For someone who has lived in Beijing for over five years, my knowledge of contemporary Chinese history is woefully lacking. Thus, it was with but a passing familiarity with the name “Song Qingling” that I visited the former residence of one of the most powerful women in Chinese history a few weekends ago.
Located near the northwest tip of Shichahai, this grand old mansion served as the final abode of Song Qingling (1893-1981), the second wife of Republican leader Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) and the second of the three famous Song sisters.
A note on spelling: Song Qingling’s name often appears as “Soong Ching-ling” in English media after the Wade-Giles romanization that was common at the time, but for consistency’s sake I’ll be sticking to pinyin and including alternative names in parentheses.
By all accounts, Song Qingling led a singular and tumultuous life. She was the second of six children born to Song Jiashu (Charlie Soong), a US-educated businessman and missionary, and Ni Guizhen (Ni Kwei-tseng), a member of a religious Chinese family that counted a prominent Ming Dynasty mathematician among its ancestors.
Song Qingling and her sisters, Ailing and Meiling, were all educated at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. At the exhibition hall within the compound, there’s a yearbook picture of Song in the Wesleyan tennis club. Her university diploma uses her Christian name: “Rosamonde Chung-ling Soong.”
At age 22, Song married the much older Sun Zhongshan (who was a close friend of her father’s) despite fierce opposition from her parents. The rift was so great that when Song’s father died in 1918, neither Sun nor other members of the Kuomintang (KMT) publicly mourned his death.
Song’s sisters, Song Ailing and Song Meiling, went on to marry prominent banker and politician Kong Xiangxi (H.H. Kung) and Republic leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) respectively.
After Song Qingling’s marriage, she traveled extensively with her husband until his death in 1925 and continued to engage in political activities through to the Second Sino-Japanese War.
A second rift with her family occurred when Song shifted her support to the Communists during the Chinese Civil War (1946-1950).
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Song held several political offices, including vice-chairman of the Central People’s Government, vice-chairman of the newly-formed National People’s Congress (NPC), and vice president of the PRC.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Song came under fire from the Red Guards; in one incident, her parents’ grave marker was toppled over and their bodies exposed.
After the Cultural Revolution, Song largely retired from public view but continued to write about children’s welfare issues. Less than two weeks before her death, she was named Honorary Chairwoman of the PRC – to this day the only person to ever hold this title.
The mansion itself sits on the site of a former imperial garden once used by princes and nobles of the Qing Dynasty. Former residents include Prince Chun Yixuan, the father of the Guangxu Emperor, and Zaifeng, the father of Puyi (the Last Emperor).
The two-story mansion was added by a Greek captain in the 1920s. At the suggestion of Premier Zhou Enlai, Song Qingling moved into the residence in 1963.
What struck me about Song Qingling’s residence is how modest and functional the furnishings were. Song often worked late into the night at the desk in her bedroom and treasured her library; upon her death, she willed the books to a close friend, who promptly donated them back to the memorial.
Within the house, all the displays are in English and Chinese.
On the grounds, there’s also a separate hall containing exhibits relating to Song’s life and work, including photos from her Wesleyan years, her mother’s wedding robes, and the Soviet-made car she used to ride in.
The children’s playground and inner gardens were off-limits due to renovation work. The renovations are scheduled to be completed on May 21, 2016; until then, visitors can only enter from the west gate.
Former Residence of Soong Ching-Ling 宋庆龄故居
RMB 20. Daily 9.30am-5.30pm. 46 North Shore of Houhai Lake, Xicheng District (6404 4205) 西城区后海北沿西端46号
Sijia Chen is a contributing editor at beijingkids and a freelance writer specializing in parenting, education, travel, environment, and culture. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The Independent, Midnight Poutine, Rover Arts, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @sijiawrites or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Sijia Chen