Review: ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

When I was at secondary school we had a lovely chemistry teacher who would cunningly arrange school trips to places that she really wanted to visit herself.  She organised skiing trips to Canada and America which I happily ignored, but then when I was fourteen a letter went home about a proposed trip to China.  My parents thought about it and decided that China wasn’t somewhere we would ever go on holiday as a family and so this was a great opportunity to visit an amazing country that I would never otherwise see.  So few people responded that the tour company offered to run a longer trip for us visiting places that we wouldn’t be able to go if there had been a big party, and so I spent an incredible two weeks over the Easter holiday travelling around China by overnight sleeper train and (somewhat hair-raisingly) minibus, taking in as much as we could of the vast country in such a short space of time.  Naturally, this was accompanied by a great many books on the subject, but at fourteen I hankered after stories of legendary emperors, warriors and concubines, and so Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang passed me by, being both too political and too recent to hold as much appeal.  I’m not sure what made me pick it up now (I suspect it was because I was reorganising my shelves and it struck me as a book that was taking up quite a lot of space without having been tried and tested to see if it deserved that) but whatever it was, I’m glad I did.

 Wild Swans chronicles the lives of three generations of the women of the author’s family, from 1909 to 1991.  The book begins with her grandmother, who became a concubine to a local warlord at her father’s insistence.  After the warlord’s death, she flees from his house where she has been forced to live with his other wives and concubines, taking with her her baby daughter, Jung Chang’s mother.  In spite of family disapproval, she gets married to a Manchu doctor who gives everything up to live in poverty with her. Jung Chang’s mother grows up in an area of China which is under Japanese rule and the Chinese people are considered second class citizens.  An intelligent girl, she is recruited by the Communist resistence and begins working towards a free, egalitarian China.  She falls in love with a young Communist party member and they have several children, including Jung Chang herself, but each regime change, relocation or shift of opinion brings renewed suspicions, even for those as devoted to the cause as Chang’s parents and so she grows up amid the violence, intimidation and uncertainty of the Cultural Revolution.

 This book blew me away with its scope, its attention to detail and the way that it made everything make sense.  I had a vague notion of life in Communist China before reading Wild Swans but this book made me able to see how and why everything happened, the subtle shifts and insidious changes as well as the grand sweeping ones which lead to the situation in China being what it was. 

As an outsider, I’ve only ever seen the end product, but Wild Swans makes it perfectly clear that Communism in China was a very positive thing when it set out.  Its aims were clear, its systems logical and its demands for gender and social equality admirable.  Given that Jung Chang has provided the reader with a context in which to set this by describing the story of her grandmother, sold by her father as a concubine for political and financial gain, the changes seem all the more attractive.  This is where the book excels: although Chang talks about the political changes that take place, these are inextricably linked with the very personal, relateable stories of the lives of herself and her family.  It transforms the political ideas and dictates from abstract notions into concrete things which have a real and immediate impact on the family.  It’s all well and good to read about family members being split up as the party sends them to different locations, but it makes it real and heartbreaking to read about Chang’s elderly grandmother journeying across China, largely on foot, to be with her daughter only to be sent back to her home town almost immediately, or Chang’s mother miscarrying from the harsh journeying conditions because her husband refuses to favour her by letting her ride with him in his car as she is of a lower rank than he is.

Chang manages to describe a time that is very confusing politically and to convey that turmoil and uncertainty without once confusing me as a reader.  Her prose is lucid and quite spare but very effective.  Wild Swans is the perfect blend of the personal and the political and is an amazing testament to the powers of endurance and the integrity of all of Chang’s family, not just the women. It is at once a compelling story and a fascinating, insightful account of life in a time and place so different it’s like reading about another world.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.  Published by Flamingo, 1993, pp. 696.  Originally published in 1991.

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