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A well-written family memoir

Written by: on June 14, 2018

Have you ever read any James Michener novels?  Michener is a master of the historical fiction genre, and is known for taking the reader on a long journey, across generations and time, to tell the story of a place or a people. In preparing for our South Africa advance last year, I read The Covenant, which is Michener’s historically based, yet fictional story of that country.  In it, he charts the deep history and ultimate interconnectedness between English, Bantu, Colored and Boer families over the centuries.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of Chinais written in much the same mode.  Whereas Michener draws on historical facts to enhance his fictional tale, author Jung Chang draws on her own family story and traces three generations of women through a century of Chinese history.  This is a truly sweeping tale of the way a family walked through and weathered the storms and changes of 20thcentury China.  As if to highlight this point, there is a chronology included at the front of the book which lays out information synoptically about the author and her family, with the corresponding historical developments of that time.

With its rich history, huge population and large territory, China is an appropriately broad canvas on which to paint this story.  The literary device that is used for this memoir will be familiar to readers of Alex Haley’sRoots, where the particular story of one family is used to highlight the universal story of a people, or a nation.  Jung Chang is now a writer now living in Great Britain and this book is both a family history as well as a reflection back on life in China through the lens of her family over three generations.

In one incident that she relates in the book, Jung tells about her own birth and how she was given the name Er-hong, by her step-grandfather, which means “Second Wild Swan”.  Soon after her birth, her grandfather Dr. Xia died and plans were made for his funeral. She writes, “Noisemaking was considered important at a funeral to make it a public affair: this brought ‘face’ and also showed respect for the dead.”[1] As with Chan in Grassroots Asian Theology, this idea of “face” as well shame and honor, is present here in this family moment of grief.

However, Chang continues that, even though it would bring honor to have a noisy funeral procession, the family decides against musicians or chanting Buddhist monks because the Communists would regard this “as wasteful and feudal.”[2]  The ongoing presence of the Communist Party and its influence over all spheres of life is a theme throughout this book.  At one point she writes that, “In 1965, my New Year’s resolution was ‘I will obey my grandmother—a traditional Chinese way of promising to behave well. My father shook his head: ‘You should not say that. You should only say ‘I obey Chairman Mao.’”[3]

There is a struggle in the book is internal (within herself) as well as within her family, and finally, within Chinese society at large.  This ongoing tension is between fealty to the “old ways”, the family unit, and Chinese cultural traditions versus the demands of the political and governmental institutions. Every character in the book, all of her family members and those who matter most to her, are seeking to live lives within the context of the larger political and economic forces that hold sway around them.

Each of them make choices throughout this book and have to decide which concessions to make, whether small or large, to the hard realities of life.  Given that there are many intimate family details within this story, and that it is set on such a grand scale, there are certainly limitations to some of the history of the time.

One reviewer describes this as a, “quirky, ambitious, occasionally amateurish but thoroughly engrossing memoir.”[4] Indeed, this is a family story, more than it is a “history” of China in the mode of Steve Tsang.  Some important historical events, like the Korean War, make only a minor entrance into the consciousness of Chang and her family.  However, the overall effect of this book is to give the reader a tangible way to understand the larger historical events and forces of the 20thcentury in China.

I find this way of storytelling to be very effective because it draws the reader in, helps to show what the effect of “macro” policies would be in a “micro” sense.  Since China is such a large and populous nation, this is almost a necessary way to tell a story, since otherwise it could simply become “too big” to really grasp.  Chang’s prose flows along and is easy to read, and it helps that she has such an interesting story to tell.

One lingering question that I have is, to what extent the fact that Jung Chang has left China and now lives in the UK, has an affect on her writing of this book.  Although it was a 10 million copy best-seller, it was reported that this book was banned in China.  So clearly, there are parts of this story or the way it is told that the government does not like.  As with any author, or any story-teller, Chang has a point of view.  Her thinking about her home country is certainly seen through the lens of her family’s experiences and of her own.  Sometimes it helps to be outside of the home culture in order to see it in a new light.  That is probably what happened for Chang once she moved away, and is part of what happens for us as we visit and spend time in different cultural contexts as well.

[1]Jung Chung, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (New York: Touchstone, 1991), 171.

[2]Jung Chung, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (New York: Touchstone, 1991), 171.

[3]Jung Chung, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (New York: Touchstone, 1991), 265.

[4]Susan Brownmiller, review of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang, The New York Times, October 13, 1991, 120-21, https://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/13/books/when-nuances-meant-life-or-death.html.

 

About the Author

Dave Watermulder

8 responses to “A well-written family memoir”

  1. mm M Webb says:

    Dave,
    You continue to impress me with your range of academic and literary skills. Nice job doing a compare-and-contrast with Michener and linking him and Chan to the upcoming 2018 LGP Advance in HK. Have you published any books yet? Are you kin to David B Watermulder who has written several scholarly articles and published Pastoral Prayers for the People of God? Just curious because you write like an author I would read.
    How do you use Chan’s “sweeping tale” of family struggle and crisis to support your dissertation research? The book helped me peek deeper into the Asian belief and practice in the spiritual realm of gods, spirits, veneration of the dead, and how they manage their shame and honor. Great post!
    Stand firm, 站立得住
    M. Webb

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thank you, Mike!
      Yes, David B. Watermulder was my grandfather, who passed away a few years ago. I’m glad you came across his book– it was edited and published by my Dad and my Aunt. I’m not sure how Wild Swans will feature into my own research, but I do enjoy sweeping historical narratives 🙂

  2. Thank you Dave for your review. What resonated for me in your post was that we often have to hear the micro level voices to understand and give framework to the macro level realities. It helps us to remember that each one of us have a critical role to play in living out the new kingdom realities. Many micros add up to one big macro change! 😉 Have you ever heard how one butterfly who flapped his wings in the Amazon jungle created a tornado? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks, Mark–
      Yup, I think that’s the same point of emphasis for me. The butterfly effect, seen in human terms. It helps to redeem the very “small” lives that we often lead, and points us toward the greater purposes of life.

  3. Shawn Hart says:

    Dave, great post! You made a comment that I found interesting: ” Indeed, this is a family story, more than it is a “history” of China in the mode of Steve Tsang.” If we pondered this, then I would have to ask, “What is the history of a nation, if not the stories told by its people?” If I compared the notes from a Senate house meeting, and then read the life story of someone growing up on the Indian Reservation in Arizona, which do you think we would better tell part of the American story? I ask only because I was watching the news the other day, and all the government talks were really annoying me (as usual), until finally, I wanted to watch something else. The reason…I didn’t feel like it was real anymore: Fox fights with CNN; politics are biased and confusing these days and news always has a slant, but family stories of success and triumph still make you feel like you are related somehow. I guess my point, I feel like I understand history better when I see it through the eyes of the people that lived it, rather than the governments that controlled it.

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Shawn,
      I think you’re right on. All those small family stories, and individual experiences, definitely make up the tapestry of our nation’s history. At the same time, I think having some unifying narrative that holds them together, or at least helps us make sense of all the disparate parts can be helpful. The danger is, in “absolutizing” the story, as if it’s all “the same” in the end, when in reality, people have all kinds of different “American experiences”

  4. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Dave I love how you expose me to different authors than I am familiar with. You are right in about the type of book we read. It’s peculiar to me, that despite Wild Swans being banned in a China, Chang is still allowed to visit China under special permission

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Hey Kyle,
      Thanks– yea, I noticed that as well. If I was her, I’m not sure I would feel totally comfortable going back, given the circumstances… Yikes.

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