“Let me become a cat or a dog, but not a woman”
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.” 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. 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.” 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.” 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.” 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….”  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.”
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.
 Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, (New York: Touchstone, 2003), 67.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 129.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 189.
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 202-203.