China: Jung Chang: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Review)

I have been fascinated by China for several years. I think what really sparked my interest was reading Jung Chang’s amazing family saga Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. I want to learn more about China so I’ve decided to create a reading list about China. I want to read both non-fiction and fiction, both Chinese writers and others. I’m really looking forward to diving into this huge nation and learn more about this fascinating country with an amazing culture but also such a devastating history.

Of course, my first read had to be Wild Swans.

Wild Swans is the story of the author and her family. The interesting part is that their lives take place in one of the most fascinating periods of history. Jung Chang’s grandmother lived before the Communist took over in China. She was one of the last generation to suffer the traditional foot binding and was a Concubine before she was married to a ver kind man, a doctor. This marriage, however, caused a lot of pain in the doctor’s family since his family didn’t want this woman to have power over them. They don’t care about their father’s happiness – instead they care about their own roles in the family and their status. The doctor insists however, and though this causes one of his sons to commit suicide in protest, the doctor still marries Jung Cheng’s grandmother and ensures that her mother finally has a happy childhood.

Jung Chang’s mother grows up when there’s a civil war in China – various parties fighting to gain power. The victory goes to Mao and his Communist Party and both Chang’s parents are supporters of this. We then follow their lives and how they fight for Communism, meet each other, get married and have children.

Maybe the most fascinating person in the book is Jung Chang’s father. He is a Communist to the core. He believes in Mao and he believes that the Communist party will do what’s right for China and her people. He thinks that one of the main issues in China so far has been the tendency that people in power always helped their families and made sure they got influence and power as well. He definitely don’t want that custom to continue so he almost goes to far in the other direction – not letting his wife ride with him in the car on long and dangerous travels, not protecting her or taking extra care of her while she’s pregnant and after she has given birth etc. He always puts his work and the party first, his family second. It takes a lot of hardship and pain for him and his family before he begins to question the Communist party and Mao and it takes even longer for him to admit that he has been a lousy father and husband – and that with the way things are going, he may not want to continue being a Communist.

I’m so fascinated by how Mao could create a China where everybody was ready to tell on everyone else. He didn’t need a secret police or anything – the entire population was always ready to tell on each other, encouraged in this by Mao himself. He turned students against teachers, workers against their bosses, children against their parents.

When reading this book, I sometimes wondered how anyone could believe that they were doing the right thing when they were tearing down anything old and beautiful, when intellectuals are condemned and sent to the country to learn from the peasants, when they are having huge gatherings with the purpose of yelling at some poor soul and beating him/her up …

How anyone can think the steps taken in the Cultural Revolution was a good idea is beyond me. And if it’s true that Mao knew that some of his ideas and politics were wrong and in fact hurt both his country and his people, but still continued with them because he didn’t want to loose face … What can you say about that? To say it’s so fundamentally wrong is just too weak.

This is a very hard book to review. This type of book is. I felt the same book when I reviewed When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge. How do you put a star rating on people’s suffering? What can you write in a review that can put a hundred years of a country’s history, a hundred years containing so much suffering, in to perspective? In the end, I guess all you can do is just recommend this book and hope that we actually do learn from history.

2 thoughts on “China: Jung Chang: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Review)

  1. It might be helpful to research this period in greater depth and from some other angles.

    You ask how anyone could think it a good idea to send intellectuals to the countryside. First of all, in the West, we call that the PeaceCorps, and it’s considered an honor. Secondly, there is a revolutionary tradition going all the way back to the Narodniks (Populists) in 19th century Russia for intellectuals to go to the countryside.

    You have to try to make an effort to understand the goals of this social movement if you want to be able to grasp why certain things were done. It was a major goal to overcome the separation of intellectual and manual labor, where intellectuals rule over those who work with their hands. Additionally, civilization has been the history of the town exploiting the countryside. Look, farmers are the people who are feeding us. They deserve our respect and support. Sending intellectuals to the countryside was a form of affirmative action if you will, allowing urban elites the opportunity to really learn about conditions in the countryside. Further, a Communist was supposed to be someone in tune with the people, not an elite. So if people who were party members were sent out among the people, that’s par for the course. It’s like asking why one “has” to go help people in a 3rd world country just because you’re in the PeaceCorps!

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