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Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China Paperback – August 12, 2003
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"Her family chronicle resembles a popular novel that stars strong, beautiful women and provides cameo roles for famous men....But Wild Swans is no romance. It's a story...about the survival of a Chinese family through a century of disaster.", The New Yorker
"A mesmerizing memoir.", Time
"An inspiring tale of women who survived every kind of hardship, deprivation and political upheaval with their humanity intact." --Hillary Clinton, O, The Oprah Magazine
"An inspiring tale of women who survived every kind of hardship, deprivation and political upheaval with their humanity intact." , Hillary Clinton, O, The Oprah Magazine
About the Author
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The author Jung Chang, who emigrated to London, also describes the joy of literature, beauty in architecture and nature, travel, and participation in a free and open society that I myself experience and, I fear, take for granted.
I recommend this book to anyone who has family members who left China during the Cultural Revolution, to anyone whose mother and grandmothers have been strong positive influences in their life, and to all who want to recognize and learn about the destructive effects of being trapped in an authoritarian regime.
I've come to "Wild Swans" late, learning of it only recently from a friend who lived in China awhile teaching English. Ordinarily averse to reading books others recommend to me (don't really know why) this time it worked, in part I suspect because my friend in describing some of the fascinating revelations it contained tugged back the hem of a curtain I hadn't realized was blocking my view of a land and a culture far beyond anything I had imagined. Many of the handful of disappointed readers bemoaned that "Wild Swans" didn't excite them, didn't have enough dialogue to suit their taste for action. They compared the book to works of fiction or fictionalized biographies. They must have missed the parts describing the incomprehensible horrors the Japanese committed on the Chinese in World War II, and then by the Chinese themselves in the subsequent struggles for political control and ultimately by the prevailing Communist Party and by the regime headed by Mao Zedong, a certifiable madman who relentlessly set his subjects against each other by the millions, urging them to torture and beat each other to death and drive one another to insanity and suicide.
I'm surprised anyone who claims to have been bored by author Jung Chang's descriptions of such horrific atrocities as "singing fountains", in which Red Guards split victims' heads open to entertain onlookers with the subsequent screaming and geysers of blood can read at all. Or maybe they miss the dramatic foreground music that prompts them to glance up from their cellphones in time to catch violent depictions on their wide-screen TVs.
Jung Chang builds her story, an account of China's tumultuous history during the 20th century, around the lives of three generations of women - her grandmother, mother and herself, the "wild swans" of the title. Eventually allowed to leave her politically oppressive homeland for England as a visiting scholar, she began writing "Wild Swans" after a visit of several months from her mother. Finally free of the restrictions to talk about anything that might be perceived as showing China in a negative light, Jung Chang's mother starting telling her daughter things she'd bottled up most of her life. She talked almost nonstop, even when she couldn't be with her daughter. Jung Chang said her mother left some 60 hours of taped narrative before returning to China. I could go on for pages describing the horrors these women suffered and the incredible heroism they displayed under conditions brought about by the most wicked behavior the human species has ever displayed.
This statement is bound to arouse suspicion that I'm a political shill or at least am exaggerating beyond reason, but from reading "Wild Swans" I can say with complete confidence that Mao Zedong was a genius of the most evil design ever seen on the planet. If only for the sheer magnitude of Mao's murderous subjugation of China's hundreds of millions, Hitler and Stalin were pipsqueaks in comparison. As Jung Chang observed, Hitler and Stalin relied on elites and secret police to enforce their totalitarian regimes. Mao cowed and brainwashed his subjects with cunning, bringing out their worst instincts toward service without question of his every whim. One consequence was the starvation of millions during a famine brought about solely by Mao's vanity and ignorance.
My vague, naïve sense of China left me woefully unprepared for Jung Chang's deceptively dispassionate revelations. Her straightforward, uncontrived presentation, which has a diary feel at times, gives the horrors she describes a poignance that wrenches the heart. Not that all is ghastly and bleak. Alongside the indelible image of the "singing fountains" is her childhood remembrance of having deliberately swallowed an orange seed. A family member had warned her not to swallow the seeds or orange trees would grow out of her head. She admitted having trouble getting to sleep that night worrying about it.
I prefer this memory to the other, although I know both will ever remain with me.
This is a must-read book. I don’t know how I missed it earlier. It is good literature and it is important history. The author has created an intimate and loving portrait of a close-knit family of individuals with strong character and ideals living in a world often dominated by petty and vengeful characters – taken to an extreme of horror under Mao’s malevolent Cultural Revolution. Written in a straightforward, highly observant and detailed style, it creates a powerful history of that period.
The theme of surviving in a petty and jealous environment shows up early on. The grandmother grew up with bound feet as her father schemed to marry her to a warlord general. As the warlord’s concubine “wife” she rarely saw him, but bore him a daughter, and was later hounded by jealous other wives and concubines. After his death she married the well-respected Dr. Xia. To escape his jealous family, they moved away with her daughter leaving all his property and money behind. Living simply, they sheltered others in the threatening climate of the Japanese occupation and then the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-Shek.
The mother grew up sensitive and outspoken. Chang carefully sets the stage for her parents’ engagement in Communism, and she delicately paints the picture of her well-educated father’s stubborn adherence to ideals and the difficulties experienced from it. They had five children (the author being second). As Communist values prevailed, the children were sent to live in nurseries, but eventually as elite revolutionary leaders they were allowed to live as a family and for a few years the children had schooling and relative security. But the mother’s past history of helping the wrong people and the father’s defiance brought downfall.
Along with millions, they became victims of the Cultural Revolution. Chang provides a detailed account of this horrifying period in history and how the pettiness and jealousy of people was turned into a weapon. Mao’s programs had plunged the country into poverty and famine. Corrective measures taken by other Communist leaders helped end the famine, but then Mao took revenge and solidified his leadership by removing all former party members and arranging for their detention and torture. Gangs of youth (Red Guard) were formed to attack the enemies of the people and ran rampant through the streets. People were encouraged to inform on each other. Family histories were examined for any previous links contrary to Mao. Books were burned, schools were closed, and Mao propaganda was pushed through loudspeakers and reading material.
Her parents were imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured. It was largely through her mother’s courage and resourcefulness that the family was held together and able to avoid the worst tortures, navigating through those who would turn on them and those who would help. This is also a story of Jung awakening. She describes herself as an unquestioning follower of Mao, as one of many who saw the leader as almost a god, while being distraught at the events around her. And then she relates how her eyes and mind began to open, to see and to question.
To me this book has tremendous value in that it renders in intimate detail what it was like living in China under Mao, recording a history of how people of all classes suffered and died needlessly during his regime. And further, it has the literary value of relating delicate intricacies of living under such a regime and managing to maintain dignity and live one’s values.
Top international reviews
Wild Swans is the true history of three generations of women living through the nightmare that is modern Chinese history. One is the author herself, the second is her mother, an earnest Communist and the third is her grandmother, who was married off as a concubine to a warlord as a girl and lived to see her family suffer for this unfortunate connection again and again.
I knew nothing about Chinese history before venturing into this book and the truth of what happened shocked me. This whole book is hard to review, it’s depressing, uplifting, gruesome, horrific and loving. It’s a story of strength and endurance. The writing flows well and the characters are well defined. There are a few things that are repeated and I felt like it was a bit longer than it needed to be.
I think that if you have an interest in China, Chinese people, Chinese history, or Chinese politics then this book will be a must-read for you but if you just have a passing interest, then this book might be more than you need.
Despite this litany of catastrophe, there is hope in the love and closeness of the family, centred here around the three eponymous amazing and strong-minded women. After the death of her warlord "husband", who treated her fairly decently by the standards of the time, the grandmother found happiness married to a much older man; the mother found love with a fellow communist and, despite strains caused by her husband's principled but rigid puritanism, their marriage survived their vicious denunciations by Red Guards and others at the appalling mass meetings, and their imprisonment in labour camps until the early 1970s. The physical and mental strains of years of humiliation and subjection to forced labour and psychological pressures, killed the author's father at the age of only 54 in 1975. In the relatively more relaxed atmosphere of the later 1970s, especially after the restoration to power of Deng Xiaoping, the future paramount leader in the 80s and 90s, the author was able to study abroad and the lives of her mother and other family members, as well as that of hundreds of millions of other Chinese, improved dramatically, albeit within the framework of what remains of course a one party communist state. The afterword recounts in brief the author's life in Britain and the original publication of this book in 1991 (what I have read is the 25th anniversary edition). One thing I would like to have heard a bit more about, though, was how she was able to defect to Britain after gaining her doctorate in 1982. This is a magnificent and absorbing book, with much to say about human nature at its best and worse, and the horrors that blind adherence to an ideology can bring about.
It takes a slice of social & political history, in the way that Charles Dickens did with "A Tale of Two Cities", and Alexandre Dumas with his books. You see it through the prism of three generations of a family (hence, 'three daughters of China').
The grandmother had her feet bound and was given by her father as a concubine (to further his career!); the mother (and father) suffered the brunt of recriminations during Mao's 'Cultural Revolution' (spectacular falls from grace), and the daughter finally left China (as an adult) on an English scholarship, and later settled in London.
Rowena Cooper has a beautiful voice - it reminds me of listening to Eleanor Bron's reading of "A Little Princess".
Highly, highly recommended.
This book depicts a journey in several different ways ; a journey through the generations of three women in China and how the political atmosphere of each period influenced the lives they lived and the journeys they took. It's a journey through the political landscape of China across through a tumultuous period of history and it's an individuals journey of being born into a world where Mao is revered as a God and any criticism is to put yourself in danger of being known as a class enemy. Finally, it's a journey of womanhood through the ages in such a vastly different culture, that changes and evolves, yet still manages to find ways to make individuals lives a misery. The deification of Mao is frightening to behold, not least because it is a true story and the depictions of what is undoubtedly a reign of terror are horrifyingly eye-opening.
The bravery of so many individuals within the period rings through the book, as indeed does the eventual disillusionment with Communism and Maoism. The depictions of how family life was warped and twisted in so many ways through propaganda and an insistence that the Party must come first are vivid and yet Jung Chung never allows herself to wallow in pity. Whilst the story closely follows the lives of the three main women across three generations, it is the tale of Jung Chung's father that perhaps hits the hardest and shows the cruelty and random persecution of the Chinese period. Whilst the systematic degradation of women is clear across these three generations, it is in the tale of a moral man living in a land devoid of morality that really strikes hard.
Because Jung Chang's father is an infuriating figure at the beginning of the book; when he first marries her mother, he is so indoctrinated and obsessed with the Communist cause that he will cause his family active grief in trying to avoid a charge of nepotism. I winced at how Jung Chang's mother was treated during pregnancy and childbirth and wanted to hit the man for his insensitivity and lack of care. As the tale progresses however, it is his very inflexibility and refusal to bend the rules for anyone that gets him into so much trouble with the Communist rule. He won't stand for corruption and he won't sit silent in fear of the consequences. My heart bled for him and for his family who were taking so much grief because their husband and father was a moral man, trying to live by his own moral code in a world where this was untenable.
I found the early book rather dry and almost stilting, but this may be because Jung Chang was talking of events long before her birth. The binding of her grandmother's feet for instance, whilst horrific, didn't have the same emotional impact on me as the later book where she is depicting events that are in her own memory or at least of her parents. I think this is purely due to how close to events Jung Chang was and their emotional relevance to her. If you are struggling with the first few chapters I would definitely recommend sticking with it, because this is a book that is both depressing and inspirational by turns and becomes easier to read, if not to bear, in the sections related to Jung Chang's parents.
To think we may never have been allowed to read it makes it even more worthwhile.
For Mao, communism was in effect a religion - and all were subjected to the ruthless logic of its 'faith' - to the extend of entirely denying themselves as individuals.
As a manual of totalitarian oppression, torture, mind control and social re-engineering on a massive scale it is chilling. Even the usual human under-story is missing (of people making the best of it and being nice to each other) because it was systematically sought out and destroyed.
Mao was the ultimate abuser (modelled on Stalin), creating dependency of people who would come back for more - again and again - till they were destroyed.
Somewhere in North Korea now are many people who in years to come (I hope) will be free and able to write their own narrative of suffering.
I found it so interesting to read about the lives of grandmother to granddaughter understanding how and what changes occurred during 3 generations living in China.
This book also had some historical relevance and helped me to understand from the authors perspective.
I loved reading this book and it also encouraged me to read other China related books.
May be that's the point though....its absolutely worth reading and it helped me understand why architecturally Beijing is as it is and so many buildings have disappeared.