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  • E.G. Maladroit

'Wild Swans' - Jung Chang's Brilliant Memoir

'Wild Swans’ is a brilliant memoir detailing the lives of three extraordinary generations of women – from Jung Chang’s grandmother, to her mother, to herself. It is an amazing glimpse into the development of China, and a professionally written personal history. Starting with Chang’s grandmother – Yu-Fang – who was subject to bound feet and becoming a concubine to a mostly absentee warlord at a young age. From escaping the warlord’s home to keep control over her daughter and herself to marrying a wonderful doctor whose family shunned her, her biography starts the book with amazing pace and begins the sense of extreme struggle and bravery which continues throughout. Her daughter, Chang’s mother, Bao, shows the extreme tension through the radicalisation of China and the growth and fight for communism. Like her mother, she faces extreme hardship: having to prove herself to the communists having supported them for years, a miscarriage after her husband denies her a place in the car when travelling to a new city, and eventually having to combat the toxic power dynamics of Maoist china whilst trying to keep to both her morals and her communist beliefs. Finally, Jung Chang offers her own direct experience of growing up in the revolution – recounting the terrifying arrests of her loved ones, the incredible anarchy of the time, and the scarring experiences of famine, loss, and suffering.

It is far too detailed a book to do it justice in such a small description – the lives of Chang’s family members are entirely enthralling, making the book an engrossing read. The political background of each era is both detailed and eloquently explained, which allowed me (with minimal past knowledge of the Maoism and Chinese history) to easily understand what was going on. It easy to immerse myself in the care of Chang’s writing style and collected, not overly personal, tone. The perfect amount of disconnect allows entirely natural reactions from the reader despite the incredibly emotionally charged events Chang recounts. One finds themselves amused by the ridiculous – like changing the meaning of traffic lights so red did not mean ‘stop’ – only to be dropped into an overwhelming sense of horror at another experience, though her tone remains level throughout. One of the points that really achieved this for me was when she described a mother seeing her missing daughter’s dress, with the heart-wrenching detail that she could tell it by an exact stain, only to realise her daughter had been kidnapped and used by a family who were selling children as “rabbit meat”. The book is full of equally horrific events – it is not a happy read, though that should not put one off, as it is incredibly worthwhile. It is shocking without feeling emotionally manipulative.

Chang’s autobiographical section is predictably the most vivid. For anyone with an interest in Maoist China, it is an essential read, as it offers a mesmerizing insight into Mao’s cult of personality. Chang’s experience of indoctrination is brilliantly described, so you can practically feel the genuine adoration that people had for Mao, and the little details of how it was weaved into her education makes it entirely understandable. However, what I found most shocking to my own understanding of the political situation was the sense of overwhelming anarchy that dominated Chang’s teenage years under the regime. Mostly having read portrayals of China at that time as a tight authoritarian regime, it was jarring to read about the anarchic student uprising that controlled whole schools and how nepotism and favouritism created mini-dictatorships in towns and cities under those who gained communist favour – not to mentions the gang wars.

The book is also not female dominated, or particularly feminist, as some descriptions seem to frame it as; the three protagonists being women seems almost coincidental – their lives are all so worth depicting. Equally interesting and well-illustrated are the rest of Chang’s family, especially her father. A staunch revolutionary, he dangerously values his communist ideals over the lives of his family, balancing being an intellectual and valuing his morals highly over his own life. The most upsetting moment out of the whole book for me was his mental breakdown whilst burning all his books during the cultural revolution (how very bougie, I am aware). Chang’s description of him sobbing for the first time in front of her whilst he did it, and the effect on his mental health, struck me deeply – it is a beautiful, though terrible reminder of how lucky one is to have access to their culture, and to culture in general.

The biggest criticism I saw of wild swans was its length. It is undeniably a difficult read – it is not easy, nor particularly pleasant (for the reasons I’ve described above) but it is a striking, and enjoyable (if you remove the happy connotations from the word). I started reading it over a year ago before putting it down – and only actually read it in its entirety during a less work-heavy week of quarantine. This is why my recommendation of it also comes with a warning that it is not for the light of heart, or those not used to political memoirs or historical non-fiction. I found, however, that when reading it in long chunks (not picking it up and putting it down constantly) it is not too daunting a prospect – and is highly rewarding. I was a little miffed by one star reviews on amazon labelling it ‘dull’, as despite not being a thriller it has a well regulated pace and is packed with some of the most exciting experiences any memoir has ever offered me.

Overall, with all I’ve said above in mind, I would highly rate ‘Wild Swans’. It is brilliant as a slice of Chinese history (though the personal nature of it does mean that areas like the long march are less emphasised or described), and of personal experience. For someone like me, who largely looks at the main figures or overall events of tumultuous eras, it is eye-opening to remind myself that figures of deaths and starvations are more than numbers that prove one opinion of a leader is right – they are people. A very cliché thing to say – which the book is not at all – but worth mentioning. It is also one of the most moving books I’ve ever read, and one of my favourites for the fact that it in no way sets out to pull on your heartstrings. It is also uniquely interesting and exciting, so you should not find boredom or predictability.


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