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Indeed, the years have made her more courageous. She spent a decade writing a devastating biography on Chairman Mao with her husband, historian Jon Halliday.
Mao: The Unknown Story, published in 2005, uncovered evidence that proved for the first time Mao was as evil as Stalin and Hitler. He was, she concludes, responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million people during the Cultural Revolution.
Now, as China once more hits the headlines with Communist Party apparatchik Bo Xilai banned from the party and his wife, Gu, arrested under suspicion of murdering a British businessman, Chang is taking her work to new audiences.
Experiences: Jung Chang, Wild Swans author, pictured in 1958 aged six, left, grew up in China under Chairman Mao, but has now lived in Notting Hill, West London for more than two decades
‘I am very pleased,’ she says with modest dignity. ‘I’m happy to see Wild Swans transformed into another art form.
'I went to the opening night on Friday and they have all done a very good job.‘One has to judge it as a play and not as a book or the story of my family. It wouldn’t be fair to see it that way. Wild Swans is an epic in that it covers a century over 600 pages.
'The play spans 30 years and concentrates on the story of my mother and father. It evokes the Maoist period very well. People can learn what the country and life was like.’
Banned: Wild Swans by Jung Chang has been translated into 30 languages and has sold 13¿million copies but is still banned in the country of her birth
Wild Swans did this two decades ago. For many in the West, it was their first insight into life under the Chinese Communist Party and it couldn’t have been more shocking.
At the core is the story of Chang, her mother, De-hong, and grandmother, Yu-fang, but it is also one of the greatest testimonies to the horrors of life in 20th Century China.
Chang’s father, a committed Communist, was driven insane from continued persecution. She watched him die, his spirit broken, his beliefs in tatters.
This is Chang’s personal story but it is much more than that – it is a chronicle of missing history that Mao sought to wipe out through his book-burning and propaganda.
While audiences in the West are learning Chang’s story once more through the play, it is the young people of China she would dearly love to learn about this desperate period in their history, a period about which they are mostly oblivious.
‘Wild Swans is even more relevant now,’ she says. ‘My generation knew what Mao’s China was like – the new generation have no idea. Many don’t even know about Mao’s Great Famine. My friend’s daughter said recently, “What famine?”
Shocking: Wild Swan tapped into Jung Chang's family's experiences of life under the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Mao
‘More people travel but in China parents don’t tell their children. Politics is still dangerous, history is dangerous. That is why they steer their children towards business because that is safe.’
Chang was once optimistic that Wild Swans would be published in China. Now she’s not sure she’ll see it happen in her lifetime. ‘I have grown pessimistic now in the sense of fundamental change,’ she says.
‘I think people’s lives have improved in many small ways. The problems of day-to-day life are being tackled and that is good. But the area central to me, my book being published, has not changed and that reflects a larger problem.
‘There is no media in China. Imagine this country with no media – you’d be sent into darkness.
‘I fall into a taboo area. My writing is a minefield because my area is 20th Century history, the history of the Communist Party. I have dug at the roots and the Party doesn’t want its rotten roots exposed.’
Chang has lived in Notting Hill, West London, for more than two decades. Despite her fearless criticism of the Chinese authorities, she is allowed to visit the country whenever she wants.
She says: ‘My 81-year-old mother still lives in China. Her life has not been jeopardised because of my work. This is tremendous progress. Even people in prison, their families are not targeted.
‘I’m lucky because I have Wild Swans. China is trying to cultivate a good image with the West and they would lose sympathy if they banned me from seeing my mother. The book protects me. Also, I am not an activist. I would never go on a demonstration. I write in my study and I keep myself to myself.’
Despair: Wild Swans, which is being produced at The Young Vic theatre, spans 30 years and concentrates on the story of Jung Chang's mother and how the Cultural Revoution changed her country
Chang left China in 1978 as one of 14 students allowed to study in London for one year. ‘Before we left we were given indoctrination sessions and money to buy clothes because we had to look smart for going abroad.
There was a special shop in Beijing – The Clothes Provider For Personnel Going Abroad – where we were all provided with dark blue Mao suits. I made friends in London but before we left China we were told that if there were any Western girlfriends or boyfriends we would be carted back to China in a jute sack and drugged. I believed they would.’
While the other students returned to China, Chang was the first Chinese student to win a private scholarship to York University to study linguistics. In 1982, she graduated, the first person from China to earn a PhD from a British university.
Chang was unable to have children. For a woman who has written so movingly about her female ancestors, it seems cruel but she bears the loss with her customary dignity.
‘If I think about it, it is a source of regret but I try not to think about it. I think our books are our children.’
They are a legacy of which she can be justly proud.
l Wild Swans runs at the Young Vic until May 13.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2133357/Brave-lament-Wild-Swan-As-book-mesmerised-world-hits-London-stage-author-Jung-Chang-tells-despair-banned-China.html#ixzz3L1gh5eGp
Jung Chang quotes (showing 1-30 of 50)
“When he asked my grandmother if she would mind being poor, she said she would be happy just to have her daughter and himself: 'If you have love, even plain water is sweet.”
“If you have love, even plain cold water is sweet.”
“...go in the direction your head is pointed in.”
“As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless 'Little Match Girl'in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say:'Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”
“...boredom was as exhausting as backbreaking labor.”
“When a man gets power, even his chickens and dogs rise to heaven.”
“Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.”
“Most peasants did not miss the school.
"What's the point?" they would say.
"You pay fees and read for years, and in the end you are still a peasant, earning your food with your sweat. You don't get a grain of rice more for being able to read books. Why waste time and money?
ild Swans is a memoir of three generations of Chinese women - the author herself, her mother and her grandmother. However it is also the story of the creation of modern China, from a country steeped in tradition to one of terror, betrayal and hunger. It is a family saga, a love story, a historical document and a tale of determination all rolled into one. In a world where children were encouraged to inform on their parents, the bonds formed within the Chang family fill you with hope. In a world where Mao was everything, the courage shown by the family fills you with admiration. And in a world where love was dishonourable, the love shared between Chang's parents restores your faith in humanity. This book is compulsively readable; despite the tragedy evoked, it leaves you with an abiding memory of the strength of the human spirit. What they said ȭmensely moving and unsettling; an unforgettable portrait of the brain-death of a nation. - '97 The Sunday Times 'A quite exceptional book. Jung Chang is the classic storyteller, describing in measured tones the almost unbelievable. - '97 London Review of Books . extraordinary tale, a loving family saga told against a background of chaos and death rarely equalled in this century. Wild Swans is about how people cope with the unimaginable, and how some, in spite of the horror, manage to remain human. It is a remarkable book. - '97 New Statesman Ȧ you care at all about the history of China in the twentieth century - or even if you donᲬ come to think of it - Wild Swans is riveting. It's blindingly good: a mad adventure story, a fairy tale of courage, a tall tale of atrocities and incidentally a meditation on how men will never understand women and vice versa. This is calm and measured history, but it reads like a bestseller. You canᲬ as they say, put it down. - '97 New York Newsday Starting points Does the book succeed in being primarily a memoir rather than a historical document? How does the book convey the horror of Communist China? What is your abiding memory of the book? How do you view the relationship between Chang's parents; What do you admire/dislike about the family's attitude to their problems? About the author Jung Chang was born in Yibin, Sichuan Province, China, in 1952. She was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen and then worked as a peasant, a ࡡrefoot doctor, a steelworker, and an electrician before becoming an English-language student and, later, an assistant lecturer at Sichuan University. She left China for Britain in 1978 and was subsequently awarded a scholarship by York University, where she obtained a PhD in Linguistics in 1982 - the first person from the People's Republic of China to receive a doctorate from a British university. Jung Chang lives in London and teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. Wild Swans is her first book, winning the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year Award.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book.
- I thought to myself that this must be exaggeration. I expected the book to be interesting; I wanted to find out more about China’s recent history and I was sure it would be interesting to read what it was like to live through the cultural revolution, but I didn’t think its importance would be more than a bit of human interest. I was wrong: the quote is right on the money. This book is important especially if you’re like me and thought that you understood enough about China. I thought that I knew what the cultural revolution was about. I thought it was just some craziness in which doctors, administrators and other professionals were sent to work in the fields. What I had no idea about was what it was really like for the people involved. I had also thought that the Chinese government was uniformly bad, responsible as it has been for the invasion of Tibet and gross human rights violations. While that is true, it seems that, like many things, the truth is more complex than it first appears.
But this book is more than just dry historical fact - it packs an emotional punch that is hard to overstate. Not only is great suffering described but also great courage and bravery. I often found myself wondering how I would have acted if I found myself in similar situations to the author’s parents and whether I would have the courage to act as they did.
The book opens in 1909 with the birth of the author’s grandmother Chang Yu-fang. Life in China at that time was hard. The country was controlled by warring warlords, there was no legal system and unless you were rich or an official you had very little security. There were extremes of wealth and poverty. For women, who were treated more as possessions than people, life was harder still. Marriages were arranged and contact between young men and women strictly regulated by society. It was considered shameful for two young people to marry because of love because they weren’t supposed to have been able to have enough contact to enable them to fall in love. Yu-fang is born to a man, Yang Ru-shan, who’s ambition is to become a police official and thereby obtain a live of relative security and luxury. His parents have sacrificed almost everything to give him an education and they arrange his marriage to a woman (Er-ya-tou: literally "number two daughter") six years his senior so that she can teach him about life. Yu-fang is born a year or so after the marriage. In keeping with Chinese custom at that time her feet are bound at the age of two so for the rest of her life walking is painful for her. As Yu-fang grows up as a beautiful intelligent young woman her father sees her as his chance for the good life. When a powerful warlord, General Xue, visits town, Yu-fang’s father, by this time a minor official, arranges for him to meet his daughter as if by accident. The warlord, already married, asks to take Yu-fang as a concubine. Ru-shan eagerly agrees and uses the money and influence he obtains in this way to become a senior police official and obtain two concubines of his own. He despises his wife and, though he later has another daughter and a son by her, he treats her harshly and earns the hatred of his own children.
Meanwhile Yu-fang has a lonely life. After just seven days with her new husband she is left in a house by herself and forbidden to leave even to visit her own family. It is years before the warlord returns and she conceives a child, De-hong, the author’s mother who is born in 1931. Although he has been married for years this is General Xue’s first child and when the baby girl is a year old he orders Yu-fang to move to his main house where he lives with his wives. On arriving with her sister, Yu-fang finds that Xue’s first wife intends to take her child and claim her as her own. Yu-fang is victimised by the other wives and General Xue’s health deteriorates. No able to take any more abuse and not allowed to see her own daughter Yu-fang is driven to steal her daughter back, together with her sister and child she escapes back to her home town and goes into hiding in the home of an old schoolfriend.
After General Xue dies, Yu-fang marries Dr. Xia, the head of the household where she was in hiding, a wealthy and successful doctor and a man thirty-nine years older than her. Dr Xia’s children not wanting to kowtow to a woman younger than them protest vociferously. Matters deteriorate until Dr Xia’s eldest son shoots himself in protest. Finally, Dr Xia abandons his home to his children and him, Yu-fang and De-hong move to the nearby town of Jinzhou where they live in poverty under the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Life under the Japanese is harsh and De-hong sees people she knows, including a close friend, executed by them.
After the Japanese are driven out of Manchuria at the end of the second world war the region comes under the control of the Western-backed Kuomintang. At first things seem better, but the Kuomintang are no better than the old warlords and while the common people starve during food shortages the officers and officials enjoyed lavish banquets. After the end of the second world war the truce ends between the communists and the Kuomintang and the civil war that was interrupted by the fight against the Japanese continues. The kuomontang crack down on possible dissidents and spies. It is in this environment of mistrust and insecurity that grows into a young independent woman. She is almost married into the wealthy Liu family but Dr. Xia, though favouring the marriage, allows De-hong to decide for herself - for his time (and age) this was very liberal of him. De-hong chooses to enter a teacher training college and becomes a student activist in response the the repression and brutality around her.
She finds herself drawn to communist propaganda and becomes involved with one of the cells operating in Jinzhou. It is in this way that she meets the author’s father, Wang Shou-yu, a highly educated young man who leads a communist guerrilla cell operating near Jinzhou. They meet and fall in love in spite of the disapproval of Yu-fang who favours Liu’s son. The communist capture of Jinzhou greatly impresses the townspeople because it was the first time that a conquering army had treated people respectfully without any rape or pillage. The communists encourage the peasants to sell food to the starving townspeople and generally give the apperance of treating people fairly.
The years that follow, from 1949 to to about 1955, showed me a face of the communists that I hadn’t expected. Food is fairly distributed. Women experience more freedom than before and the government in mostly fair and even handed. Although times are sometimes hard at least there is a fair distribution of resources - this is huge improvement compared to the extremes of poverty and decadence witnessed in previous regimes. Life seems good and seems to confirm the faith of the author’s mother and father in the party and the communist system. Although both Shou-yu and De-hong believe strongly in the government there is a crucial difference between them: De-hong believes that family should come first whereas Shou-yu believes that he, as a highly placed administrator, must be completely even-handed even though it might be contrary to the interests of his wife and family (for example at one time he denies drugs to his wife because he wishes some stock at the hospital to be available for others). This is sometimes a cause for tension between them; although many people are greatly impressed by Shou-yu’s fairness.
However, the good times do not last. Even in the early days there are campaigns to identify "counter revolutionaries" - although relatively mild at the beginning these become more and more intense and culminate in the insanity of the cultural revolution. The various campaigns provide opportunities for people to settle grudges by denouncing their enemies and this is eventually how Shou-yu and De-hong fall from grace.
The author documents cases in which the Mao administration asks for comments and criticism and then punishes anyone who speaks up. The almost constant witch hunts meant that instead of needing a vast secret police network as in the Soviet Union the Mao administration relied on ordinary citizens to inform on one another.
The most enduring impression is their courage in a society characterised by extreme cruelty. Without a hint of bitterness, Chang describes the footbinding intended to make women of her grandmother’s generation more attractive to their husbands, leaving them permanently mutilated, barely able to walk.
She recounts the heart-breaking optimism of her mother, an idealistic young revolutionary who devoted her life to the Party only to spend years under suspicion, house arrest or undergoing re-education in a forced labour camp.
As the true face of communism revealed itself, she was subject to brutal beatings including being forced to kneel on broken glass as a punishment for disobedience to the Party.
Two of the events that illustrate the madness of the Mao regime are the â˜Great Leap Forwardâ™ and the â˜Cultural Revolutionâ™. The great leap forward occurred during the author’s childhood and she describes how every organisation from schools to offices to hospitals was drafted to help create steel. Each maintained a furnace which had to be kept alight. Iron was scavenged from every possible source (woks, bed springs, iron railings, rusty nails) and millions of people basically stopped their normal jobs in order to search for iron to put in the furnaces and ensure that the furnace temperature didn’t fall. Surgeons would interrupt operations in order to put more fuel in the furnaces such was peoples’ fear of being seen not to be committed to the great leap forward. Even as a six year-old schoolgirl, the author had a quota to fill. Official estimates were that 100 million peasants were pulled off agricultural duty in order to make steel thereby setting the scene for a disastrous famine. People went along with this craziness due to the fervour inspired by the cult of Mao and also fear of being beaten if they were not seen to contribute.
Then came the cultural revolution and, despite being exemplary officials Shou-yu and De-hong were in their turn denounced by people who bore grudges against them. Shou-yu’s books were taken and burnt by student gangs completly ignorant of whether the books were counterrevolutionary or not (in fact since Shou-yu was still a believer in the party the books certainly weren’t counter revolutionary). They had to attend meetings in which they were publicaly humiliated and sometimes beaten. Shou-yu, the author’s father was denounced and forced to work in a labour camp far from his family. De-hong took great risks by visting Beijing to plead his case eventually winning her husband’s release but not before his health was ruined. Meanwhile the author still believes in Mao, even though some acts by the government are obviously wrong she tends to attribute them to others and not to Mao who received godlike adoration. For a while the author works in an agricultural commune, then as a â˜barefoot doctorâ™ (for which she receives no medical training) and finally in a factory as an electrician.
Mao and his wife demonstrated a complete contempt for humand life as demonstrated in 1976 when an earthquake killed 242 thousand people. Mrs Mao said
There were merely several hundred thousands deaths. So what? Denouncing Deng Xiaoping concerns eight hundred million people.
After the death of Mao when Deng Xiaoping returns to power he liberalises the government and life becomes easier and the government more sane. Many "class enemies" are rehabilitated. All the damming entries in De-hong’s file describing suspected Kuomintang connections were thrown out and burnt. The author regards Deng as a hero and so it is all the more shocking for her when Deng oversees the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The version of the book that I read has 676 pages and so this review has, necessarily, only skimmed the surface of the contents and in doing so does not convery the strong emotional punch of the events the book describes, In summary, this book is very much worth reading because, in spite of the horror and cruelty described, the courage and resilience shown by the author’s family in particular Yu-fang, her grandmother, Shou-yu, her father and De-hong, her mother is uplifting and inspiring. Another important reason for reading this book is it serves as object lesson of what can happen when a totalitarian government gains power and should make us ever more careful of who we allow to govern us and especially wary of political and religious extremists of any kind.
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