Review: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Wild Swans

‘It was a time when telling fantasies to oneself as well as others, and believing them, was practised to an incredible degree’.

Having acquired a second-hand copy of Jung Chang’s phenomenal memoir so many years ago I can’t even remember, it wasn’t until last October at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival that I was reminded of the fact that I should read Wild Swans as soon as possible. A fascinating woman who has seen and been through so much of twenty-first-century Chinese history, Chang is an outstanding woman of huge strength and character.

Although she has written a couple of non-fiction books since Wild Swans came out in the early nineties, it was very clear that the majority of the people at the festival wanted to hear Chang talk about the memoir she wrote of her own life as well as the lives of her grandmother and mother. In some respects, Wild Swans has acquired a huge cult following and after reading it for myself I can see why. Written in such a personal and honest way, Chang artfully weaves in the story of her family alongside the political climate of the time. It is not just a family history but an accurate depiction and critique of China during the rise of Mao Communism. As a result, it is still banned in China today and Jung Chang has very restricted access to her home country.

Beginning with the story of her grandmother, Chang spans the whole of a very turbulent military and political century in Chinese history. From bound feet and warlords, to the Japanese invasion, to the rise in Communism and the cult of Mao, I couldn’t help but be drawn into and fascinated by the history of a country that has only relatively recently been made public to the rest of the world. Also, Jung Chang’s perspective – three daughters of China – illustrates the shifting positions of women in Chinese society during the twentieth century. From observations about her grandmother’s concubinage to a warlord, which in effect imprisons her, to her mother’s stark freedom under the communist regime, Chang also looks outside of her family to highlight the double standards girls and women often faced in Communist China.

For example, when the communists were trying to rid society of traditional customs – such as bowing and respecting your elders, etc, Chang points out how notions of ‘shame’ for women were still as forcefully entrenched in society’s ideals of how a member of the female sex should behave. Although Communism opened up a much freer society sexually, when a former classmate of Chang’s returned home after her pilgrimage to Peking to see Mao – as all Red Guards were encouraged to do – she found herself pregnant. Instead of enduring the pregnancy, she tragically decided to hang herself, leaving a note that said she was ‘too ashamed to live’. Chang wryly observes that ‘no one challenged this medieval concept of shame, which might have been a target of a genuine cultural revolution. But it was never one of Mao’s concerns, and was not among the ‘olds’ which the Red Guards were encouraged to destroy’.

What struck me most was Jung Chang’s honest and heartbreaking depiction of her own disillusionment with Mao Zedong. Given cult status, it was near impossible to criticise Mao and his communist party in any way without serious repercussions. As a young woman, Chang watched her father – a fierce supporter of communism who had dedicated his whole life to the party – beaten down by the regime which became more and more a dictatorship where the wrong kind of personal thoughts were a criminal offence. As the cultural revolution encroached into all aspects of their lives, Chang began to question what she once took fiercely for granted only a few years before as a teenager of the Red Guard. By realising the extent of unnecessary suffering that was caused by Mao’s mismanagement of the country, Chang was no longer able to blindly follow the path of a devoted communist and looked for other ways to escape her situation.

‘[…] I subconsciously avoided Mao. He had been part of my life ever since I was a child. He was the idol, the god, the inspiration. The purpose of my life had been formulated in his name. A couple of years before, I would happily have died for him. Although his magic power had vanished from inside me, he was still sacred and undoubtable. Even now, I did not challenge him’.

Jung Chang lived through perhaps one of the most challenging times in Chinese history. Large chunks of her younger life were filled with inactivity as schools had been closed down and, as a teenager, she was forced to relocate to the countryside for ‘reeducation’. It was only when she was working as an electrician – with no formal training – in a factory that universities reopened again and she had the chance to fulfil her wish to learn. Despite the obstacles Chang faced she became one of the first groups of people to study abroad in the west, after obtaining a degree in English at Sichuan University, since the People’s Republic of China formed in 1941. Furthermore, she became the first person from the People’s Republic of China to be awarded a PhD from a British university.

Wild Swans is a flawlessly written and engaging feat of non-fiction. Encompassing three generations of daughters in China, it is no surprise that the book is a hefty 676 pages long. But at no time throughout reading it did I ever feel bored. Chang’s family history is so fascinating and I was slightly disappointed that the story ended as soon as Jung Chang left for England. I would have loved to read about her experiences there and how she became such a renowned writer and critic of China.

‘[Mao] understood ugly human instincts such as envy and resentment, and knew how to mobilise them for his ends. He ruled by getting people to hate each other. In doing so, he got ordinary Chinese to carry out many of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by professional elites. Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. […] In bringing out and nourishing the worst in people, Mao had created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred. But how much individual responsibility ordinary people should share, I could not decide’.

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2 Replies to “Review: Wild Swans by Jung Chang”

  1. I read this when I was thirteen and it’s stayed with me ever since – such an extraordinary book and so difficult to believe that it was all so recent. Chang is only a couple of years older than my mum, which made it all so much more real to me.

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