Jung Chang is a Chinese-born British writer best known for her family autobiography, Wild Swans, in 1991. Chang was invited to Durham Book Festival to talk about her new biography, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister which details the lives of the infamous Soong sisters who played vital roles in shaping 20th-century China. I caught up with her after the event to discuss her new book and the art of biography.
You studied linguistics at the University of York and you’re in Durham today to discuss your new publication. What is it in particular that you enjoy about visiting the North?
I’ve been to Durham many times. There are obvious things, the castle, the cathedral, they are magnificent. But the most beautiful thing is this pathway between the river and the woods. Every time I come to Durham I go for a walk there.
Why did you want to write about the Soong sisters?
I wanted to start writing about Sun Yat-sen who was called the ‘Father of China’ because I had written the biography of the Empress Dowager who died in 1908 and I had written about Mao who came to power in 1949. I was interested in those forty years and Sun Yat-sen was the man most responsible for those forty years. After gathering a lot of materials, I got a bit fed up with him so I decided to write about the Soong sisters because, despite the fact that they didn’t make policies, as individuals they were very interesting. They were real people, they had emotions and their personal lives were closely linked to major political events.
How emotional do you think a biography should be and can a biographer ever be objective about their subject?
I think that it is inevitable; a biographer has to feel a degree of emotion towards their subject, otherwise how can you spend years of your life researching and writing about them? You can have emotions and be fair, there is nothing wrong with having emotions towards your subject. If you’re human, you’re bound to have emotions and it might inspire rather than be hindering. But you must have to be fair and be honest, and go by the material.
What was the biggest surprise you came across when researching the Soong sisters?
There were lots of surprises. I don’t do anything that has no surprise, I am surprised constantly which helps me solve those puzzles. I can’t say what was the biggest, there were many.
If you could write a biography about anyone making history today, who would it be?
I wouldn’t do that because you need the distance before you can write about a subject. It’s important to have that distance so, no, I couldn’t write about anyone living today.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.