Wild Swans is the story of three generations in twentieth-century China, and is a record of Mao's impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love. Jung Chang describes the life of her grandmother, a warlord's concubine; her mother's struggles as a young idealistic Communist; and her parent's experience as members of the Communist elite and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution. Chang was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a barefoot doctor, a steelworker, and an electrician. As the story of each generation unfolds, Chang captures in detail the cycles of violent drama visited on her own family and millions of others caught in the whirlwind of history.--BOOK JACKET.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
20 years later, they are questions I still ask.
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.
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.
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!