Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Wild Swans: Repeating History

Written by: on June 20, 2018

“Let me become a cat or a dog, but not a woman”[1]

Throughout the narrative telling of twentieth-century Chinese history, we observe the move from traditional society to idealistic Communism, on to the Cultural Revolution—a power-centric second iteration of Communism, and the messy outcomes of years of distrust and revenge. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is a fascinating read of three generations of women in one family.

The journey begins with the painful foot-binding and voicelessness of Chang’s grandmother, who was given by her father as a concubine to a warlord. Her mother, as a second daughter, never received a real name, and Chang’s grandmother was only considered an asset to her father. Neither she nor her mother were involved in the decision by her father for her to become a concubine for the warlord. As Chang described it, “a concubine was a kind of institutional mistress, acquired and discarded at will.”[2] There were a multitude of horrific consequences to this relationship form. Many concubines smoked opium “in their attempts to cope with their loneliness” and stay compliant.[3] Chang’s mother was taken from Chang’s grandmother and given to the wife of the warlord; although they were eventually reunited, the separation was painful. After the warlord’s death, she stands up to her father and marries a kind doctor, who was much older than her, much to the horror of his family.

The story shifts to Chang’s mother who joined the Communists and rejected the traditions of the past. Her mother initially worked with the Women’s Federation, which “supervised the freeing of concubines and shutting down brothels,… informed them of their rights, and helped ensure that women were not entering into marriages against their wishes.”[4] Idealistically, this move sounds positive, lifting up those who had been marginalized, voiceless. In reality however, the Communist party became an institution of suspicion and distrust, revenge and rivalry.

Throughout Chang’s story of her mother’s and grandmother’s lives, there are stark contrasts between risky kindness and painful horror. People like her grandmother’s husband, Dr Xia, stand out for their unequivocal compassion. When the Japanese occupied Manchuria, he treated both locals and invaders. Despising the Japanese, he believed (and lived) that “a patient is a human being… This is all a doctor should think about. He should not mind what kind of a human being he is.”[5] Later, when people were rounded up and put into prison, he networked with the executioner and cart driver to spare prisoners, heal them, and help them escape.

When her parents departed from Yibin, Chang’s mother recognized that “the revolution was made by human beings, it was burdened with their failings. But it did not occur to her [at that time] that the revolution was doing very little to deal with these failings, and actually relied on some of them, often the worst.”[6] There are many compelling ideals within communism (everyone is equal and everything is shared), but like capitalism, it, too, is burdened by the failings of humans who create the social structure. Beyond left or right orientations, the consolidation of power into the hands of the few (or one) is deeply disturbing.

But here’s the part of the story that I unexpectedly found being repeated in today’s context: “When I was…three years old, my siblings and I were all sent away to different boarding nurseries. I could not understand why I was being taken away from home, and kicked and tore the ribbon in my hair in protest. In the nursery I deliberately created trouble for the teachers….” [7] Four different nurseries for the siblings. This is painful history to read about, especially since it is true, and told by the woman who was separated from her parents and siblings.

Chang described what it was like for her and her brother, when her mother came to visit them in the nursery institution. The little boy was painfully distant from the mother he didn’t know, and his sister feared the abandonment of her mother:

“When Jin-ming was brought in, he remained at the far end of the room and would not go near my mother. He just stood there silently, resentfully refusing to look at her. My mother produced some peaches and asked him to come over and eat them while she peeled them. But Jin-ming would not move. She had to put the peaches on her handkerchief and push them along the table. He waited for her to withdraw her hand before he grabbed one peach and devoured it…. For the first time since she had been taken into detention, my mother let her tears fall.

I remember the evening she came to see me. I was nearly four, and was in my wooden bed, which had bars like a cage. One side of the railing was let down so she could sit and hold my hand while I fell asleep…. I was worried that once I fell asleep she would disappear again forever. Whenever she thought I was asleep and tried to slip her hand away, I gripped it and started to cry. She stayed until around midnight. I screamed when she started to leave, but she pulled herself away. I did not know that ‘parole’ time was up.”[8]

It’s terrible that the Chinese created a culture of mistrust, social pressure, and unquestioned loyalty to the leader (Mao). It’s terrible that the Chinese built a culture that rejected and destroyed the heritage and traditions of the past. It’s terrible that the Chinese disparaged the arts, beauty, and education. And it’s absolutely terrible that the Chinese separated children from their parents for the sake of the law of the land. But it’s a really good thing that we’ve moved beyond that horrible time in history in a foreign land like China. It’s a really good thing that we’ve learned from that and won’t let it happen again. It’s a good thing America is nothing like that.

[1] Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, (New York: Touchstone, 2003), 67.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Ibid., 129.

[5] Ibid., 66.

[6] Ibid., 189.

[7] Ibid., 195.

[8] Ibid., 202-203.

About the Author

Katy Drage Lines

In God’s good Kingdom, some minister like trees, long-standing, rooted in a community. They embody words of Wendell Berry, “stay years if you would know the genius of the place.” Others, however, are called to go. Katy is one of those pilgrims. A global nomad, Katy grew up as a fifth generation Colorado native, attended college & seminary and was ordained in Tennessee, married a guy from Pennsylvania, ministered for ten years in Kenya, worked as a children’s pastor in a small church in Kentucky, and served college students in a university library in Orange County, California. She recently moved to the heart of America, Indianapolis, and has joined the Englewood Christian Church community, serving with them as Pastor of Spiritual Formation. She & her husband Kip, have two delightful boys, a college junior and high school junior.

6 responses to “Wild Swans: Repeating History”

  1. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Katy, I liked your ending irony. Human nature is the same, whatever culture you’re from. Greed and sin have a way of messing up some beautiful cultures and well-meaning people. We all have skeletons in our closet, but it’s always easier to see the skeletons in other countries before we see our own. Thanks for your post.

  2. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Katy, I fully understand the point of your last paragraph, but I had a very different take on how this story relates to contemporary America.

    First of all, the fact that you are reading Wild Swans is a testament to the difference between our two systems of government. Wild Swans is banned in China. At the same time, there are books available in my local bookstore that openly criticize US leaders. These authors have not been killed, tortured or arrested.

    When Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama left office, they were not killed or exiled.

    Virtually every president I can remember complained constantly about Congress. They complained because they could not get their way. Their power was limited. Imagine a one party system where everyone in Congress had no choice but the follow the President. Imagine the current government with no Democrats in office. Or imagine the last government with no Republicans. Trust me, it would not have been a good thing.

    Today, most newspapers and televisions station offer a critique of our leader. American journalists are not arrested, tortured, or killed for their actions.

    We certainly have a lot of problems in our country, yet, we do not have mass starvation, forced abortions, or the execution of religious leaders.

    I went away from Wild Swans being thankful for our three branches of government, a two party system, and our first amendment rights.

    • Katy Drage Lines says:

      Oh, I don’t disagree with you, Stu. Chang herself said, “this was the kind of society I wanted to live in: where people were allowed to hold different, even outrageous views. I began to see that it was the very tolerance of oppositions, of protesters, that kept the West progressing” (472).

      What I think is helpful here, is a recognition that democratic capitalism is not problem-free (as we’ve discovered under this present administration). We must not fall into the trap of seeing even a better political structure (like democracy) as the good news.

      I’ve been reading commentaries on Colossians as I preach through it. This stood out to me, especially thinking about loyalty to any government, person, or empire:
      “We need to have an alternative imagination—looking to the story of Abraham, who left the gods of the empire to follow the living God. We look to the story of Moses, whom God used to rescue his people from the empire and lead them into a land where they would live in an alternative covenant community. And mostly, we need to look to the story of Jesus, who was crucified by the empire and the powers that be and rose to proclaim God’s new rule, manifest in communities that sold all they had so that none would have need. This alternative imagination energized and gave life to the early Christian community. People like Nympha and Archippus and Epaphras began to see that Jesus offered a compelling critique of life in the empire.” (Colossians Remixed, by Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat)

      My plea is for America to do better (yes, I am thankful for the attempted balance of our 3 branches), but my loyalty and allegiance is the the head/Lord of the body/God’s people.

  3. Lynda Gittens says:


    Thank you for your post. I admired the love Dr Xia had for her grandmother and Jung’s sister. I took looked at the view of a leader demanding to be number one (God) in the lives of the people. I believe it’s not the government that makes the change, it’s an entity but It’s the individual and their supporters that make the change.
    We in America have individuals who believe in the Trinity and trust that our God reigns over all. But as individuals, we act based on our own views and through our carnal eyes. We must be alert in our gifts of the Spirit and see America’s leadership through discernment. As one old church song says, “Watch, Fight, and Pray.” Stay alert!

  4. Mary Walker says:

    Katy, the whole time I was reading the book I was wondering how people get into and stay in power. Why do people let a Mao get away with what he did? We could blame it on the leaders themselves with their military and fear tactics. We could blame it on a complacent people.
    I was just wondering, where is God in all of this? Does He just sit up there and watch? I’m not being facetious; I don’t think I’m the only one asking why people get away with so much evil.
    And her I agree with your last point – why can’t we learn something from history at the very least and try not to repeat mistakes?
    Very thought provoking; thank you.

  5. Jim Sabella says:

    Katy, what is it with power that so corrupts? Like you, I have to wonder if it somehow doesn’t blind us to the past so we continue to repeat it. Or is it that the people who have great power do not feel the impact of their decisions? This was a thought-provoking post. Thank you.

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