on 19 July 2005
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.
on 7 December 1999
Wild Swans is a magnificent book, telling the story of a family over three generations from the Boxer Rebellion, to the Peoples Revolution and the Cultural Revolutions. It can be said that China has a most colourful history, but this story is very very black in parts. Wild Swans will bring you on a journey of love and hope, and it will also throw you into a pit of dispare. Jung Changs experiences through her own eyes and that of her family are brought to life in this book. The imagery is vivid and the emmotions will grab you and tie you down. Whilst reading Wild Swans I felt anger and hatred at Mao and his minions.I found the events of the cultural revolution insane, Why? I must have asked this a hundred times. Yet Changs explains Mao's magnetism, his ability to manipulate the masses, and the fear he drove deep into the peoples hearts. With one hand he would offer hope and with the other he would bring suffering. Wild Swans is a prime example of the fight of the human spirit. It is within us all and Changs has brought her familys spirit to life in this book. If you are considering going to China read this book. It gives a great insight into the minds of the Chinese people. All though times have changed, they are still a tough, hardworker and honest people who simply hope for a good life.
on 26 June 2006
Jung Chang is supposedly one of the most successful Chinese authors; yet her work is banned in her native country and she now lives in London, England. I first heard about "Wild Swans" several years ago but never got around until reading it until now. Now I've read it I'm sorry that I waited so long.
A quote on the cover says "It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book." - I thought to myself that this must be exaggeration. I expected the book to be interesting; I wanted to find out more about China's recent history and I was sure it would be interesting to read what it was like to live through the cultural revolution, but I didn't think its importance would be more than a bit of human interest. I was wrong: the quote is right on the money. This book is important especially if you're like me and thought that you understood enough about China. I thought that I knew what the cultural revolution was about. I thought it was just some craziness in which doctors, administrators and other professionals were sent to work in the fields. What I had no idea about was what it was really like for the people involved. I had also thought that the Chinese government was uniformly bad, responsible as it has been for the invasion of Tibet and gross human rights violations. While that is true, it seems that, like many things, the truth is more complex than it first appears. But this book is more than just dry historical fact - it packs an emotional punch that is hard to overstate. Not only is great suffering described but also great courage and bravery. I often found myself wondering how I would have acted if I found myself in similar situations to the author's parents and whether I would have the courage to act as they did.
In summary, this book is very much worth reading because, in spite of the horror and cruelty described, the courage and resilience shown by the author's family - in particular Yu-fang, her grandmother, Shou-yu, her father and De-hong, her mother - is uplifting and inspiring. Another important reason for reading this book is it serves as object lesson of what can happen when a totalitarian government gains power and should make us ever more careful of who we allow to govern us and especially wary of political and religious extremists of any kind.
on 29 May 2004
I've been glued to this book for the past fortnight - it is so vivid that it feels like you're actually there, in China. Calm gardens, with streams, peach blossoms and flowers form the back drop to many of the scenes, and this beautiful natural landscape contrasts with the mindless violence and disorder of the human world.
Jung Chang's writing is deceptively simple and you truly relate and identify both with the narrator and her family. This means that it's like a gripping novel, as well as biography.
Plus, this book gives you an insider view of the irrationality of Chinese Communism and shows George Orwell's nightmare vision of '1984' to be more accurate than ever. Yet, the book never lapses into tedious explanations or arguments, teaching us history without any effort.
Jung Chang's unforgettable masterpiece says more about modern China than all ideological or political disputations together. It is history with a moving human touch, a gripping physical tale.
As an example, her analysis of the Cultural Revolution is outstanding: A bunch of arrogant children of high CP officials creates a pro-Mao movement. The master manipulator Mao uses them for the creation of a youth army and for the smashing of his political opponents. Millions of innocent Chinese are slaughtered, crippled or humiliated in an eight year wave of senseless (not for Mao) turmoil and social upheaval ( no doctors, no teachers, no scientists, no musicians...).
The CR shows that for Mao individual lives (except his own) were totally unimportant. Paramount was that he retained his power.
Jung Chang's book is a history of old and new feudalism. In the old one, there were warlords (and before, an emperor), in the new one, a party leader.
In both feudalisms, power was a synonym for survival in the struggle for life. It meant food, shelter, women, an army, loyal followers, perfect bureaucrats. The most 'cunning' survived in the brutal power struggles.
The author's portrait of Mao's character is profoundly characteristic: 'He was a restless fight promoter. He understood ugly human instincts such as envy and resentment and knew how to mobilize them for his ends. He ruled by getting people to hate each other. Mao had managed to turn people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship.'
The missionaries of the communist gospel, like her father, a loyal and honest party bureaucrat, were killed (literally or psychologically) by the opportunists, careerists and cynics, who instinctively understood that power is an end, not a means, for instance, to better the living standard of the population.
During Mao's reign the overall atmosphere in China was FEAR ('people did not dare even to think'). In Mao'a paradise (not that of his subjects) disinformation and total censorship were the law in order to keep the Chinese population under his yoke.
The similarities with Stalin's Soviet Union are all too evident.
Jung Chang's mighty portrait of three generations of female victims of dictatorship (today still the most common form of government in the world) is an indirect cry for democracy.
This book is a must read.
on 13 February 2014
This book was literally forced into my hands by an Irish friend who said I must read it. That was when the book first came out in the early 1990s. I read about one-third and couldn't finish it. My Irish friend had to move on and I had to return the book. He was disappointed that I did not share his enthusiasm about this book. Twenty years on, another friend (from Beijing) again forced this book into my hands and said that I must read it. I had it for two months before I took a deep breath and dived into it. This time I did finish it, and during the process, I was reminded why I was such a reluctant reader of this book - the naked truth was too close to home for comfort. I was in my late teens when I got hold of my first book about the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of a Red Guard. I read my second one in quick succession. Thereafter I subconsciously avoided reading on the subject. I found the stories of these eyewitnesses of the turbulent time of China disturbing; it turned my world upside down and made me feel physically sick. It was not so much of the physical hardship of these people had to endure but the psychological and mental torture, which messed up people's minds, shattering morals, beliefs, principles, resolves, hopes and any optimism, turning them either into zombies or ugly brutal beasts (people's tormentors). It was a slow and painful death when people were crushed from inside by injustice, fear, frustration, despondence, and humiliation. Misguided youths who perpetrated violence also suffered from the emotional turmoil that they sustained from their inhumane acts. Many crimes against humanity were committed under the name of "following the orders", and a lot of bystanders did nothing in order to save their own skin during the time of terror.
Some truths are just too painful to find out. This was why I could not finish the book the first time round. But twenty years on, I am older, and find that I can indeed handle the truth better. Even so, this is a great book that I cannot say I enjoy reading. My heart is laden with the burden of lamentation. How do we pardon pointless and senseless large-scale self-inflicted destruction (from the country's perspective)? Yet so many people were helplessly caught up with it. How do we stand so much hatred and wickedness in the land? How do we not hold some collective responsibility, and feel slightly ashamed of the extent of brutality that human hands are capable of?
This book is about the three daughters of modern China. Why is it worth reading? Because I think their story is representative of the time. It is inevitably political but the focus of the book is not a political analysis or a historical assessment, but on how the time impacted the life of people through the experience and struggle of three generations in a family. It doesn't have a premeditated agenda to sway you on arguments. Rather events were laid out in a simple chronological order for readers to judge. It is necessarily biased or subjective to the extent that all events must be recorded by a perceiver. Later on in the book, when the author was older and got more actively caught up with the changes in political tides, she took us through events showing more of her mental and intellectual effort in making sense of what was nonsensical. That effort inevitably bore her judgement but was honest.
The coherence of the book therefore is in the story, not in its analysis of the time. It gives reader a glimpse of life through a first hand experience under the instability of a transitional China searching its new characters and identity. It has given me some answers and filled some gaps of my understanding of modern China - at school (in the late 80s), our history curriculum stopped abruptly at 1949, and under the headings like the Hundred Flowers, Great Leap Forward and Famine, and the Cultural Revolution, it was blank.
I have always wondered why people would willingly become communists and embrace communism. Through the story of the author's parents, I can see why it might be attractive to people at the beginning, who held ideals and devoted their hearts and souls to the cause of making their country a better place. When a country so battered and war-torn, anything was worth a try. But the irony was that while they knew to destroy the old structure, there was no vision for what they were trying to build. It was soul-destroying, as epitomized in the poignant case of the author's father, when the cause eventually forsook the ideals of its founding days and turned on itself for personal selfish ends at the expense of the masses. Classes were never eliminated, only redefined, and frequently. There was still no equality, and family background even more rigidly determined one's future. There were still the privileged and the ordinary. The class structure was not eliminated, only toppled upside down. It was a principle to remove personal connections but in the end, corruption and new sets of "back doors" emerged at the backdrop of a new set of rules. People loathed the rule of the elites, but it was a right question to ask, after the experiment at a huge human cost, if the rule of the elites had its value and might even be better than the alternative. The author says, "I can understand ignorance, but I could not accept its glorification, still less its right to rule." (p. 598)
Through the author's experience in the countryside, I also come to understand more about the layers of the Chinese society. The gulf between the thinking and perspective of the privileged class (whether in the old days or under the Communist) and the largely illiterate peasants seems unbridgeable. Their outlook of life and horizon are gulfs apart, which seem to have persisted till today even with more education. Perhaps one's family background still determines a large part what kind of person one is - at least for my generation.
One manifestation of this difference is in their opinions of Mao. Views about him are so polarised that there is almost no middle-ground. On the one side, he could do no wrong and was worshipped like a god whereas on the other side, he was a villain, a criminal and evil who caused pointless suffering and ruins to people's life at whims. Here is the author's verdict of him: "He ruled by getting people to hate each other. In doing so, he got ordinary Chinese to carry out many of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by professional elites. Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. That was why under him there was no real equivalent of the KGB in China. There was no need. In bringing out and nourishing the worst in people, Mao had created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred. But how much individual responsibility ordinary people should share, I could not decide.....The other hallmark of Maoism, it seemed to me, was the reign of ignorance....Mao destroyed much of the country's cultural heritage. He left behind not only a brutalized nation, but also an ugly land with little of its past glory remaining or appreciated." (p.633)
Today China seems to have changed its face yet again. But under the veneer, there is a lot we - the outsiders - still do not understand. And this book will certainly help us understand its people more beyond its presentation.
on 17 June 2008
Wild Swans is a candid and harrowing account of three remarkable Chinese women -grandmother, mother and daughter- but also gives us a very good picture of what China was like from the turn of the Century to the 1980's
We learn about the ancient culture of the Chinese which included much that was beautiful and some that seems cruel. We learn of the hope of so many Chinese that the overthrow of the Kuomintang would lead to a' just social order' but how it soon became clear that the worst excesses of the Kuomintang and those of Imperial China before that paled into insignificance compared to the hell on earth created by Mao's Chinese Communist Party
One is left aghast that a system can destroy even the most basic human instincts of decency and compassion while turning people into inhumane monsters totally possessed -as if by a demon - by a cruel and totally destructive system
It sends shivers down one's spine to realise that 'The Great Helmsman' Mao Ze Dong -who ranks with Hitler and Stalin as among the most evil men of the 20th century-had his image worn on T-shirts by 'progressive' students and youth in the west and these same young 'champions of equality' hung large pictures of Mao in their dormitory rooms .This at the same time as millions of Chinese were being slaughtered and physically and psychologically maimed on the orders of Mao and his Chinese Communist Party -as described in this book.
Today many in the West laud the economic 'reforms' towards a type of totalitarian 'capitalist' system but fail to remember that human rights have not improved at all and China is still a hideous and inhuman hell for hundreds of millions of its inhabitants. And the world turns a blind eye and wards Beijing the 2008 Olympic While we a re left asking how much longer the people of China will remain enslaved by their inhumane Communist masters. How Long?
But the book is also about the strength of the human spirit , about wonderful people-especially the three remarkable women who are the central characters of this book- as well as the cruel ones
It is a story of love and hate, strength and weakness , the beautiful and the ugly
But more than anything it is about how the human spirit can never in the end be crushed by cruelty, evil and tyranny
on 5 July 2016
I read this book around 20 years ago, so thought I'd treat myself to the audio version. Its just as heart-rending as the first time I read it.
It takes a slice of social & political history, in the way that Charles Dickens did with "A Tale of Two Cities", and Alexandre Dumas with his books. You see it through the prism of three generations of a family (hence, 'three daughters of China').
The grandmother had her feet bound and was given by her father as a concubine (to further his career!); the mother (and father) suffered the brunt of recriminations during Mao's 'Cultural Revolution' (spectacular falls from grace), and the daughter finally left China (as an adult) on an English scholarship, and later settled in London.
Rowena Cooper has a beautiful voice - it reminds me of listening to Eleanor Bron's reading of "A Little Princess".
Highly, highly recommended.
on 8 May 2005
This book really brings home to the reader the human cost of the communist regime in China. The book is beautifully written in the way it deals with the hardships faced by the author's family. All there is left to say is a must read for everyone whatever their political sympathies.
on 9 December 2010
It's definitely a great book, covering a vaste swathe of 20th century Chinese history. It takes into account so many wars, revolutions, dictators, social upheavals, varied traditions and peoples, and vastly disparate life stories, that it really puts into perspective the limited history of the 20th century that one learns at school- the US, Europe, the two world wars, the great depression, etc.
However, there are a couple of big issues that people seem to overlook when heaping praise on the book:
1. Academically, Jung Chang is pretty controvesial, as her very close personal connection to the events and people she writes about makes her viewpoint unabashedly a mission to denigrate Mao and celebrate the actions of her family. Anything bad that happens is put down to Mao, and almost anything written about her friends and family is about how noble and selfless they are. She even openly renames her father's department from "Department of Propaganda" to make her father's role seem more positive - talk about rewriting history! Her own family come across as unrealistically brilliant and brave and wonderful. You can read plenty of similar complaints elsewhere - e.g. academic reviews of her books, alternate books on the same period, and the reviews on Amazon.com. I have heard comments - I don't know how true - that the book also includes outright lies as to some of the events in her life. I believe truly unbiased history is impossible (you always have to choose what to include and what to leave out), but if this is the only thing you ever read about the history of China, your viewpoint will be a very limited one. Her follow up book on Mao is even more controversial.
2. I thought it was just my laziness that made me find this book heavy going, but I've read reviews elsewhere about how the writing can be pretty boring and long winded. The flow of the story is alternately broken up by long, rambling musings on the evilness of Mao, and long descriptive passages of flowers, trees and gardens. Then by the last few chapters it is not really a story of China at all, just a monologue on Mao combined with a list of events in the author's own life for a couple of years. I really struggled to finish it.
Overall, I'm glad I read this book (actually 1.5 times, as I gave up the first time and then restarted from the beginning), but it is only one perspective, and often a somewhat rambling one at that.