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.” 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.” 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.’”
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.” 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.
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.