Saturday, November 28, 2009

Looking for Soong Ching-ling

I would have been happy enough to simply enjoy the Beijing lakes in autumn but a sign told me that Soong Ching-lings’s house was only meters away and I wanted to visit it. There were only a few places I had on my internal list of Things to See onPurpose and the home of the renegade Soong sister was one of them. I had only read about her in biographies of Chinese leaders and in Emily Hahn’s China to Me; in my mind she was a shadowy figure, a beautiful rebel who was targeted during the Cultural Revolution and was defended by Chou Enlai. He had provided a home for her near a lake which was apparently the one I was meandering through on a day of wandering without focus.

Since I’m American, meters are as hazy a concept to me as my mental image of Soong Ching-ling but I walked in the direction the sign indicated for a few minutes only to find nothing, not even another sign. Brandishing my bilingual map, I approached a young woman and begged for help. She pointed me in another direction and off I went.

But then the path divided with no indication of which way I should go. The only sign was one that told me to “Behave in a good manner,” so I smiled as I asked a passerby which way I should go next. Her directions led me away from the park and to a road of menacing proportions that was at the end of the trail. Sign language from a kind beer-drinker in front of a small house indicated I should take my life in my hands, cross the traffic-laden street, and turn left, which seemed an appropriate direction.

Fortunately living in Bangkok had prepared me for heavy traffic so I crossed without causing an international incident and walked down a very unprepossessing lane. The houses on it were wooden and small and delapidated and I began to feel very sorry for Soong Ching-ling. Even the most dedicated Communist, I thought, would be depressed in one of these crowded little shanties. But then a woman smiled at me and I announced my destination with not much hope of a definitive reply. She nodded vigorously, pointed straight ahead and there the road turned. Once again I was near a lake, and trees and a park pathway with a sign for the spot I was looking for.

The widow of Sun Yat-sen was provided with an estate that had once belonged to a prince and had housed the father of the Last Emperor. It was filled with trees and manmade hills and a stream and pools and had a feudal air to it, with its collection of houses, all of different sizes. It was a park within a park and the formality of it was quelling. I began to wonder if Soong Ching-ling might not have been happier living in a shack along the lane.

The houses that contained rooms of memorabilia did nothing to dispel that impression. They were filled with an assortment of photographs and documents that had been assembled by the Soviet Union and were arranged in a grim and ungarnished fashion. The signs were bilingually Russian/Chinese with the only English prose written in the hand of Soong Ching-ling. In the photographs she was matronly and heavy and quite Soviet in style, with a forbidding demeanor. It was not a shrine that encouraged lingering so I didn’t.

The gardens were dark and cool and much more alluring than the Russian way of presenting Soong Ching-ling’s life. I walked in quiet, marveled that a Communist would live surrounded by this sort of royal splendor, and wondered how Mao had spent his days—or Chou Enlai for that matter, since he was the one who had arranged this for Soong Ching-ling.

She had refused to live there at first and then finally accepted. I was curious about her life and then I found it—a true museum dedicated to her from childhood to death.

She was beautiful. Her father called her Rosamund and she used that name when she went off to college in the states. She was also fierce, and when the Republic of China replaced the Imperial Kingdom, she tore down the old flag from the wall of her room, put up the new, and wrote a passionate declaration of Chinese independence that celebrated the triumph of the man she was to marry.

He was her father’s best friend and when she was denied a paternal blessing, she ran away with Dr. Sun Yat-sen. “It was not true love,” she said but it was deeper than that. They shared a cause and a belief in their country, which Soong Ching-ling refused to abandon long after her husband’s death.

His wedding gift to her was a very small pistol.

After Dr Sun’s death and the Japanese invasion of China, she lived for a while in Hong Kong. Martha Gellhorn met her there and wrote that she was “tiny and adorable and admirable, unlike her sisters Madame Chiang and Madame Kung who were the limit.” She headed relief efforts that sent rice to China, called One Bowl of Rice. The bowls that she used to publicize the drive were both startling and endearing to me. Carefully lit and in their own little display were two of the Pyrex bowls that haunt the memory of every American child who grew up between the 40s and the 60s, the nesting mixing bowls that came in yellow, green, red and the smallest that was turquoise and always the first to break. Soong Ching-ling used and kept and was now illuminated by the green and turquoise Pyrex bowls, a link to her American past.

She still had friends from her college years in the States. She could have used her family’s wealth and influence to live there; both of her sisters often did. She stayed in China, even when the Red Guards wanted to humiliate and degrade her.

The house that Chou Enlai provided as her refuge was big and comfortable, but not ornately luxurious, rather what a well-to-do merchant would live in, gloomy, multi-roomed, Victorian. She spent her time on the second-floor, in a large bed-sitting room with lots of windows and space. A long covered verandah behind it ran the length of the house and overlooked a beautifully manicured sweep of lawn and some truly glorious trees. A room nearby was outfitted as a little kitchen where she prepared her own food, the sign said, and a well-stocked library lay just beyond that.

She must have been comfortable. It’s unclear whether she was a prisoner. A letter that she wrote leaving her books to a young relative “should something untoward happen” hints that she felt she was in danger.

A photograph of her as she greeted Ho Chi Minh when he came to Beijing shows a woman who could still be radiant well into old age. An oil painting on her bedroom wall is a picture of slender women dressed in what looks like Vietnamese clothing and wearing conical hats, walking along a forest path. I wonder if she thought of the Ho Chi Minh Trail when she looked at it, and if she wished she were young enough to be with them, slender and lovely and committed to revolution.

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