Wild swans : three daughters of China

by Jung Chang

Paper Book, 2003




New York : Touchstone, 2003.


A Chinese woman chronicles the struggle of her grandmother, her mother, and herself to survive in a China torn apart by wars, invasions, revolution, and continuing upheaval, from 1907 to the present.

User reviews

LibraryThing member riofriotex
Chang presents the history of China from 1909 to 1978, by telling the stories of three generations of women in her family. At age 15, in 1924, her grandmother became one of the concubines of a warlord general, and gave birth to Chang’s mother in 1931. The general died in 1933 and gave Chang’s grandmother, among the last generation to have bound feet, her freedom. The grandmother subsequently married a Manchu doctor in 1935, during the Japanese occupation of China. Chang’s mother becomes involved with the Communist Revolution, marries a party official in 1948, and eventually becomes an official herself. The author was born in 1952 (she has one older sister and three younger brothers). The majority of the book focuses on the author’s youth and young adulthood under various purges, the disastrous “Great Leap Forward” focus on industry and resulting famine, and the vicious Cultural Revolution. She (and her parents) become disillusioned with China under Mao; her father suffers a mental breakdown and dies at age 54 in 1975. In 1978, Chang wins a scholarship to study English in England, where she now lives as do two of her brothers. Another brother lives in France. Only her mother and her older sister, married in 1970, still live in China. Her grandmother died in 1969.

Chang’s reminiscences made a compelling story. However, the British pronunciations of the reader, actress Rowena Cooper, became annoying as the book went on, especially “et” for “ate.” Nevertheless, the author probably was more comfortable with a British reader, and I would recommend either this unabridged BBC/Chivers audiobook (the Harper Collins edition is abridged), or, if you can find it, the paperback edition from Anchor Books, ISBN 0-385-42547-3. The latter includes a note from the author on pronouncing names, a family tree, a timeline, a map (very useful in following the movements of the protagonists), and a number of black-and-white family photographs. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Nickelini
Wild Swans is a memoir of three generations of 20th century Chinese women, written by the granddaughter. The story starts with her grandmother, who undergoes foot binding as a child and is later sent off as one of the concubines of a warlord. After his death, she escapes with her daughter and marries a much older Manchurian doctor. The daughter grows up through the horrific Japanese occupation during WWII and then the following Chinese civil war, and becomes enamored with the communist dream. She marries a communist officer, and they become mid-level party elites. Jung Chang is born in 1952 into the volatile world of Chinese communism. Despite all three women having lives of privilege, all three also suffered very real horrors and hardships. One thing this book taught me is that in 20th century China, no one was exempt from suffering. Whether it was the traditional culture, WWII, or under communism, there is one word that describes this century in China: capricious.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, the book's strength is the author's ability to show how the historical events of these periods in China affected people's lives. It was certainly an engaging and interesting read. She showed how communism seemed like a dramatic improvement at first. She also showed how the cult of Mao consumed the culture.

However, Wild Swans was written in a very factual style that left me cold. There was no dialogue at all. The grimness was unrelenting--on every page someone was tortured or just mistreated. For most of the book it appeared that the only kind people in all of China were her relatives. Everyone else was nasty at best.

I suppose some of my disappointment was that I expected the book to be more literary and less mired down in minutia. It is one of the few memoirs on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, so I was expecting something more artistic. That said, perhaps the book was better for its lack of passion, as that may have been artifice. Just a thought.

Recommended for: Unless you've read a lot about 20th century China, I recommend this book for everyone. This is an important story that needs to be widely known. I've read about traditional China, and about life under communism, but this book does an excellent job of showing the progression and how one came out of the other.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Wild Swans tells the author's family history of herself, her mother and grandmother. The center of the book is clearly the story of her parents. Her own story is limited by her impression management. She rarely opens up to reveal her inner self. The picture of her mother and father are much more fully developed. warts and all. The grandmother's story is fleshed out the least, despite her having the most difficult life transitioning from concubine in warlord China to a mother to dissidents. What is important to note is the elevated social position of the family: As one of two hundred top Communist functionaries in Sichuan among 72 million inhabitants, they were no ordinary family. Jung Chang is in a similar position as Isabel Allende, narrating her country's recent history from a privileged vantage point. The personalization of the horrible events of the Japanese occupation, the Chinese Civil War, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution is the great strength of the book. One Chinese aspect of "hell is other people" is that the Chinese managed to oppress themselves without a KGB or Stasi. The decentralized bullying of the Red Guards and local cliques is truly frightening and ugly. The abuses happened without much of a Milgramesque authority.

I never understood the appeal of Mao, especially for the 1960s European kids from bourgeois families. Much of the Red in the East was the blood of innocent victims starved and killed by one of the 20th century's totalitarian dictators. How can one gloat in the icon of Mao, given all the death this man has caused? Vienna currently hosts a strange big exhibition of kitschy Mao devotionalia, collected by an enthusiastic foreign correspondent during the 1970s. As a corrective, visitors should really be handed this book.
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LibraryThing member m_k_m
The amount of time it took me to read this probably doesn't reflect how interesting I found it: it's a fascinating on-the-ground account of China between the start of the 20th century and the reforms that followed the death of Mao. It begins with a woman being offered up to a warlord and ends with another going to see a West End show – if nothing else it's a wonderful demonstration of how far life can take you.

With China now playing a greater and greater role in all of our lives, it's also a reminder of how, not so very long ago, the country was all but cut off from the rest of the world. Most of the major events you'd expect to crop up in a Western or even Russian memoir covering this period (the First World War, the Third Reich, the Cuban Missile Crisis) aren't even mentioned.

Instead we're made very aware of how brutal, arbitrary and even absurd life was for many Chinese during the 20th century, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution. "The more books you read, the stupider you become," Mao proclaimed: so the author began work as a doctor without any training at all. Actions as innocuous as stamp collecting, looking in a mirror, and embracing under a lamppost were deemed bourgeois, either at the direction of the chairman or of some follower enthusiastically trying to interpret order in his worldview.

The only thing I can think it is comparable to is Cambodia under Pol Pot (though it's also a reminder that denouncing 'experts' never ends well – *names*), and it's in stark contrast to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia – two totalitarian regimes probably more familiar to a Western reader – which are often characterised as a brutal imposition of 'order'. I guess that also demonstrates how Western-centric our view of history is – and what matters to China is only going to get more important in this 21st century.
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LibraryThing member bblum
The purpose and results of theChinese Cultural Revolution cannot be truely imagined or understood by the western mind until this book. It is possible to control the minds of an entire generation and the author both experienced it as a member of the Red Guard and escaped. This is a wonderful book that throws a light on this mysterious time period by examining the experiences of three generations of women in Chang's family.… (more)
LibraryThing member andrewlorien
In my mid-20s I read this book along with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and War & Peace. Three generational histories set on different continents in my grandparents time. I was working at an international airport at the time, and it changed the way I understood all of the thousands of people who arrived and departed every day. When I looked at their ages and nationalities, I started to wonder "what have you lived through? which oppression did you survive? will your children have a better life than you have?"
20 years later, they are questions I still ask.
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LibraryThing member cataryna
An enjoyable read especially if you know nothing about the modern history of China. It's hard for those of us in the United States, a free country, to imagine living life like this; the control the government had over it's citizens and even the control men had over their women. Beautifully written and insightful especially if you're a history or political history fan.… (more)
LibraryThing member The_Hibernator
This contains spoilers.

Wild Swans is the memior of Jung Chang's childhood in China during the Cultural Revolution, but it's not only about her. She begins with the story of her grandmother.

Jung Chang's grandmother was a concubine to a warlord. She had to use charm and wit to keep herself safe from being held prisoner by the warlord's family - as she was considered the property of the warlord and of his legitimate wives. Upon her warlord's death, she made the very difficult decision to marry, which caused many problems for her, her new husband, and potentially her afterlife (in which her husband and warlord would cut her in half to share her). This story delves into great detail about the strife that Jung Chang's grandmother had to overcome. Now that I'm familiar with how foot binding works I will shudder every time I hear mention of it. I never realized....

The next section of the book is about Jung Chang's mother, who grew up mainly during the strife between her mother and her stepfather's family. WWII was also raging, which meant occupation and brutalization by the Japanese. (This was the most difficult section for me to read.) Once the Japanese occupation ended, their country was ruled by tyranny, thus bringing on the communist uprising. Jung Chang's mother became deeply involved in the Communist Party while very young, but felt betrayed by The Party by the time she was pregnant with her first child.

The final section talks about Jung Chang's childhood, watching the Communist Party emotionally and physically torture those around her, including her parents. She vividly portrays the original innocence that she had - believing in the communist party and Mao's propaganda. Slowly, gently, she began to emerge from this innocence. More gracefully than would be expected, given what was going on around her. That speaks to the power of Mao's campaign.

This was a fascinating and beautifully written book. It's written lovingly, yet it's brutally honest. The research is so amazing that every once in a while I wondered "how does she know that?" Her years' worth of research definitely paid off. This book deserves the fantastic worldwide sales that it has received. I am tempted to read Jung Chang's biography of Mao pretty soon.
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LibraryThing member SheReadsNovels
Before beginning this book I didn’t know very much at all about Chairman Mao, but I’m obviously not alone in that. As Jung Chang says in her introduction to the 2003 edition, ‘the world knows astonishingly little about him’. This book helped me understand why the Chinese people initally welcomed communism and how millions of children grew up viewing Mao as their hero and never dreaming of questioning his regime. It also explained why many people eventually became disillusioned and why the system started to break down.

One of the most horrible things in the book occurs within the first chapter when Chang describes her grandmother’s footbinding. It’s so awful to think of a little girl being forced to undergo this torture just because tiny feet (or ‘three-inch golden lilies’) were thought to be the ideal. Soon after her grandmother’s feet were bound the tradition began to disappear. However, this is just one small part of the book and the first in a long series of shocking episodes the author relates to us.

Some parts of the book made me feel so angry and frustrated, such as reading about the senseless waste of food when peasants were taken away from the fields to work on increasing steel output instead, as part of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. The descriptions of the Cultural Revolution are also horrific; it went on for years and resulted in countless deaths. One of the most frightening things about this period was that nobody was safe – people who had been high-ranking Communist officials before the revolution suddenly found themselves branded ‘capitalist-roaders’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ (sometimes by their own children) and some of them were driven to suicide.

The book is complete with a family tree, chronology, photographs and map of China – all of which were very useful as I found myself constantly referring to them and without them I would have had a lot more difficulty keeping track of what was going on.

As you can probably imagine, it was a very depressing book, as Jung and her family experienced very few moments of true happiness. She only really sounds enthusiastic when she’s describing the natural beauty of some of the places she visited – and the pleasure she got from reading books and composing poetry, both of which were condemned during the Cultural Revolution. However, it was also the most riveting non-fiction book I’ve ever read – I kept thinking "I’ll just read a few more pages" then an hour later I was still sitting there unable to put the book down.

All three of the women featured in Wild Swans – Jung Chang herself, her mother and her grandmother – were forced to endure hardships and ordeals that are unimaginable to most of us, but remained strong and courageous throughout it all. However, Wild Swans is not just the story of three women – it’s much broader in scope than that and is the story of an entire nation. So much is packed into the 650 pages of this book that I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review and if you haven’t yet read the book I hope you’ll read it for yourself – no review can really do it justice.
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LibraryThing member cestovatela
It annoys me to see this book compared with The Joy Luck Club because they're so totally different. For starters, it's actually true. (Most of) Jung Chang's family survived WWII, the Communist take-over, and the decades of famine and purges that followed it. This isn't a book about family relationships; it's about how history and government shapes an individual and what it's like to grow up in a society that doesn't teach you to think for yourself. What separates it from hundred-odd "Daughter of China" books on the market is that it doesn't try to wring beauty or meaning from the experiences it describes. It's just about what happened and the process of trying to live around it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kateingilo
facinating book. I learned so much about Chinese culture and recent history. Certainly not for young readers.
LibraryThing member dougwood57
Wild Swans tells the stories of three generations of Jung Chang's family. Any one of their stories would make fascinating reading. Chang ties them together and the result is a breathtaking and heartwrenching journey through 20th century China. Her grandmother, a concubine to the Beijing police chief, feet bound at age 2, escaped prostitution slavery with birth of her daughter. Both her mother Bao Qin, and her father Shou-yu were active members of the Communist Party and her father rose to become an important mid-level official. Chang honestly details his strict devotion to the Party at the expense of his wife's feelings and needs.

Chang grew up a privileged child of Party leaders and devotedly joined the Red Guard in 1966, but was alienated by the violent attacks on her teachers. Chang's parents had opposed Mao's economic policies after the colossal failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950's and early 1960's. For a time during the Cultural Revolution her parents were able to stave off grave punishment through an almost feudal system of contacts within the Party. Eventually they were denounced, humiliated, ruined and imprisoned by the totalitarian Maoist state. Shou-yu's earlier loyal adherence to the Party line makes his ultimate denouement all the more poignant.

Finally thoroughly disillusioned, Chang left China (only possible after her father's post-mortem rehabilitation) for London in 1978.

Higly recommended for anyone interested in China in the 20th century and especially Communism under Mao.
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LibraryThing member ablueidol
Gives a far more accurate picture of the hopes and struggles of generations as china transformed from a feudal kingdom to a modern "capitalist" autocratic state. My sister-in-law is Chinese and knows the author and confirms that her family experienced many of the same things that Jung Chang describes. Reminds me what an easy hedonistic existence that the babyboomers of the West have had… (more)
LibraryThing member robertg69
Fascinating family memoir about life in revolutionary China from early 1900 till 1960s
LibraryThing member davetherave
If anyone is in doubt about the brutality of the Chinese regime for greater part of the twentieth century then they should settle down and read this majestic work, covering a family period from 1870 to 1978. this was when, according to her family timeline the author came to England.
LibraryThing member LamSon
This is a good book. It is the experience of three generations of Chinese women. Grandmother - before the revolution, mother- during the communist take over, daughter (author) - during the Cultural Revolution. It is a good look at how the whims and wishes of one man, Mao, could bring a country to the brink of meltdown. These experiences may explain why the author wrote a biography critical of Mao that some LTers were not happy with.… (more)
LibraryThing member name99
Damn, this is one engrossing book. I started listening to it dutifully, wanting to get more of a feeling for China, but it was impossible not to get caught up in it.

We get a broad portrait of what happened in China since the 1920s, portraited with the sort of human face that I frequently hate, but which, when done well, really wins me over.… (more)
LibraryThing member JGoto
Jung Chang’s powerful memoir transports us to twentieth century China, where we are given a glimpse of society through the thoughts and actions of three generations of her family. The unfolding of the lives of Chang’s grandmother, a concubine of a warlord, and her parents, communist idealists and party leaders, is deeply moving. We watch as hopes and enthusiasm brought about by the start of Communism are very gradually replaced by disillusionment and suffering brought on by Mao’s policies and the Cultural Revolution. This book is banned in China even today, more than 30 years after Mao's death. Having grown up in a democracy, Chang’s descriptions of life under a dictator like Mao are surprising and revealing to me. I feel that this was an important work for me to read and it has changed my understanding of politics and the world.… (more)
LibraryThing member wendyrey
Much more my sort of biography, dates, time lines, notable events, facts that could potentially be verified if one had the will and the papers were not destroyed in the Cultural Revolution etc. Full of details of the lives of a family of three women in China. Only a bit of dialogue , thankfully, and all of the type of which the gist could be realistically recalled.… (more)
LibraryThing member reannon
Absolutely wonderful book about three generations of women in a Chinese family. The grandmother was a concubine to a wealthy general and had bound feet. The mother was a Communist party official, and the daughter was part of the Cultural Revolution as a teen, then emigrated to the West. Marvelous depiction of China over the course of the 20th century through the lens of one family. The author later wrote a highly-regarded biography of Mao.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hamburgerclan
The big shortcoming of an historical overview is that it distances you from the events it covers. You see the story unfolding from above and rarely get a feeling for what it was like for the people actually living through it. That's why it's good to pepper one's reading of history with first hand accounts. Wild Swans is one such account. It's the story of "three daughters of China"--the biographies of the author, her mother and grandmother. It covers most of the 20th Century in China, detailing the family's experiences through the fall of the Manchu Dynasty, the Chinese Republic, the Japanese occupation and the reign of Mao Zedong. It's an amazing tale of hardship and survival. Indeed, the book put me in awe of a people who could endure so much tsuris and yet become the happy and vibrant people I live among today. Of course, I have yet to hear their stories. Maybe Ms. Chang's tale is unique. Even so, it's a book I yearn to put on my shelf.
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LibraryThing member cab
Love books about Chinese history through the eyes of a family living through it.
LibraryThing member cinesnail88
I recently acquired this book after having read it several years ago. It's one woman's account of her experience, as well as that of her mother and grandmother, in Communist/Pre-Communist China. It's immensely fascinating, particularly if it's all new information to you. I enjoyed reading it a second time, though, as I had forgotten many of the gems hidden within it. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member 1morechapter
This is a long, fascinating book that I'm really glad I finished. I got this after reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I absolutely loved. I didn't know it was non-fiction until it came in the mail. I saw that it was a banned book, so I used it for the Banned Book Challenge as well as the Chunkster Challenge.

The book tells the life stories of Jung and her mother and grandmother. Along the way I learned quite a bit about China under Mao as well. I love history when it is presented this way. I've always felt that history was more about how people's lives were affected by their rulers than just names, dates, and events that occurred.

The book is told chronologically. The first story is about how Jung's grandmother had no choice in being a concubine to a Chinese general. The "marriage" was arranged so that her grandmother's father would have more privileges of his own. Jung's mother was born from this union.

Next, we learn of her mother's life growing up under Japanese occupation in Manchuria, and then after the Japanese surrender, the fight between the Kuomintang and the Communists for power in China. Jung's parents become Communist officials who very much believe in the Communist ideals. Their "faith" is eventually shattered by Mao's thirst for power and his "Cultural Revolution."

Although her parents were still receiving their salaries from the government, they were also being detained or being made to go to denunciation meetings where they were yelled at and/or beaten. The Red Guard and the Rebels were encouraged to rise up against the old Communist officials and take control. Even young children were encouraged to beat up their teachers. School days consisted of reading Mao's works, punishing anyone who was a "class enemy", and tearing up the grass and flowers in the courtyards as they were too "decadent."

As Jung grows up, she is at first enamored with Mao, but is eventually disillusioned with what has happened to her family and to herself. She is a bright young woman who is required several times to be "reeducated" by the peasants or factory workers. After Mao dies, eventually China changes for the better. She is able to go to the West and study, but she never permanently returns to China.

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in history in general or Chinese culture. It is also a "wake-up" call to us softies in the West. Books like these really make me appreciate American freedom!
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LibraryThing member rypotpie
Engrossing tale of three generations of Chinese women. Their lives are a window into the rapid evolution of Chinese society in the 20th century - from a fragmented society with territorial warlords to a highly centralized, controlled society under the Communists. What struck me most was the devastation wreaked by Mao's dictatorial whims (at one point he ordered all citizens to tear up grass and flowers for being too bourgeois), and the way he controlled millions largely without the use of force. Instead, he turned groups of citizens, often members of the same family, against one another through fear of punishment and loss of privilege. His commands were carried out to avoid the threat of becoming an outcast and losing privilege.… (more)


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