Wild Swans (Chang)

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Jung Chang, 1991
Simon & Schuster
544 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780743246989

Blending the intimacy of memoir and the panoramic sweep of eyewitness history, Wild Swans has become a bestselling classic in thirty languages, with more than ten million copies sold.

The story of three generations in twentieth-century China, it is an engrossing record of Mao's impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love.

Jung Chang describes the life of her grandmother, a warlord's concubine; her mother's struggles as a young idealistic Communist; and her parents' experience as members of the Communist elite and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution. Chang was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a "barefoot doctor," a steelworker, and an electrician.

As the story of each generation unfolds, Chang captures in gripping, moving—and ultimately uplifting—detail the cycles of violent drama visited on her own family and millions of others caught in the whirlwind of history. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—March 25, 1952
 Where—Yibin, Sichuan Province, China 
Education—Ph.D., York University (UK) 
Currently—lives in London

Jung Chang is a Chinese-born British writer now living in London, best known for her family autobiography Wild Swans, selling over 10 million copies worldwide but banned in mainland China.

Her 832-page biography of Mao Zedong, Mao: The Unknown Story, written with her husband, the British historian Jon Halliday, was published in June 2005 and is a highly critical description of Mao Zedong's life and work.

Early life
Chang was born March 25, 1952 in Yibin, Sichuan Province, China. Her parents were both Communist Party of China officials, and her father was greatly interested in literature. She quickly developed a love of reading and writing, composing poetry as a child.

As Party cadres, life was relatively good for her family at first; her parents worked hard, and her father became successful as a propagandist at a regional level. His formal ranking was as a "level 10 official", meaning that he was one of 20,000 or so most important cadres, or ganbu, in the country. The Communist Party provided her family with a dwelling in a guarded, walled compound, a maid and chauffeur, as well as a wet-nurse and nanny for the children. This level of privilege in China's relatively impoverished 1950s was extraordinary.

Her given name, Er-hong ("Second Swan"), sounded like the Chinese word for "faded red". As communists were "deep red", the young Er-hong, at the age of 12, asked her father to give her a new name. She wanted a name with "a military ring to it." He suggested "Jung", which means "martial affairs."

Like many of her peers, Chang chose to become a Red Guard at the age of 14, during the early years of the Cultural Revolution. In Wild Swans she said she was "keen to do so", "thrilled by my red armband". In her memoirs, Chang states that she refused to participate in the attacks on her teachers and other Chinese, and she left after a short period as she found the Red Guards too violent.

The Cultural Revolution
The failures of the Great Leap Forward had led her parents to oppose Mao Zedong's policies, though not him by name. They were targeted during the Cultural Revolution, as most high-ranking officials were. When Chang's father criticized Mao by name, Chang writes in Wild Swans that this exposed them to retaliation from Mao Zedong's supporters. Her parents were publicly humiliated — ink was poured over their heads, they were forced to wear placards denouncing them around their necks, kneel in gravel and to stand outside in the rain — followed by imprisonment, her father's treatment leading to lasting physical and mental illness. Their careers were destroyed, and her family was forced to leave their home.

Before her parents' denunciation and imprisonment, Chang had unquestioningly supported Mao and criticized herself for any momentary doubts.But by the time of his death, her respect for Mao, she writes, had been destroyed. She wrote that when she heard he had died, she had to bury her head in the shoulder of another student to pretend she was grieving.

The Chinese seemed to be mourning Mao in a heartfelt fashion. But I wondered how many of their tears were genuine. People had practiced acting to such a degree that they confused it with their true feelings. Weeping for Mao was perhaps just another programmed act in their programmed lives.

Jung Chang's depiction of the Chinese people as having been "programmed" by Maoism would ring forth in her subsequent writings.

The disruption of the university system by the Red Guards led Chang, like most of her generation, away from the political maelstroms of the academy. Instead, she spent several years as a peasant, a barefoot doctor (a part-time peasant doctor), a steelworker and an electrician, though she received no formal training because of Mao's policy, which did not require formal instruction as a prerequisite for such work

The universities were eventually re-opened and she gained a place at Sichuan University to study English, later becoming an assistant lecturer there. After Mao's death, she passed an exam which allowed her to study in the West, and her application to leave China was approved once her father was politically rehabilitated.

Leaving China
Chang left China in 1978 to study in Britain on a government scholarship, staying first in Soho, London. She later moved to Yorkshire, studying linguistics at the University of York with a scholarship from the university itself, living in Derwent College. She received her Ph.D. in linguistics from York in 1982, becoming the first person from the People's Republic of China to be awarded a Ph.D. from a British university.

She has also been awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Buckingham, the University of York, the University of Warwick, and the Open University. She lectured for some time at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before retiring in the 1990s to concentrate on her writing.

In 2003, Jung Chang wrote a new foreword to Wild Swans, describing her early life in Britain and explaining why she wrote the book. Having lived in China during the 1960s and 1970s, she found Britain exciting. After the initial culture-shock, she soon grew to love the country, especially its diverse range of culture, literature and arts. She found even colourful window-boxes worth writing home about — Hyde Park and the Kew Gardens were inspiring. She took every opportunity to watch Shakespeare's plays in both London and York. However she still has a special place for China in her heart, saying in an interview with HarperCollins, "I feel perhaps my heart is still in China."

Chang lives in West London with her husband, the British historian Jon Halliday, who specializes in Soviet history. She regularly visits mainland China to see her family and friends there, with permission from the Chinese authorities, despite carrying out research on her biography of Mao there.

The publication of Jung Chang's first book Wild Swans made her a celebrity. Chang's unique style, using a personal description of the life of three generations of Chinese women to highlight the many changes that the country went through, proved to be highly successful. Large numbers of sales were generated, and the book's popularity led to it being sold around the world and translated into several languages.

Chang became a popular figure for talks about Communist China, and she has travelled across Britain, Europe, America, as well as the rest of the world. She returned to the University of York on June 14, 2005 to address the university's debating union and spoke to an audience of over 300, most of whom were students. The BBC invited her onto the panel of Question Time for a first-ever broadcast from Shanghai on 10 March 2005, but she was unable to attend when she broke her leg a few days beforehand. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
Bursting with drama, heartbreak and horror, this extraordinary family portrait mirrors China's century of turbulence. Chang's grandmother, Yu-fang, had her feet bound at age two and in 1924 was sold as a concubine to Beijing's police chief. Yu-fang escaped slavery in a brothel by fleeing her "husband'' with her infant daughter, Bao Qin, Chang's mother-to-be. Growing up during Japan's brutal occupation, free-spirited Bao Qin chose the man she would marry, a Communist Party official slavishly devoted to the revolution. In 1949, while he drove 1000 miles in a jeep to the southwestern province where they would do Mao's spadework, Bao Qin walked alongside the vehicle, sick and pregnant (she lost the child). Chang, born in 1952, saw her mother put into a detention camp in the Cultural Revolution and later "rehabilitated." Her father was denounced and publicly humiliated; his mind snapped, and he died a broken man in 1975. Working as a "barefoot doctor" with no training, Chang saw the oppressive, inhuman side of communism. She left China in 1978 and is now director of Chinese studies at London University. Her meticulous, transparent prose radiates an inner strength.
Publishers Weekly

(Audio version.) Wild Swans is a memoir of three generations of women growing up in 20th-century China. Chang, the author, is the final link in this chain. The story reads like the sweeping family sagas of genre fiction but rises far above the norm. The characters are well drawn, the events are riveting, and the story teaches lessons of history as well as lessons of the heart. It also allows listeners to visit a world unfamiliar to most Westerners. The author brings memories of a foreign life and illuminates them with graceful prose. The narration by Anna Massey is excellent, as are the production values. This is a good choice for public libraries as well as academic libraries with a popular listening component. Multicultural collections will also benefit from this recording. —Jacqueline Smith, Philadelphia Coll. of Pharmacy & Science Lib.
Library Journal

An exceptional tribute to three generations of courageous and articulate Chinese women: the grandmother, born in 1909 into a still feudal society; the mother, a Communist official and then "enemy of the people''; and the daughter, the author, raised during the reactionary Cultural Revolution, then sent abroad in 1978, when the story ends, to study in England, where she now, at age 39, serves as Director of Chinese Studies for External Services, Univ. of London. In recounting her grandmother's early life—the binding of her feet, her time as the concubine of a warlord, her escape with her infant daughter after his death, and her marriage to a respectable middle-class doctor—Chang provides a vivid picture of traditional China and the place of women before the Communist Revolution. After the Revolution, the position of women rose: Chang's mother, who grew up during the Japanese occupation and married a Maoist guerrilla soldier, bore five children while enduring the discipline and hardship of those early revolutionary years, and later, as a civil servant and wife of an official, acquired in the new government status and advantages, especially education for her children. Raised in this "Privileged Cocoon" between 1958-65, Chang was protected from the injustices that led to the Cultural Revolution—the purges, repression, public denunciations and humiliations, the confusing and arbitrary shifts in ideology that led ultimately to the conviction of her parents, idealistic but old-time Communists, as "enemies of the people." As part of her "re-education," Chang was sent to the countryside to live as a peasant, serving without any training as a doctor and then as an electrician before being sent abroad. A valuable historical perspective on the impact of Mao on traditional Chinese culture and character—as well as an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world. Mostly, however, Chang offers an inspiring story of courage, sensitivity, intelligence, loyalty, and love, told objectively, without guilt or recrimination, in an unassuming and credible documentary style.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. All three of the women at the center of Wild Swans display great courage, often to a stunning extent — speaking out in times of enforced unanimity, facing firing squads, risking their lives for the sake of others. Compare the kinds of bravery they exemplified. Does one stand out as particularly courageous?

2. The 20th century could rightly be called an era of violence in China, and the lives of these three women were indeed remarkably touched by brutality. Although none was violent by nature, all three were witnesses to — and sometimes victims of — naked savagery, to the extent that it may have begun to seem almost mundane. How did it affect their lives, and specifically their political feelings?

3. The women of Wild Swans lived through an era of such upheaval that they were constantly being called upon to pledge allegiance to a new regime or a new leading figure, each one distant from their day-to-day lives, and each usually claiming to be more "revolutionary" or diehard than the one before. What was the effect of this disorientation? Did the women ever show a sense of political or spiritual homelessness?

4. For each of the principal figures in this book, romantic love was strictly controlled and radically circumscribed — and yet such feelings played a powerful role. How did the politicization of the deeply personal affect the lives recounted in Wild Swans? At what cost did these men and women pursue love?

5. Familial love was also the object of close government scrutiny and control in the last century, despite the historical importance of the clan in Chinese tradition. Particularly watchful was the Communist regime, which stipulated heavy penalties for "putting family first." The key players in Wild Swans often found themselves caught in the middle between concern for their loved ones and the social and political demands placed on them. Discuss the range of ways in which they reacted to this tension.

6. Ceremony, pageantry and ritual have been important elements of Chinese culture for millennia. As the author notes, it was not uncommon even in the 20th century for a family to bankrupt themselves to put on an impressive wedding or funeral. Did prevailing attitudes about ceremony seem to change over the course of the narrative in Wild Swans? What attitudes did the individual women appear hold on the subject?

7. After the decidedly mixed Kuomintang era (not to mention the brief occupations in the North by the Soviets and Japanese), the advent of Communism was embraced by the author's parents. Soon Jung Chang herself, born during the early years of the CCP, was swept up in the widespread fervor. But seeds of doubt slowly begin to appear in the book. What do you think were the key moments in Jung Chang's and her parents' changes of heart? Why?

8. For obvious reasons, Jung Chang's tale bears the most details, reported feelings and other personal touches. Describe her psychological growth or transformation during the course of her young life. Did you feel she reported her thoughts honestly? Did you ever applaud her choices? Did you ever disapprove?

9. Wild Swans is a work of biography and autobiography with many novelistic elements. It is also, however, a valuable work of 20th-century Chinese history. What did you learn about the country from reading it? If you knew the basic outline of the history, did anything strike you freshly because of the personal narrative approach?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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