Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wild Swans

Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China
Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China
by Jung Chang
Simon & Shuster

This is an epic book. I can’t imagine that anyone will write a narrative of 20th century China that will approach the richness of detail, breath of topic and unsettling nature of this work. The author tells the tale through the stories of three women – her grandmother Yu-Fang, her mother Bao-Qin and herself. China’s 20th century included the demise of the feudal warlords, the Japanese invasion, the fall of the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, the rise of Mao-Tse-Tung, the installation of communism as the national government, and the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Jung Chang’s family is caught up in all of these events.

Her grandmother was born into feudal China. Her feet were broken and bound in an effort to keep them from growing, a practice common in the first half of the twentieth century in China. She was essentially sold as a concubine to a warlord (translate gangster) general twice her age. She spent very little time with him but did conceive one child, the author’s mother. She then marries a Manchurian (Manchuria a place more foreign that China if that is possible) doctor, has some frightening experiences with both the doctor’s family and then during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.

The author’s mother, Bao-Qin, is an early convert to communism. It is not hard to understand how communism engaged the people of China. The repressive nature of the Nationalist regime and the obscene difficulty of life (famine and starvation were common, women were held as property) made the communist movement an attractive egalitarian choice. The author’s father, Wang-Yu, is also with Mao early in the communist movement. He actually makes The Long March with Mao. Her father dedicates his life to the principles of the communist movement, an allegiance later betrayed. Both of her parents are senior officials, intellectuals and enthusiastic nation builders as the communists take over China and try to improve conditions for the populace. The early years of the communists are good, and much of China thrives. The government evolves into a personality cult of Chairman Mao and the country essentially falls apart in the 60’s. I found the descriptions of the events of the Cultural Revolution horrifying. Mao did not persecute the country using government agencies but he incited the people to turn on one another. It was heartbreaking and frightening to see the evil that people inflicted on their friends and neighbors. The author’s family survives this period, but barely. Her father who had dedicated his life to the communist agenda is denounced and arrested when he takes principled stands against corruption. He is “relocated” to the countryside for years of “reeducation”. He suffers a nervous breakdown and is dead at the age of 54. Her mother is also denounced and relocated. The author recounts her time as a Red Guard and her very gradual disillusionment with Mao and his actions. The Cultural Revolution which started slowly in the late 1950s doesn’t really end until 1975 – almost 20 years of torture for China.

The book ends when Chairman Mao dies, the Cultural Revolution is over and some semblance of normalcy returns to China. Education at all levels had been suspended for 8 years and is slowly reestablished. The author is able to leave a factory job and through merit become a university student studying English.

This is not a book to be read in a short sitting. You really could walk away from it for a couple days as some of the scenes are very intense and gripping. It can be hard to believe you are reading non-fiction. The author clearly and interestingly tells you the story of her family.   I think though it is an important book giving witness to cataclysmic events through the eyes of three incredibly strong women.  I was familiar with much of this history but had no understanding of the Chinese people and what they have endured until I read this story.   I’d recommend it for anyone traveling to China or interested in Chinese history. I was in China in 1984 and would have loved to have had read this story before that assignment.


Bitsy Bling Books said...

I have not read much featuring this culture or country. You got my attention when you mentioned it's hard to believe it's non-fiction.


Unknown said...

I know little about 20th century China, but I have read Red Scarf Girl, also a memoir, and recommend it.

Julie said...

This book sounds very interesting; I am always interested in books that detail other cultures and times. I (not-so recently - a few months ago) read a book of my daughter's that was an autobiographical tale of a young Chinese girl who joined the Red Guard, and of her subsequent disappointment and disillusionment with Mao's China. Although I was interested in this subject, THAT book was a slog for me, as it was not written with much depth. I think that this book would be a much better read. Thanks for a wonderful, detailed review!

Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

Kathy said...

Charlie,thanks for your comments your blog looks great. Lots to learn from it!
Elizabeth thanks for the recommendation on Red Scarf Girl, I will read.
Julie, thanks for the kind words on the review.