japanese the 'Generalissimo'& Co. were busy lining their pockets with money which they solicited from the US. Many US citzens would be interested to know just how much US money for the war effort was funelled via TV Soong into various investments throughout the world.
This is one of many books which depict the tragic story of China for much of the twentieth century. By concentrating on the lives of these sisters Seagrave makes the history of China come alive. A super read, very difficult to put down and very difficult to forget.
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on January 17, 2005
I've read this book several times since it was first published, and while I agree that Seagrave's sources aren't always documented as well as they should be, the author's conclusion is inescapable: the Soongs were largely as bad for China as were the communist leaders they struggled against so ardently. Even Ching-ling, who I agree, was used as a pawn by the Soviets, however unwittingly.

Most of the negative reviews of Seagrave's "The Soong Dynasty" that state that it is too partisan maybe correct. However, the opinions and writings of General Joseph Stillwell, and the results of Freedom of Information Act inquiries by researchers (revealing the investigations by the by the Truman Administration and the F.B.I) are difficult to dismiss. My wife is Chinese, and her paternal grandfather was a member of Chiang Kai Shek's officer corps. We also have friends who married into the extended Soong family in California, and all of them bridle at this characterization of Chiang, his wife and her siblings. However, the Soongs' collective behavior as leaders of modern China cannot be so easily excused by those who cite that all of this occurred "during a difficult period of Chinese history" so they should be judged less harshly and/or more fairly. Of course it was difficult; they helped to make it so along with their communist counterparts.

Having lived and worked in Taiwan for a number of years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was able to observe first hand how modern politicians conduct themselves and how the elections are handled, and I must state that little has changed since the halcyon days of the Soong clan. Government goon squads are sent out by the incumbents, prior to the actual elections, intimidating potential dissenters and reporters, party campaign volunteers travel door-to-door offering voters cash in exchange for their support, opposition party members die in mysterious accidents, etc. These incidents, I saw personally, and read about in the daily periodicals. Even today with a different party than the Kuo Ming Tang in power, there are dubious things afoot such as the questionable 'assassination attempts' on the eve of a potentially disastrous election for the incumbent.

Yes, again, I would state that little has changed in the way the Chinese conduct themselves politically since the 1911 Revolution and the establishment of Communist China. The subsequent economic successes of Taiwan and now Mainland China are a testament to the resilience, diligence and inventiveness of the Chinese people, rather than the foresight and thoughtfulness of their politicians (e.g. Chinese tanks at Tiananmen, Taiwanese boxing matches in sessions of their Parliament, etc.).

Rather pointedly, there is kind of a running joke in Taiwan and China comparing the economic successes of the Japanese with that of the Chinese. It goes something like this (I'm paraphrasing, of course):

10 Chinese entrepreneurs start 10 different small businesses as do 10 Japanese entrepreneurs. However, by the end of the year, the Japanese businessmen have consolidated each of their individual operations into a conglomerate, to take advantage of the economics of scale which benefits all, while the Chinese continue to operate their mom & pop ventures, individually, each owner unwilling to relinquish the reins of ownership and power, regardless of the potential benefit to the group.

This may be a cultural pathology of the Chinese, and how this behavior often manifests itself politically can be disastrous for a nation. That's how I see the Chiang Kai Shek, the Soongs, and Mao and his cronies: interested in bettering things for themselves first, with the welfare of their nations' populace a distant second.
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on February 5, 2004
First of all, in response to several negative comments about the author, there is no such thing as "objective history" or "an objective historical account". This is why we have Marxist historians, Feminist historians, Revisionist historians, and so on endlessly. All historical analysis is invariably subjective one way or another depending on the historical lens we happen to be using to analyze the given facts and events. This is how we find historical patterns, this is how a thesis on a subject develops. Without the subjectivity inherent in historical retellings there would be no such thing as Historiography.
What you *can* have is a well-researched and well-documented narrative where the facts and events are presented in such a way that your particular (dare I say it) bias, thesis, or main idea is at least plausible, and I believe this book has done that.
I will agree with most that the way in which Mr. Seagrave documents his books is academically annoying if not irresponsible, given that there are no references to his endnotes in the text, which makes following up on his references tricky. There are also several places where I would have liked to have seen a source cited. Still, these sections can easily be ignored or dismissed as the authors opinion and/or speculation with just a little bit of effort and mental discipline on the readers part. They do not detract from the overall value of the book as an informative view into the environment surrounding the political crises following the collapse of the Manchu Qing Dynasty to the founding of the People's Republic.
Perhaps, then, as a source this book leaves something to be desired, but as a narrative I believe it fills in some important gaps relating to Sino-US relations at the time of the Revolution. Also, it does a good job of shedding light into just how clueless American policy-makers were regarding Chinese politics and culture, and how vulnerable they were to being manipulated by people like Henry Luce from Time, T.V. Soong and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Finally, it helps show the disastrous consequences of drafting policy without a clear understanding of the culture in question, a message that is as relevant today as it was then, perhaps more so. The book is well-written, the endnotes section is there and is quite extensive, as is the Works Cited section.
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on August 25, 2004
This is an excellent, though highly partisan, look at the Soong family in all of its machinations. It has great scholarly value in that its suppositions are based on documents that were unearthed by the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI and other groups that investigated the shady dealings of the Soongs for various American politicians. The result is a convincing argument, in my view, that: 1) the Soongs (with few exceptions) were brutal thugs bent on power and money with little regard to the welfare of the people of China; 2) General Chiang was from the start the creature of the Green Gang gangsters, the only constant loyalty he exhibited in a life of sleazy vacillation; 3) many Americans, from the Luces to Wilkie (thought not FDR or Truman), were their dupes. Because of the new documentary sources, this argument gains new relevence here with all the new proof. It is both sad and pathetic to see how Americans deluded themselves, eventaully at the cost of millions of Chinese lives, to pursue the crude PR illusions that the charming Soongs and Chiang Kai Shek spun.

Only one of the three Soong sisters comes off well. As they said: "one of them loved money, one of them loved power, and one of them loved China." It is a truly devastating indictment.

There are a lot of things that this book is not, and one of them is a "balanced view" that advances counter arguments for the other opinion, that is, Luce's and others like him. As such, it will appear biased to some. It also does not present a general view of the historical period, which if the reader lacks one would make it far less valuable as an intro to a complex period in China's development. That menas this book is really in the province of scholars and their arguments, which are beyond my interest in many respects. Finally, this is also not an in-depth psychological biography. You don't feel like you get to know who they were and why the acted the way they did.

Recommended for all serious students of China. There is not a single page of this book that is dull, whether or not you believe the perspective of the author.
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on January 2, 2000
I'm always intrigued by the Soong's family. I have searched endlessly for materials that would shed some light upon the family history. This book didn't disappoint. I couldn't help be amazed with those complex networks that were set up behind the scene that benefited the power & money brokers. Ultimately, it's all about greed. Haven't we seen this all before? It seems like people just don't learn from history. Should the readers read the next offering by the same author, Yamato Dynasty, you wouldn't help noticing the uncanny resemblance between the traits of those people who got their hands dirtied.
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on August 30, 2009
Seagrave's view of pre-World War II Chinese history consists of equal parts of conspiracy and corruption. These elements are certainly present in Chinese history, but Seagrave's presentation is so biased, confused, and poorly documented that no one should accept his account without careful research.

For conspiracy, the most notable claims are that the Kuang-hsu emperor was poisoned (116), that the Dowager Empress Tz'u-hsi was poisoned (116), that Yuan Shikai was poisoned (text on 162 says uremia, footnote on 480 says "Such medical diagnoses were suspicious at best. Was it ever possible, organically, for a Borgia to die a natural death?"), that Charlie Soong was poisoned (142-3): "The facts surrounding Charlie Soong's death are obscure... the possibility of foul play has always existed... Euphemistically, stomach cancer was as common in revolutionary Shanghai as lead poisoning was in Chicago and Marseille." Seagrave goes on like this for almost a page in an exceptionally tendentious passage. There is of course zero documentation for all of these claims.

In a way though, these claims are almost trivial. It makes no difference to Seagrave's narrative whether these people were poisoned or not. A much more essential point is the central role that Seagrave claims the Green Gang played. Unfortunately, Seagrave's account of the Green Gang has many problems. Brian G. Martin, whose book "The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime" is probably the best account of the Green Gang in English, says that Seagrave's account, "with its conspiratorial view of Chinese history in the 1920s and 1930s and of Jiang Jieshi's rise to power, sacrifices historical fact for sensationalist effect." (2)

This is not an overstatement. One of the strangest things in "The Soong Dynasty" is how Seagrave identifies the well-known Green Gang boss Chang Hsiao-lin as a member not of the Green Gang, but of the "Blue Gang". The Chinese name of the "Green Gang" was "qing bang," with the word qing referring indifferently to both green and blue. Thus many early accounts of the Gang refer to them as the "Blue Gang." The Comintern representative Sneevliet regularly calls them this in his reports. The "Blue Gang" is the "Green Gang" and the "Green Gang" is the "Blue Gang." How Seagrave confused one gang into two I have no idea.

Rather than rendering his account more difficult, however, this seems to open a door for Seagrave. Huang Chin-jung, Tu Yueh-sheng, and Chang Hsiao-lin were the Shanghai gangster troika, mentioned in numerous books. What Seagrave does is largely replace Chang Hsiao-lin, the Green Gang boss, with Chang Ching-chiang, one of the "four elder statesmen" of the Kuomintang, and a close advisor to Chiang Kai-shek. Thus Huang, Tu, and Chang Ching-chiang appear in various combinations throughout the book. Chang is an intimate of Tu (161), a business partner of Tu (163-4), a kidnapper like Tu and Huang (212), and so on. This is how Seagrave grafts Tu and the Green Gang onto Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT. Was Chang Ching-chiang really an important member of the Green Gang? He is mentioned in Brian Martin's book only once, as someone Tu and Huang were appealing to to continue the Shanghai purge in 1927. This is in contrast to Chang Hsiao-lin (Zhang Xiaolin), who occupies large chunks of Martin's book.

Putting aside the conspiratorial events, the historical events Seagrave attempts to recount are so confused and contradictory that C. Martin Wilbur calls "The Soong Dynasty" "a travesty of a book from a historical viewpoint." (Wilbur's "China in My Life", p. 285). This is very bad for people who read "The Soong Dynasty" for history, rather than scandal or speculation.

Anachronistic (or at least highly confusing) statements are a major part of this problem. A striking example is Seagrave's account of the Western Hills meeting (November 1925). He first quotes Isaacs' description of the goal of the meeting as being to "Ally with Chiang to overthrow Wang (Ching-wei)." Why overthrow Wang? According to Seagrave, Wang was "too weak to prevent a Communist coup. He had just convened a Second Party Congress that placed most of the critical departments of the southern government in the hands of the CCP and other leftists" (210). It seems to me a reasonable interpretation of this is that Seagrave thinks that first Wang convened the second party congress and then the Western Hills reactionaries decided to dump him. But the Second Party Congress was held in January 1926, after the Western Hills meeting. Why overthrow Wang? Try Wilbur's book "The Nationalist Revolution in China" (30-32). Wilbur gives a clear discussion of the factionalism facing the KMT at this point. Anachronisms aside, Seagrave is lost, complaining in his footnotes that these are "murky developments." (484)

An even more startling discussion is Seagrave's account of the "First Shanghai Uprising" (217). Apparently Seagrave got this from Harold Isaacs' "Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution", but compare Seagrave with Isaacs (p. 131 of the 1961 edition), or even better, with "Missionaries of Revolution" by Wilbur and How (p. 328-329). Seagrave's account is simply wrong, adding in the Green Gang with no sources, misidentifying people, misunderstanding the circumstances, claiming "large numbers" of casualties and a blow to the Communists, where Wilbur and How list documents that give the casualties as 10 people killed, and Isaacs, the champion of the labor groups involved, dismisses the event with the remark "The incident passed almost unnoticed on the fringe of events."

"The Soong Dynasty" does provide some interesting information in the earlier part of the book on Charlie Soong, father of the six Soong children. In particular, Charlie's success as a businessman and his work on behalf of Sun Yat-sen has been neglected, and there is still no extended account of these available today. Unfortunately, most of Seagrave's materials on these aspects is also poorly documented. Thus Seagrave claims that Soong joined the Hung-men Society ("the Red Gang") "shortly before the 1888 Chinese New Year celebration" (57), but gives no source for this. All of his comments about Charlie's activities and the Red Gang: that he was introduced by his brothers-in-law (58), that he printed the Gang's secret papers (57), that Gang members provided capital for his business ventures (60), that he bought the building for his printing shop through the Gang (61), that the steamship Charlie and his family fled to Japan on in 1912 was owned by the Gang (130), are all unsourced.

It is a pity that Seagrave's book turns out to be so unreliable; it would be nice if there were one book that covered the people and events of this period, but I don't think there is one single work that does this. Wilbur's books are solid historical accounts, and Brian Martin's book has excellent documentation, though the Green Gang, like the Mafia, is murky water. As for the history of the Soongs, despite Seagrave's massive onslaught, the field remains barren.
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on February 1, 2003
Seagrave's work is not always well documented, and he is really more of a storyteller than an historian. Having said that, his stuff is usually a quick read, and does give plenty of interesting information about the period he is discussing. This book is about the Soong family, and you will not get a grasp of the development of modern China without understanding this family. The title, of course, is a play on words, because it has nothing to do with the classic dynasties of antiquity. Rather, it chronicles the development of the family of Charlie Soong, and discusses how this family influenced the development of modern China. Charlie Soong managed to get a job on a ship, and spent some time as a sailor off the East Coast of the United States. His life took a very important turn when he wandered into a revival meeting in the old south, and became a Christian. He was subsequently educated and sent back to China as a missionary. Unable to support himself on $15 a month, he eventually became involved with the underworld in order to earn enough to feed his family. Charlie had three daughters. The oldest married a Wall Street financier. The second eloped with Sun Yat Sen. The youngest daughter married Chiaing Kai-Shek. It is not possible to study the history of China in the Twentieth Century without running into this family over and over again.
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on May 20, 1998
Controversial as the subject matter may be, Sterling Seagrave's 1982 book, "The Soong Dynasty" certainly is an interesting and behind-the-scenes view of the gangs and warlords that Chiang Kai-shek relied on to attain power and to stay in power in Nationalist China before the Revolution of 1949.
Sterling Seagrave rightly comes by his ability to dig behind the scenes on the subject matter of the book. He is an investigative journalist and was raised in the Orient. All of his books deal with oriental subjects and are written in an attractive manner which keeps the reader anxious to read more.
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on September 25, 1995
The Soong name is virtually unknown in the U.S., yet their wealth and influence in China made them a power to be reckoned with for nearly a century. In this epic account Sterling Seagrave tells a story that will startle most modern westerners.

The Soongs were in power during the century that brought China into full contact with Christianity and western politics. Seagrave takes a controversial stand on the changes that accompanied the exposure. Widespread drug use and political and social corruption often occurred in the areas of greatest contact, and Seagrave pulls no punches in his assertions that the colonial influences were devastating to all but the powerful elite. The Soongs rode this wave, becoming educated in western ways as they gained more power within their own country. Their story is the focal point of a discussion of the great political and social transitions that occurred while they had power.
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