Wild Swans by Jung Chang is a revealing look inside what real life was like in China during Mao’s reign. At the time of it’s publishing, details of life in Mao’s China were still coming to light. Chang’s family story was a disturbing tale of life in closed communist world. Its biographical and auto-biographical in that she writes about her maternal grandmother, her mother and then transitions to writing about herself. I feel silly writing about this as this probably pretty common knowledge to our colleague Greg, we should be learning from him in this context. Chang dives into three different normal, but revealing stories of stories she was intimately familiar with. Some of the most engaging parts of the book were the bizarre insights into a world so foreign than our own. Talking about Warlords and concubines in the 20th century was so alien to me, as it sounded more like a biblical narrative from the Old Testament.
Through Chang’s family’s story we see some core values of the Chinese at that time, some of which are less important to the American mindset. One of Chang’s greatest themes in her book is. That is, both the importance of keeping loyalty, and the rejection of it. Loyalty one one hand is what kept the family together and alive through horrendous and inhumane treatment. And yet Loyalty is what brought so much pain and misguided revolution in China. It also is what slowed down change in China, for fear of speaking against one whom you should be loyal to. Chang writes as if loyalty and honor are valued above all else in the Chinese territory that Chang writes about.
One of the most pivotal moments for Chang was when her father, who had given his life to the communist party and did his duty was soon betrayed and forgotten by his own people. What did loyalty do for him? Chang realizes and begins to see her upbringing for what is really was, slowly in her life. Not that it was the west that enlightened her as much as she was able to step outside the system to get a full look of what it is. Like a man who only slowly comes to the realization in his adult years that he was in fact abused as a child, Chang begins experiences a drawn out epiphany of her young life in China.
The read should realize though, that the stories told here in this book are obviously selected and curated on purpose by the author to convey a message. The message being told through Wild Swans comes from Chang’s frustrations, deconstructions and rejection against the way she was brought up. Despite loyalty being emphasized over and over again, we have the three wild swans rejecting the conformity of the way of life that they inherited. Despite living in still severe limitations, they rebelled where they could. Chang writes herself, her mother and her grandmother as Beautiful and trying to be free, in some form or another. They were wild swans.
What can we do with this? First I feel a deep sense of humility. It makes me walk with meekness. I have a greater realization, as I prepare for China, of walking into a system where there is so much background and pain and cultural nuances and historically significant names & events that I know nothing about it. I’m reminded of walking into Capetown and feeling the weight of a system so large that still has its lasting effects sunk into a people. It makes me want to walk in and should I ever get the opportunity, minister at a much slower slower pace.