Book Reviews

Wild Swans – Chang Jung – The three daughters of China

The story of three generations in twentieth-century China that blends the intimacy of memoir and the panoramic sweep of eyewitness history—a bestselling classic in thirty languages with more than ten million copies sold around the world, now with a new introduction from the author.

An engrossing record of Mao’s impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love, Jung Chang describes the extraordinary lives and experiences of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist; and her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution. Chang was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a “barefoot doctor,” a steelworker, and an electrician. As the story of each generation unfolds, Chang captures in gripping, moving—and ultimately uplifting—detail the cycles of violent drama visited on her own family and millions of others caught in the whirlwind of history.

I loved this book! From start to finish, 500 pages of epic China! From the turn of the century till 1990’s we experience the Chinese revolution through the eyes of the most opressed and the most blessed. The women.

Much of Chinese society still expected its women to hold themselves in a sedate manner, lower their eyelids in response to men’s stares, and restrict their smile to a faint curve of the lips which did not expose their teeth. They were not meant to use hand gestures at all. If they contravened any of these canons of behavior they would be considered ‘flirtatious.” Under Mao, flirting with foreigners was an unspeakable crime.

It’s one of those rare books which make you despair of humanity and then go a long way towards restoring your faith in it.

While Wild Swans is largely about the three women mentioned above, the most interesting person in the book (I hesitate to call him a character as he was obviously a very real person) is the author’s father, a high-ranking cadre who genuinely believed in the Communist ideals and strove all his life to implement them in daily life. At first, he is infuriating in his refusal to grant his wife and children the privileges to which they are entitled as his relatives (on the grounds that to do so would amount to nepotism and corruption, which is precisely what the Communists are supposed to be trying to eradicate), but as the story progresses, you realise that there is something quite heroic about Mr Chang — that he is, in his daughter’s words, ‘a moral man living in a land that [is] a moral void‘. By the time the Cultural Revolution rolls around the corner, you feel such admiration for him that you’d personally drag him away from the humiliations and beatings he receives for sticking to his guns if you could, to prevent him having to experience that loss of faith and dreams which is bound to follow. His is a tragedy with a capital T, and it’s harrowing — one of the most painful things I’ve read, and then some.

How far could Chinese patriarchy go in the early twentieth century to make the lives of women sheer humiliation and misery?

Author Chang’s grandmother was thus encrippled and eventually traded off to a general of one of the factions vying for control of the country in 1920. All this so her wretch of a great-grandfather—Yang—could raise his own material status, buy land and accumulate concubines. I have read of stories purdah, the seraglio and Morman four-wiving, but never have I come across such a harrowing description of the degradation of women that I have found here.

As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say:’Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”

We learn about the ancient culture of the Chinese which included much that was beautiful and some that seems cruel. We learn of the hope of so many Chinese that the overthrow of the Kuomintang would lead to a’ just social order’ but how it soon became clear that the worst excesses of the Kuomintang and those of Imperial China before that paled into insignificance compared to the hell on earth created by Mao’s Chinese Communist Party. Obviously according to this author being a communist meant putting country and Chairman Mao before anything else especially before your family. So many In China during this period had to endure terrible hardships and living conditions, but the author managed to triumph over them all and finally was able to find a way out of the country to a way of life that was more in keeping with her spirit and sense of open expression.

One is left aghast that a system can destroy even the most basic human instincts of decency and compassion while turning people into inhumane monsters totally possessed -as if by a demon – by a cruel and totally destructive system. It sends shivers down one’s spine to realise that ‘The Great Helmsman’ Mao Ze Dong -who ranks with Hitler and Stalin as among the most evil men of the 20th century-had his image worn on T-shirts by ‘progressive’ students and youth in the west and these same young ‘champions of equality’ hung large pictures of Mao in their dormitory rooms .This at the same time as millions of Chinese were being slaughtered and physically and psychologically maimed on the orders of Mao and his Chinese Communist Party -as described in this book.

I loved how the depiction of mass ignorance and the results led to a rise in corruption and ill-advised reforms.

The other hallmark of Maoism, it seemed to me, was the reign of ignorance. Because of his calculation that the cultured class were an easy target for a population that was largely illiterate, because of his own deep resentment of formal education and the educated, because of his megalomania, which led to his scorn for the great figures of Chinese culture, and because of his contempt for the areas of Chinese civilization that he did not understand, such as architecture, art, and music, Mao destroyed much of the country’s cultural heritage. He left behind not only a brutalized nation, but also an ugly land with little of its past glory remaining or appreciated.

We see it today – people refuse to study or go to school to get more knowledge. What’s the point?

“Most peasants did not miss the school.

“What’s the point?” they would say.

“You pay fees and read for years, and in the end you are still a peasant, earning your food with your sweat. You don’t get a grain of rice more for being able to read books. Why waste time and money?

Might as well start earning your work points right away.”

The virtual absence of any chance of a better future and the near total immobility for anyone born a peasant took the incentive out of the pursuit of knowledge. Children of school age would stay at home to help their families with their work or look after younger brothers and sisters. They would be out in the fields when they were barely in their teens. As for girls, the peasants considered it a complete waste of time for them to go to school.

“They get married and belong to other people. It’s like pouring water on the ground.”

The Cultural Revolution was trumpeted as having brought education to the peasants through ‘evening classes.” One day my production team announced it was starting evening classes and asked Nana and me to be the teachers. I was delighted. However, as soon as the first ‘class’ began, I realized that this was no education.

The classes invariably started with Nana and me being asked by the production team leader to read out articles by Mao or other items from the People’s Daily. Then he would make an hour-long speech consisting of all the latest political jargon strung together in undigested and largely unintelligible hunks. Now and then he would give special orders, all solemnly delivered in the name of Mao.”
― Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China


Today many in the West laud the economic ‘reforms’ towards a type of totalitarian ‘capitalist’ system but fail to remember that human rights have not improved at all and China is still a hideous and inhuman hell for hundreds of millions of its inhabitants. And the world turns a blind eye While we a re left asking how much longer the people of China will remain enslaved by their inhumane Communist masters. How Long?
But the book is also about the strength of the human spirit , about wonderful people-especially the three remarkable women who are the central characters of this book- as well as the cruel ones
It is a story of love and hate, strength and weakness , the beautiful and the ugly.
But more than anything it is about how the human spirit can never in the end be crushed by cruelty, evil and tyranny.

They left people no free time, and eliminated the private sphere. The pettiness which dominated them was justified on the grounds that prying into personal details was a way of ensuring thorough soul-cleansing. In fact, pettiness was a fundamental characteristic of a revolution in which intrusiveness and ignorance were celebrated, and envy was incorporated into the system of control. My mother’s cell grilled her week after week, month after month, forcing her to produce endless self-criticisms.She had to consent to this agonizing process. Life for a revolutionary was meaningless if they were rejected by the Party. It was like excommunication for a Catholic. Besides, it was standard procedure. My father had gone through it and had accepted it as part of ‘joining the revolution.” In fact, he was still going through it.

This book is definitely an eye-opener and a really intelligent, beautiful and emotional read. I knew next to nothing about Mao or China’s recent history before I read this and I am so thankful that this interconnected generational story exists. This book winds up story with fact because the emotional turmoil Jung Chang and her family went through is so shocking it’s hard to remember it’s ‘real!’

5/5