Bosom Friend


TO commemorate the centenary of Israel Epstein’s birth, in 2014 the Shanghai-based Oriental Publishing Center published Epstein and Soong Ching Ling’s Biography, a Chinese-language account of the profound friendship between the late renowned international journalist and the late, internationally esteemed Madame Soong Ching Ling, widow of Sun Yat-sen and Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China. It begins by recounting how Epstein was entrusted with writing Madame Soong’s biography and goes on to tell of his painstaking efforts to complete the task. It relates many stories little known to the public. Since no other publication includes such personalized anecdotes, it is no exaggeration to say that this book stands alone as an account of the life of this great Chinese woman. 

In 1992, a decade after embarking on this weighty undertaking, Epstein finished the authoritative biography, Woman in World History: Soong Ching Ling (Mme. Sun Yatsen). A tribute on the occasion of the centenary of Soong Ching Ling’s birth, its rich content factually narrates Soong Ching Ling’s glorious revolutionary life. The book’s popularity is evident in its three reprints and having received the national Class One prize for publications. It has since been translated into Japanese and Korean, and there is also a Taiwan edition published in traditional Chinese.

More than 20 years later, Epstein’s widow Huang Huanbi narrated her recollections of this period to researcher Shen Haiping. Together they set down their mutual admiration for Soong Ching Ling and Epstein. This book gives readers a deeper understanding of Soong Ching Ling’s biography, of her essential spirit, and of Epstein’s personality. As the publisher mentions in the foreword, the book covers many historical aspects. The first-hand materials it entailed constitute rare historical data on Soong Ching Ling that is of inestimable reference value to specialist researchers and scholars.


Most Trusted Scribe  

This 160,000-character book is in four parts. The first, Predestined Relationship, tells of Huang Huanbi’s background, how she came from the same hometown as Sun Yat-sen and later worked for China Reconstructs (predecessor to China Today). The second part is about Epstein and Soong Ching Ling. Epstein grew up in China and earned a reputation there as a respected journalist. He worked closely with Soong Ching Ling over the 40 years from the Chinese War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression to the establishment of New China. In the third part, Epstein and Me, Huang Huanbi talks about her relationship with Epstein, and how it changed from that of colleague to wife after they fell in love and married, and her pleasure in being his helpmeet. The fourth part focuses on Epstein’s writing of Soong Ching Ling’s biography.  The book includes more than 200 rare historical photographs.

Soong Ching Ling dedicated her life to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and made great contributions to it, but was also modest and prudent, and seldom wrote of her own life experience. Overseas journalists were keen to write reports about this personage of international influence. She often featured in their coverage of China as well as in biographies of Sun Yat-sen. In her later years, numbers of foreign journalists and writers proposed writing her biography, but she refused them all.

It was in her twilight years that Soong Ching Ling decided the time had come to publish her biography. Most important to her was that it be written by a trusted and able friend.  

On May 28, 1975 she wrote a letter to Epstein, formally asking him to write her biography: “I trust only Eppy to undertake this job as he knows me better than the others.” On September 17, 1980, Soong wrote again to Epstein, saying, “ Anyway, I request you to write my biography when I die – I don’t trust others as I do you.” After reading it Epstein felt “many thoughts came crowding into my head, and feelings into my heart.” On September 20 he replied, “I would love to do it and devote to it whatever ability and energy I have.” On September 25, Soong Ching Ling replied, thanking him and saying, “At last I can write you how proud and happy that my most trusted friend and comrade has consented to undertake writing my biography.” She fully agreed with Eppy’s writing plan, saying, “I am too tired to sit down regularly to answer questions, but I am ready at all times to answer whatever you wish.” 

Why did she choose Epstein? The author answers this question in the section entitled “My Most Trusted Person.” It tells of the profound friendship and mutual understanding and trust that endured during their common struggle over the space of half a century for the revolutionary cause of the Chinese people. It was in 1938 that Epstein, then 23, first met Madame Soong Ching Ling in Guangzhou in an anti-Japan demonstration. This was a time of deep peril for the Chinese nation. At Soong’s invitation, he joined the China Defense League, established in Hong Kong, whose aim was to win understanding and assistance for China from the international community.

Their collaboration continued in Chongqing in the 1940s. In 1945 Eppy went to the United States to write, but maintained his support for Soong Ching Ling’s progressive cause. In 1951, at the invitation of Soong Ching Ling, Epstein returned to China to establish the magazine China Reconstructs. Their cooperation and friendship deepened amid their struggle for New China. Soong Ching Ling had a deep understanding of Eppy’s love for China and his loyalty to the revolution, and also appreciated him as a journalist. In her later years, when she was physically infirm and time was running short, she often asked Eppy to search out materials, edit manuscripts, and make drafts. Their collaboration was smooth and harmonious. As the book says, “Soong Ching Ling was conversant with Eppy’s writing style, his analytical ability, and descriptive style, and so was entirely at ease. She knew that Epstein was totally familiar with her ideas and thinking about major events, and her sense of propriety.” All of this constituted the main reason for Soong’s confidence in Epstein, and belief that he would write an accurate and relevant account of her life.


Cross-culture Writing

According to Epstein, the framework of a biography consists of “life and times.” As regards the former, Soong Ching Ling’s reminiscences constitute the main body of her biography. It hence entailed many conversations between them. 

Huang Huanbi says in her account, “Epstein started the biography with the story of Sun Yat-sen before moving on to his wife Soong Ching Ling, who was also his comrade-in-arms and a loyal defender of Sun Yat-sen thought. The framework follows the Western writing approach. According to Huang, the biography emphasizes Soong Ching Ling’s important role in major historical events of the Chinese revolution and in world history. Relatively unknown among the public and inclined to maintain a low key throughout different historical periods and major historical events, Madame Soong was nevertheless firm and brave, and made enormous contributions. 

To give an authentic account of Soong Ching Ling’s life, Epstein described his comrade and her times under an international and bicultural backdrop. As mentioned in the preface to the Chinese edition of Woman in World History: Soong Ching Ling (Mme. Sun Yatsen): “In Soong Ching Ling, internationalist and bicultural thinking were closely combined with patriotism, since the latter is the eternal foundation of the former. Patriotism – loving and respecting her own country and the people – was her strong and eternal root. This was not only reflected in her political stance and actions but also suffused her entire mind and body.”  

The section “Soong Ching Ling’s Opinions” includes extracts from Epstein’s letter to Soong Ching Ling dated September 20, 1980. In it he raises proposals and suggestions about Soong’s biography that express his guiding ideology and the principles he follows in writing it. The letter says, “You are the main and in most cases the only source of knowledge, and only you can provide the illumination and connections in a lifetime so long, touching on so many events and processes in our century in China and in the world. This is even more true as regards your own personal experience and thoughts, the advancing present illuminating the past, and the past illuminating the present.”  


A Decade’s Hard Work  

To live up to Soong Ching Ling’s trust, Epstein made painstaking efforts for a decade. As his helper, his wife Huang Huanbi was with him throughout the whole process. “I witnessed the arduous process of Epstein’s writing, and shared his bittersweet experience,” Huang Huanbi said. Epstein spent vast amounts of time and energy on gathering relevant historical data, and made extensive visits to friends and historical sites to consolidate the foundation of her biography. The 200 or more letters from Soong Ching Ling that he amassed and kept are precious first-hand materials. 

One particular detail in the book leaves a deep impression. In the section “Beginning with a reading of the chronicle” Huang Huanbi recalls Epstein’s decision to make Soong Ching Ling’s first chronicle, compiled in the early 1980s by Shang Mingxuan of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the basic thread of the biography. It was no easy task for Epstein to read this 300,000-character chronicle, taking into consideration the level of his Chinese language proficiency. So his wife Huang Huanbi read and carefully explained it to him, so enabling him to include excerpts from it for reference. The couple spent a great deal of time on this task, and it laid a solid foundation for the actual writing of Soong’s biography. 

Not long after Epstein began writing the biography, Soong Ching Ling fell seriously ill. This precluded the several long interviews they had agreed upon. Certain aspects that relied on dialogue to resolve could not be clarified, and this was a matter of great regret for Eppy as the biographer.

In late spring of 1981, after bidding Soong Ching Ling farewell, Epstein was determined to accelerate the writing process. Finally, in 1989, he left his home and moved to the former residence of Soong Ching Ling to concentrate on writing. “The purpose of residing in her former residence was to avoid interruptions. Unexpectedly the ambience stimulated his muse … He felt at home and consequently at ease, and so felt thrilled at having entered this environment. Many memories suddenly became clear, welling up like spring water. He achieved high work efficiency during the days he spent in the former residence, and always remembered that period.” 

Soong Ching Ling’s biography finally came out in late 1992 to a keen response, and the book won high praise. It is considered the most authoritative biography of Soong Ching Ling ever written. As Zhang Huiqing, former editor-in-chief of the People’s Publishing House, said, “This is the result of his painstaking efforts. Epstein’s book was born of his wholehearted devotion. Through it he erected an eternal monument to this great woman of the 20th century.”   


CHEN RINONG is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Today.