Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China – Jung Chang 張戎/张戎
With these thoughts churning in my head, I recalled my life in China, my family and all those people I knew, and at that moment I longed to tell the world our stories and how the Chinese really felt. My urge to write returned.
Grandmother, Mother, Jung (with ribbons in hair) and siblings.
Jung Chang left her dreadful life in communist China behind for Great Britain in 1978. She is one of a few women who were able to get out of China to study. Jung obtained a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of York. Jung had always wanted to write, but once she was away from China she could not get enthusiastic for it. She wanted to put her past life of forced labor, despair, and mental torture under Communist rule behind her.
Ten years later in 1988, her mother came to visit her in Britain and told Jung stories of her grandmother and family. Jung became inspired to write a 100-year history of China through the eyes of three women – her grandmother (the concubine of a warlord general), her mother (a communist official), and herself (born under communism in 1952).
Perhaps a space of a few years in a free country helped Jung to be able to sort out the brainwashing she received as a member of the Red Guard with the disillusionment that inevitable came to this bright and free-thinking woman. When she felt able to write again, she gave the world a beautifully written story with the help of her husband, Jon Halliday, also a writer and a historian.
Wild Swansbecame the biggest-selling non- fiction paperback in publishing history – over 10 million copies and in 37 languages. Her books are banned in China.
(On the right – Jung at age 6.)
As a teenager Chang was indoctrinated into communism along with everyone from her generation. She was 14 when the Cultural Revolution started. Though she tried to maintain loyalty to “father” Mao, she was disturbed by the violence that came with it. She was also frustrated when people, like her parents who had been extremely loyal to the Communist party began to be denounced. Why could that happen? Jung realized that it was all about power. Whoever had Mao’s backing at the time was in power and Mao knew how to cruelly and viciously play groups off against each other just to keep his control. Her father explained, “It’s a good thing not to be given permanent power. Otherwise officials will tend to abuse their power.”How true!
As a teenager Jung kept trying to justify Mao’s actions. She believed the propaganda that it was everyone around him who was at fault. There was no other source of information other than the blaring propaganda from the few radios they had. By the time she was 16 however, Jung could no longer deny the truth of the wickedness that she saw with her own eyes. She asked, “If this is a socialist paradise on earth, then what is hell?”
After writing Wild Swans, Jung with historian husband Jon Halliday wrote Mao: The Unknown Story. In this book they clearly portray Mao as the monster he was creating an unparalleled climate of fear, suspicion, and hatred. Mao differs from Hitler and Stalin in that those two European “despots were condemned in their own countries shortly after their deaths, Mao is still a holy cow in China.”
It is incredible that this woman could come out of the horror that she did and still write such a detailed story. She has my admiration.
Jung in a 2013 interview with Sabine Durrant
Jung has written a third book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. I enjoyed Wild Swansso much and I appreciated it as a well-written biography and history so I ordered Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi was maligned for 100 years just because she was a woman. I am looking forward to reading the story of this indomitable empress “who was not the brutal despot of conventional opinion but a free thinker who opened doors to the West, revolutionized the education system, abolished such cruel practices as foot-binding and ‘death by a thousand cuts’ (in which the victim was sliced up alive), and embarked upon a system of modernization, including industry, railways, the freedom of the press, women’s liberation and plans for parliamentary elections. Cixi’s last act was to poison her own stepson, to prevent his rule.”Apparently he was no good, according to Jung Chang.
Some years ago a Bible college professor helped me to love history when I began to study it through biographies. Before that I’m sure I hated history as much as anyone else. The names, dates, and places had no connection for me. As humans though, I think we love relationships and we love stories. Though many of our books on this doctoral level are more technical and a bit dry, I believe I learned as much from this book for my ministry with people as any of the others.
Jung Chang. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. New York: Touchstone, 2003. 539.
“Mao hurt me and my family but this is not my revenge” by Nigel Farndale. Interview with Jung Chang, May 22, 2005. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/1490535/Mao-hurt-me-and-my-family-but-this-is-not-my-revenge.html
Durrant, Sabine, “Jung Chang interview: why I’m still banned in China”, September 22, 2013. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10314619/Jung-Chang-interview-why-Im-still-banned-in-China.html
3 responses to “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China – Jung Chang 張戎/张戎”
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Mary, you did a good job giving an overview fo Wild Swans. I discovered the book a few years ago and it really gave me a different perspective about China. I have recommended the book several times because of its depth. Also, it is unique in that it is history though the eyes of women.
I listened to the audio book of Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang. I must admit, it was one of the most thorough biographies I have ever been exposed to. Yet, it needed to be that way because there is so much embellishment in China about Mao.
It is quite remarkable that, at the beginning of the 20th century, China was an agrarian country in disarray. By the end of that century they endured a revolution, an occupation, a world war, another revolution, lost millions in a great famine, and ended up a nuclear power.
Thank you for your view on this story. I am glad you shined a light on her ability to succeed in life. “It is incredible that this woman could come out of the horror that she did and still write such a detailed story. She has my admiration.”
There are many unspoken stories of women who have survived life’s horror and redefined their tragedy into a source of encouragement and help for others
Mary, thank God for those professors who introduce us to new insights via the windows through which they themselves viewed the world. To inspire someone as that professor inspired you is a great gift seldom realized.