- Paperback: 538 pages
- Publisher: Touchstone; Reprint edition (August 12, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0743246985
- ISBN-13: 978-0743246989
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.5 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 1,203 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,194 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China Paperback – August 12, 2003
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Carolyn See Newsday Wild Swans is riveting. It's blindingly good: a mad adventure story, a fairy tale of courage, and a tale of atrocities. You can't, as they say, put it down.
The New Yorker 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.
Time A mesmerizing memoir.
"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
Jung Chang was born in Yibin, Sichuan Province, China, in 1952. She left China for Britain in 1978 and obtained a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of York in 1982, the first person from the People’s Republic of China to receive a doctorate from a British university. She lives in London with her husband, Jon Halliday, with whom she wrote Mao: The Unknown Story.
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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.
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.
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.