I was reluctant to finish this book, because it was so absorbing that I felt my days would be sadly lacking without more pages to turn and devour. I will undoubtedly re-read it before long, as did the person who lent me the book.
This is a sensitive yet in places deeply shocking exploration of the lives of three generations of women in one Chinese family, beginning in 1909 and ending (in print at least) in 1991. The stories are of a grandmother who was concubine to a warlord, a mother torn between her duties towards her family and to the Party, and the author Jung Chang (or Er-hong, one of the 'wild swans' of the title), who charts her mental battle against (or submission to) the relentless indoctrination of the Mao regime, and depicts her family's hardships under Communism and beforehand.
The intelligent account begins in a China where the people distance themselves from politics and are crippled by their own senseless restrictions and rigid traditions, and describes the transformation to a China equally constrained but much changed. While life at first improves as a result of the rise of Communism, the irrational taboos and regulations soon return, but now in a political and violently enforced form. This is the atmosphere in which the protagonist grows up. It is still a China of persecution, vendettas and hardship, and now ruled by Mao, who wants control of every aspect of his people's lives, and he achieves his control by setting groups and individuals against each other and maintaining a climate of fear and mindless adulation.
Descriptions of China's romantic beauty and subtle culture sit side-by-side with tales of horrifying cruelty and absurdity, leading the reader on an unpredictable and tumultuous journey, which evoked in me unfailing empathy and admiration for Jung Chang. It is often hard to imagine a life so astonishingly different from one's own, but the author makes it easy by imparting little details, making me feel like I was there. She succeeds in this even spanning many years and generations when she was not there herself. The epilogue explains how her mother visits her long after Mao's death, telling Jung the various anecdotes and details of the story preceding her birth.
This was a beautifully moving book, gripping from start to finish and with a sweet air of honesty and forgiveness permeating throughout, in spite of the horrendous ordeals undergone. The first part of the book will shock and enrage with its frank accounts of the appalling attitudes prevalent towards women, but in the latter part this is eclipsed by the atrocities committed against any 'class enemy', male or female. And yet I never felt I was losing hope, as the voice of the author never seems to herself, making the story warm despite its potential bleakness.
This memorable book was a fascinating and intense eye-opener for me, teaching me as much about the history, culture and politics of 20th century China as a mountain of textbooks, without ever losing its interest or appeal. But then, 'The more books you read, the more stupid you become' as Mao said in 1965, so it's probably just as well I could learn it through a single book. There's more to learn, but it's a fantastic start.
As it focuses primarily on the stories of women, this book may have more appeal to female readers, although if so it is a shame, as it deserves to be read by absolutely everyone. It is a must-have and I would recommend it to anyone without a moment's hesitation, and have been doing for the last few days. A poignant, thoughtful and engrossing story, brilliantly written with astuteness and a lack of emotional overkill which belies what must sometimes be painful recollections for the author. It is impossible for me to do this book justice here, and all I can do is urge you to read it for yourself.