THE SOONG DYNASTY by Sterling Seagrave Harper & Row; 532 pages; $22.50
All unhappy families may be dissimilar, but the Soongs were more dissimilar than others. "Revolutionary," "Concubine," "Speculator," "Dallas Oil Man" and "Shanghai Debutante" are just some of the labels that adhere to the descendants of Charlie Soong, a Chinese stow-away reared by North Carolina Methodists. Of the founding father's six children, four gate-crashed their way into history: Eldest Son T.V. (for Tse-ven) parlayed his career as a financial administrator into a fortune that made him, by some accounts, the richest man in the world; Eldest Daughter Ai-ling came to power behind the scenes by marrying H.H. Kung, a fabulously rich lineal descendant of Confucius; Middle Daughter Ching-ling wed Dr. Sun Yat-sen, godfather of the Chinese Revolution, and eventually became a Vice Chairman of Mao's People's Republic; Youngest Daughter May-ling became Mme. Chiang Kaishek, First Lady of the Republic of China.
It is the contention of Sterling Seagrave's compelling new book that the Soongs were, pre-eminently, a family in the Mario Puzo sense. Invoking the Borgias, the author portrays the clan as a gang of thieves most at home in the Wild East, a hugger-mugger underworld where dishes were routinely poisoned, enemies buried alive and coffins left on doorsteps. The Soong Dynasty is a guided (and sometimes misguided) tour through this blood-soaked landscape. En route, a rush of striking images flash past: the uprooted Charlie living off the kindness of Southern strangers and being fed, on antebellum verandas, heavy doses of the Bible and the idea of America as the Promised Land; his return to the revolutionary cells of Shanghai, where his daughters drifted into circles crowded with apprentice brigands; Chiang's internecine battles with the Communists, followed by his perilous rule under the sway of swindlers and drug peddlers like "Big-Eared Tu" and "Pock-marked Huang"; and, finally, the tragic consequences of a war during which the Soongs sometimes regarded China as their private property.
If The Soong Dynasty is a raffish account of how the East was conquered, it is no less a tale of how the West was won. The Soongs, Seagrave contends, knew exactly how to beguile America, one day with images of the mysterious East, the next with snapshots of God-fearing, Westernized democrats battling the Red Menace. While Harvard-educated T.V. wheedled millions out of his poker buddies in Washington, Wellesley Graduate May-ling wooed Congress with her slit skirt and florid rhetoric. In the process, the Soongs also hypnotized such powerful cheerleaders as Henry Luce and Columnist Joseph Alsop, who saw in them the lineaments of a progressive new China, ready to enter the American Century.