I was recommended this book by a coworker many years ago and a combination of events this year, including AAPI Heritage Month, a book choice recommendation for a book club topically related to Mother’s Day, and prompt #15 for The Reading Women Challenge 2020 (a biography) finally had me picking this one up.
“As the revolution was made by human beings, it was burdened with their failings.”
Wild Swans is an inter-generational look at a Chinese family from the very early 1900s through the early 1980s, after Mao’s death. The author, Jung Chang, begins the story with her grandmother’s life, first as a concubine to a warlord and later as a chosen wife to an honored doctor, though never accepted by his family. She continues to follow the family through her mothers’ life, navigating the world through many regime changes in her young life, from the Japanese to the Kuomintang and finally, the Communist Party – the Party which she idealistically supported, applied to join and, through which, met her husband. And then, Chang’s own story takes over. As she grows up throughout the time period of Mao and the Communist Party’s rule, from the Cult of Mao to the Cultural Revolution and beyond, the combination of privilege and ordeals she and her family suffer through due to her father’s high official role in the Party, and Chang’s own personal experiences with education (and lack thereof) and work as a peasant, “barefoot doctor,” steelworker, electrician and again as a student are astounding. To have lived through and seen so much, for herself and her family…I honestly don’t know how to really put it into words.
The scope of this novel is incredible, giving a personal and intimate vibe from the author sharing the story of herself and her own family, but simultaneously providing the reader a sweeping and first-hand account of almost a century of China’s history. It was intense and included some of the most consistent violence (physical, emotional, state, etc.) that I have ever read all in one place. And knowing that in many ways her family was still better off than many millions of others throughout the country is hard to conceptualize. But at the same time, Chang manages to infuse a moving testament to a people and a nation that survived; although much was lost (time, lives, youth, history, culture, tradition, and more), there is still a pulse the beats in the nation that is stronger than those who sought to subdue it. And the way the people fought to survive, and many continued to work and sacrifice for something bigger, for a better tomorrow for their country, throughout it all is, at the end of the day, inspiring and hopeful. It really hit home for me, the message that both are ok – to be deeply disappointed in/disillusioned by your homeland, yet to know that fighting to make it what it could be is worth it.
I learned so much from reading this. The period of Chinese history related to Mao and Communism is something vilified by the West. I myself remember hearing about the “evil” coming from Communist countries, China included, and to this day, it is commonly used to incite nationalist feelings in the US. So, my only real knowledge of the truth of this time is, essentially, propaganda. And though, after reading this book, there can be no doubt about the evil perpetrated against Chinese citizens by its own government and, stirred up by internal inciting campaigns, against themselves, there is still, as always, more than one perspective that must be looked at. Vilifying and writing off the country as a whole is, of course, not the answer. And the honesty in the book, in addition to being a clear and searing indictment of Mao and his policies, shows a bigger picture, through the intimate experiences of Chang and her family. At the end, Chang speaks about Mao’s ability to take advantage of the common human traits of envy and resentment and, combined with the glorification of ignorance (and intentional manipulation and weaponization of words and information) that characterized his reign, allowed him to so fully subdue an entire country with fear and in-fighting to benefit whatever his own power-searching ends were. It’s a beautifully succinct summary of so much turmoil and tragedy and it must have been so difficult for her to think so deeply about her own painful past in order to reach those conclusions. This is just such an impressive piece of nonfiction.
I was fascinated by (in all the ways, good and bad) this sweeping view of the recent history of China was a personal lens. I admired the fortitude and perseverance of Chang, her mother and grandmother and loved that this tale of such great historical and personal significance took the perspective of being told through the eyes of the competent and impressive women who lived it. So often, women’s views are the ones that come second, while men take the proverbial and literal lead, so this “flip” of that script was so satisfying and unique. I also appreciated the honest way Chang talked through her own indoctrination into the Cult of Mao and the many horrible events and years that it took her to intellectually connect him with China’s woes and truly question him as a leader in her own mind. It was so genuine and really gives the reader an idea of what it was like to grow up, be educated through and survive these years. This was not an easy read, nor was it fast (I worked through it in short chunks for about a month), but it was eye-opening, enlightening and is a wonderful tribute to the power of mother-daughter relationships and I’m so glad I read it.
A few quotes the really stuck out to me as I was reading:
“If you have love, even plain cold water is sweet.”
“In this vast land, there was nowhere anyone could hide.”
“The Cultural Revolution had taught me not to divide people by their beliefs, but by whether they were capable of cruelty and viciousness or not.”
“…boredom was as exhausting as backbreaking labor.”
“I could understand ignorance, but I could not accept its glorification, much less its right to rule.”
“…repression was at its worst when there was no complaint…”