Review: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Wild Swans is the story of three generations of women in Jung Chang’s family.  The first is her grandmother Yu-fang, who grew up in pre-communist China, a time when women had their feet bound as children and could be given to warlords as concubines.  The second is Chang’s mother, De-hong, who became a senior official in the Communist party following their victory over the Kuomintang.  The third is Jung Chang herself and the longest and most compelling section of the book is devoted to her own experiences during Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

Before beginning this book I didn’t know very much at all about Chairman Mao, but I’m obviously not alone in that.  As Jung Chang says in her introduction to the 2003 edition, ‘the world knows astonishingly little about him’.  This book helped me understand why the Chinese people initally welcomed communism and how millions of children grew up viewing Mao as their hero and never dreaming of questioning his regime.   It also explained why many people eventually became disillusioned and why the system started to break down.

Reading Wild Swans made me realize how important books like this one are.  Wild Swans presents almost the entire 20th century history of China in a highly personal way that makes it so much more memorable than just reading the same information in a text book would have been.

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.  For example, during the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists, inflation rose so quickly that currency became worthless and people began to take desperate measures to get food, with beggars trying to sell their children in exchange for a bag of rice.

Jung Chang’s parents both worked for the Communists during and after the civil war, rising to high positions within the party.  Chang’s father was completely devoted to the Communist Party, putting it before his wife’s welfare.  Every time she found herself in trouble with the party for some trivial reason, her husband would side against her.  However, this attitude extended to the rest of his family and friends too – he refused to do anything which could be construed as showing favouritism.

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’.  There are some shocking accounts of starving people being driven to eat their own babies.  The famine shook a lot of people’s faith in the Party and afterwards even Jung’s father was less inclined to put the party’s needs before his family’s as he had done in the past – in fact during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, he found himself denounced and arrested, and eventually emerges as one of the most admirable people in the book, at least in my opinion.

“I thought of my father’s life, his wasted dedication and crushed dreams…There was no place for him in Mao’s China because he had tried to be an honest man.”

The descriptions of the Cultural Revolution are 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.

Some of the parts I found most fascinating were Jung’s accounts of how the Chinese viewed the ‘capitalist countries’ in the west.

“As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story.  When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!’

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.

I don’t think I need to explain why this book counts towards the Women Unbound challenge.  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.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir/Publisher: Harper Perennial/Pages: 650/Year: 2004 (originally published 1991)/Source: My own copy bought new

13 thoughts on “Review: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

  1. Iris says:

    This book made an impact when I read it years ago. I think I need to reread it sometime, as I mentioned before. Like you said, one of the things I “liked” most about the book is how it made you understand both the hope the communist party gave to the people when they were trying to get into power and the disappointment people started to feel in the end. It made me realise how easy it is to say that people should never fall for communism or fascism, but this book made me understand better why people would.

  2. Helen says:

    I read this book a few years ago so don’t remember all the details, but I do remember really liking it. I also learned SO much that I didn’t know or only knew surface information about. Good review, thanks for reminding me about this book

  3. Aarti says:

    I feel like there has been a resurgence of interest in this book lately. I have seen multiple reviews and also come across it quite often in used bookstores.

    I absolutely agree that personal histories are a great resource.

  4. Linda P says:

    Thank you for this review reminding me of this book covering a wide sweep of 20th century Chinese history, which I read some years ago. It is still a relevant read in order to connect to and understand this important and interesting culture.
    I have on my shelf fiction and non-fiction about the Far East. I have young women friends from the Far East nations, including China, who are over in the UK due to their husbands’ short term professional visits. They are so warm and interested in Western culture yet, in some ways, enigmatic. Lisa See’s novel Snow Flowers and the Secret Fan describes the horrific custom of foot binding in feudal China and is also an interesting read.

  5. Hannah Stoneham says:

    What an excellent review – thank you indeed for posting. I read this book some years ago but have never forgotten the footbinding at the beginning – it is a sort of motif for the whole thing.

    Wonderful to discover your blog

    Happy Wednesday evening


  6. chasing bawa says:

    Many of my friends have read and recommended this book (and also Chang’s book on Mao) but I haven’t managed to read it yet. It’s on my list of books to read at some point. I remember first reading about foot binding in one of Pearl. S. Buck’s novels when I was at school and still feel amazed that such a tradition actually existed – talk about literally physically binding a woman down. Great review!

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