By Liu Dongping
After the founding of the New China, Soong Ching Ling lived on the wages paid by the government. Extra royalties from her writings were mostly donated to charity works for women and children. So in the 1950s, to rescue her arrested Japanese-born American friend Koji Ariyoshi, she could only find and send Ariyoshi's family her mother's wedding gown, which she had kept and treasured for years and had some financial value. Its sale, she suggested, might help pay for Ariyoshi's ransom.
Soong Ching Ling's wages were set at grade I of the national wage scale, i.e. RMB579.50 Yuan per month, which was not a small figure at that time. But considering Soong's actual household spending, her wallet was always tight. Sometimes, there would even be deficits and she would need an advance on her wages. Occasionally, Soong had to borrow money from people around her to make ends meet. This was not because she lived a luxurious life, but more because of her self-discipline and her readiness to help others.
Soong Ching Ling long held the responsibility for paying the salary and living expenses of her two maids in Shanghai and Beijing. She also took care of her security guard's two daughters who lived with her. She often provided subsidies for her staff members. On occasions of their weddings, funerals, new births, sickness and hospital stays, or building new houses in their hometowns, digging wells, etc., she would always send money or gifts to show her compassion.
House-keeper Mr. Zhang You still remembers that when he got married in 1959, Soong Ching Ling invited the couple for dinner. She gave them a bed sheet with the print of mandarin ducks -- a symbol of love -- as a wedding gift. When the couple's two babies were born, she sent them children's clothing. When Zhang's father died, Soong sent her secretary and driver to his home for condolence and gave Zhang 30 Yuan. When Zhang's son returned from Sichuan to Beijing for his winter vacation from college, he brought some Sichuan tangerines especially for Soong. Soong accepted the tangerines but insisted on giving the boy 10 Yuan.
In 1973, when she heard of a flood in the hometown of her staff member surnamed Yang, she immediately took out 150 yuan for Yang to help rebuild the house. The list can go on and on and everyone who lived close to Soong has such stories to tell.
Before the Cultural Revolution, considering Soong's living conditions, the country gave her extra public function subsidy on top of her wages. During the Cultural Revolution, she gave these subsidies back to the country and all her expenditure again depended only on her wages. In 1975, the CPC Central Committee once again showed care for Soong Ching Ling and approved a subsidy of 30,000 Yuan for her. Secretary Du reported this to Soong in writing and she immediately wrote back to decline this grant:
November 19, 1975
You letter has been received. Please convey my gratitude to the central government for their good intention for me. However, I can't accept it. My wages at 579 yuan per month is already many times the wages of others. I already felt uneasy about it during the Cultural Revolution, so I returned some money back. This time, several people needed help to pay for their hospitalization, which was why my budget was exceeded. Otherwise it would definitely be enough. Please do not accept this grant for me. Thank you.
As for Soong's residence in Beijing, she lived in Fangjin Lane near the Beijing Railway Station in the early 1950s. The roads in the area were narrow, it was noisy and the rooms were damp. The government had long been considering building a new house for her. But Soong Ching Ling felt the country was doing much construction work and investments were needed everywhere. She politely declined the offer again and again and the matter was delayed for quite a few years.
Later, the CPC Central Committee sent people to Shanghai with a letter from Wang Guangmei, wife of President Liu Shaoqi, and the blueprint of a new residence for Soong to seek her opinion. She once again kindly turned it down. In her letter to Wang Guangmei, she said, "To increase national expenditure for my own personal residence, this would make me feel very uneasy."
All the way till 1962, the government once again considered Soong's public funtions as a state leader, and her unique contributions to the Chinese revolution and her high international reputation. What's more, she often needed to meet with distinguished guests from home and abroad as a state leader and should have a suitable residence. Zhou Enlai was entrusted with the responsibility of finding a quiet imperial garden in the Houhai area in Beijing for Soong. Famous architect Liang Sicheng was invited to design this two storied house with both Chinese and western characteristics. The next spring, Soong Ching Ling finally moved into her new house.
Soong Ching Ling liked this quiet and beautiful house very much. The site was chosen by Zhou Enlai who knew her quite well. However, she always felt uneasy and didn't think she should enjoy this luxury.
In 1966, American friend Grace Granich once mentioned in a letter to Soong Ching Ling that she had heard Soong lived in a palace and asked if that was true. Soong wrote back saying that because of her role as the vice president of the country, the government gave her an imperial palace as her new residence. "I live in the mansion of the Second Prince Chun of the Qing Dynasty. The last emperor of Qing Dynasty Pu Yi was born here. The garden is elegantly laid out with streams and beautiful trees...I am indeed endowed with the imperial treatment. However, I don't take pleasure in it because many people who deserve this more than I are still living in shabby houses."
Soong Ching Ling always wore casual clothes of the Chinese style at home. As she became older and her figure changed, her qipaos became too tight for her. So she added extra cloth at the seams on both sides symmetrically and continued to wear them. In her closet, many of her garments and qipaos had been modified this way. Ms. Wang Guangmei, wife of former president Liu Shaoqi, saw with her own eyes that Soong Ching Ling participated in public functions wearing such an altered black embroidered qipao. However, the alternation was done in such a fine way and the dress was perfectly ironed that people normally wouldn't see the trick. Till this day, this black embroidered dress is still on exhibit in her old residence.
Also in Soong's bedroom, all the furniture was very old and did not match. As the old saying goes, to observe one's objects is to get to know the person. From observing the objects she used in her daily life, it's not hard to tell that Soong lived a simple and frugal life.
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