The Women Writers Wednesday series is back after a long holiday hiatus! This week I’m featuring a review of Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans, presented by Niva Dorell Smith. Her short bio follows the review, as does information on how to see more of this series and how to be a part of it. I’m always interested in new voices!
The next time you think or say, “This country sucks” (it’s okay, we’ve all felt this way at some point), please do yourself a favor and read Jung Chang’s debut memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Simon & Schuster, 1991). I guarantee you’ll feel differently when you finish it.
In Wild Swans, Chang recalls the trajectory of her family and country from 1909 to 1978, expertly weaving the stories of three generations of Chang women with China’s historical struggle to redefine itself from feudal society to Communist super power. The result is part history lesson, part family soap opera, and entirely epic in both breadth and depth. I couldn’t put it down.
Chang begins the story with her fifteen-year-old grandmother Yu-Fang being given by her father to General Xue Zhi-Heng as a concubine. Seven years later, Yu has her one and only child, a daughter, Bao Quin, with whom she escapes from the General’s palace when Bao is a baby. Together, they live in exile for over a year until General Xue dies. His last words are that Yu be given her freedom. A short time later, Yu remarries Dr. Xia, a respected local doctor forty years her senior, who raises Bao as his own daughter and nurtures both her independent spirit and quest for knowledge.
During this time, China transitions from an empire to a republic/warlord society; the Japanese invade in the 1930s; a Communist-Kuomintang alliance leads to Japanese surrender in the mid-1940s; and a political struggle between the two victors results in the brutal Kuomintang-Communist Civil War. Chang’s mother, Bao, becomes a student leader, joins the Communist underground, and falls in love with Wang Yu, a Communist rebel leader. They marry right before the Communists prevail and General Mao Zedong establishes the People’s Republic of China.
Despite being a young couple in love, Wang Yu and Bao immediately butt heads on how to approach life, the Communist Party, and the raising of their own young family, including the author, Jung Chang, and her three siblings. Her father, Wang Yu, is a hardcore Communist who believes that being a Communist leader requires the strictest adherence to Party rules and values; in other words, no special treatment for himself or anyone in his family. Her mother, Bao, believes that a man in a position of authority should do everything he can to protect and provide for his family, even if it means making exceptions to Party rule and occasionally, secretly, questioning Party values. This conflict, which continues throughout their marriage, results in serious repercussions as both become senior officials in the Communist Party, and life becomes increasingly harsh under General Mao.
Chang writes with both emotional restraint and painstaking detail about growing up within the highest ranks of the Communist party, from walled communities to school beatings, to joining the Red Guards and watching her parents be denounced, tortured, and eventually sent to labor camps during the ten-year-long, ultra-violent Cultural Revolution. She chronicles the gradual transformation of her own psychological and emotional attachment to the almost mythical figure of General Mao, whom she loves, respects, and adores as a child and begins to question only as a young adult. Her father, though strict, earns the respect of even his fiercest enemies for remaining faithful to his principles, even when they eventually conflict with the radical Communist agenda. Her mother remains fiercely determined to fight for her loved ones, pulling every string and calling on every favor possible to protect not only her children, but also people who come to her for help.
Despite everything the family endures––starvation, torture, separation, forced labor, and prison camps––they manage to prevail and remain close. When Jung Chang leaves China in 1978 for London, one cannot help but share in her relief and joy at the miracle of freedom.
Whatever your thoughts about our government’s––or any government’s––being flawed, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans will illuminate unequivocally how Communist China was a thousand times worse. Families were torn apart by the regime, with neighbors turning on neighbors, children turning on parents, and parents turning on each other. Almost all symbols of Chinese history, including the majority of China’s vast art collection, were destroyed. Somewhere between fifteen and seventy million people died under Mao Zedong.
But the most painful aspect of Wild Swans is the psychological effect of living in constant fear. Jung describes a political and social environment that discourages any form of independent thinking, to the point where she no longer trusts her own thoughts. Breaking free of this psychological manipulation is not only extremely difficult but also dangerous. In Communist China your thoughts could get you arrested, tortured, and killed, and ruin your entire family for generations to come.
It is no wonder that this book is taught in colleges worldwide. Wild Swans is an unprecedented, intimate view of what it’s like to grow up in one of the most secretive and oppressive societies in the world. Only someone who experienced it first hand could have written it. Be grateful you did not.
Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently working on a memoir titled The History of Us. She writes regularly about grief and writing at www.ridingbitchblog.com. Follow her on Twitter @nivaladiva.
To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.
The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.