Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang is the true story of three amazing women, the grandmother, mother, and daughter. I decided to choose history as a category for this book because despite it being personal, it shows a lot of the Chinese contemporary history. With the book being so long, 650 pages, I thought it will take a few more days to read it, but I just couldn’t put it down. It’s an extraordinary book, shocking, wonderful.
Before reading the book I didn’t know a lot about the history of China, but now I feel I know much more.
The book starts with “At the age of 15, my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general, the police chief of the tenuous national government of China.” Then goes on to talk a bit about her great-grandparents. The story of her great-grandmother is so sad, she didn’t even have a name because she was a girl in a poor family, but was called “child number two”. She felt she had the duty to bound the feet of her beautiful daughter, Jung’s grandmother. The details about bounding the feet are quite incredible, why would anybody do something like that to their daughters? It resulted in a life in agony and difficulty to walk.
Her grandmother was amazing. She was determined and strong, full of energy and love. During her years as a concubine she had a daughter, her only child. The warlord died and she lied to his family that his daughter died too, so she could keep her daughter with her. A few years later she was asked to marry an old doctor, whose family strongly opposed the wedding. They did get married, but in a couple of years after that, they moved to another city and started again, from nothing. Their life was happy, as happy as one can be with the hard life they had.
The mother joined the Communist party believing in their ethos and also as an alternative to Kuomintang (Nationalist Party of China). She was involved in the underground organization. After the Communists came into power she got married with another Communist. At that point I thought things should have been good for them. He was very intransigent, following the random rules the Communists imposed, even if that led to her mother loosing a pregnancy.
Communists do what communists do. The party promoted peasants, regardless of their abilities. Her mother had as leader an illiterate filthy peasant, picked at random for her “strong background”. Illiterate filthy peasant sounds harsh, but her leader was keen to explain that during the war they had contests who had more lice and showering every other day was bourgeois. Also, she didn’t know how to write nor read.
Her mother and father went up the ranks, him putting the party first, even before his mother, extended family, his wife and children.
In mid 50s, the Hundred Flowers Campaign started, where people were encouraged to voice their criticisms. It was a very good way to see who was against the party. Soon after that the Anti-Rightist Campaign started, where everybody that said anything not praising the party would be oppressed. Obviously, most of the accused were intellectuals, many of them would be sent to forced labour or executed. I can’t say that this was surprising, as it happened in Romania too.
Meanwhile, Mao Zedung had a great idea. China will take over US and UK by making more steel, in what is called Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1962). Everybody in the country had to make steel, teachers and their pupils, peasants, and so on. Of course, peasants would not farm the fields because they didn’t have time. Also, another wonder of Communism is that they lied. The reports were saying that the food production is so big (impossible quantities of rice were reported), this too happened in Romania. But, because of this mindless steel production, the fields were not farmed or the crops were not collected from the fields. Not surprisingly, this Leap Forward was at the same time with the Great Chinese Famine (the most conservative estimate, by the government was at 15 million deaths, this for me means that the true figures are at least double).
Jung Chang was a teenager when the Cultural Revolution started (1966 – 1976). Mao encouraged pupils and students to purge the Chinese society of bourgeois elements and, of course, traditions. These teenagers and young people formed the Red Guards. Many houses, monuments, books, and historical artefacts were destroyed at that time. The Chinese people lost their history in less than 10 years, this is how dangerous extremists are. Besides, many people were tortured and died because of denunciations. Teaching stopped, children were forced to go to work in farms, so they could be “educated”.
In 1966, her father was detained, but released. She joined the Red Guards, as most had to do. The following year, her father wrote a personal letter to Mao to tell him his thoughts about the Cultural Revolution, thus he was arrested and had a mental breakdown. Her mother was detained too. Sadly, in 1969 her grandmother died, as she didn’t receive adequate medical treatment. Jung Chang was working in a farm, as I mentioned previously, the “education”. The following year she becomes “barefoot doctor”, meaning she could treat people despite not having any medical training. In 71 her mother is very ill, but recovers and she is also rehabilitated. Her father was released the following year.
Jung got into the University, with a bit of help from her mother. Still, knowledge and abilities were not taken into account. To get into University the background (being peasant) was more important than anything else, as exams were banned because they were not considered relevant. She had to make sure she learned, but not too much, or that was bourgeois too.
Her father died in 1975, older than his years, broken by a system he believed so much in. Two years later, Jung becomes an assistant lecturer helped by the people from the factory she worked in before. She wasn’t supposed to follow a career in what she studied, as, obviously, it would have been too bourgeois, so, she asked them to write a letter that she should be given a job using her degree. The following year she wins a scholarship to Britain.
The book is such a precious account of what happened in China. It shows the horrible impact extremes can have on people’s lives, how much a nation can loose of its past and future. In an period of growing populism, this book is more relevant than ever. I wish everybody that throws in a “comrades” in a speech would actually read this, to see what having comrades really means.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
Details about the picture: Chinese dragon biscuits with tea and an Asian inspired background. If you fancy trying to make the biscuits, the recipe is on my food blog.
My rating: 5/5 Stars.
Would I recommend it: Yes!!
Published by: Harper Perennial
Year it was published: 2004 (first published in 1991)
About the author: Jung Chang was born on 25th March 1952, in Yibin, Sichuan.
She is living in London now. She is best known for her family autobiography Wild Swans, selling over 10 million copies worldwide. The book is banned in mainland China. Jung Chang was named the winner of the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year Award for this book.
Other books by her: Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China and Mao: The Unknown Story, written in collaboration with her husband, historian Jon Halliday.
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