Wild Swans has something of a mythical status. After I first purchased the £2 paperback from the top of a pile of books beside the door of a bookshop, I showed it to my mum. ‘You haven’t heard of it?’ she asked in surprise. ‘Even I’ve read half of it.’ For my mum, at the time a non-reader (now a hyper-competitive reader), this was saying something. My aunt had read it too, all of it, and she isn’t the kind of person who, like me, squashes reading into her daily routine no matter what. I suppose you’d call her a casual reader. My grandmother, too, has read it. It was apparently a phenomenon around the time I was born, which I think fairly excuses the fact that I wasn’t aware of it.
I saw the subtitle ‘Three Daughters of China’ and the three black and white photos of alternately smiling and pensive-looking women and that’s why I picked it up. I’d always been interested in Chinese culture and history, and the generational format appealed to me. I love a good family saga that sweeps across generations; usually though, they’re fictional. I started reading the book over two years ago on a plane. I was seventeen at the time and I put it down after that holiday and didn’t pick it up again, but I left my bookmark in it, a reliable sign that I don’t feel like I’m quite done with a book yet.
When I returned to St Andrews this September a friend told me she’d read it, for lack of something more appropriate, at the age of eight, not understanding what a concubine was. I decided it was time to rise to the challenge and I opened Wild Swans up again, took out my bookmark and returned to the beginning. Three weeks later, I finally put it down. It is a long book and I read it slowly, often only a chapter at a time. It reads so easily but the subject matter can be very difficult to digest. One night I went to sleep uneasy; a chapter on the famine at the end of the 1950s had concluded with an account of a man handing himself into the authorities after eating his own baby in desperation.
No, it’s not an easy book to read at times like that. When Jung’s own father won’t let her mother ride in a car alongside him, instead forcing her to walk hundreds of miles until she miscarries, because only his Communist status permits him that privilege and he doesn’t want to show favouritism, it’s hard. When he is later forced to burn the collection of books he has spent his life gathering and is consequently driven beyond the brink of sanity, it’s heart-breaking. The best and worst of every character is explored in this 700-page epic, and it is because they are not characters but real human beings that this book is so incredibly important.
At a Language International Culture (LINC) Society event the other day, an introduction to Chinese culture, the speaker said that the past hundred years for China have been ‘a disaster’. Had I not been reading Wild Swans at the time I would almost certainly not have understood what he meant; since I had, I felt he could not have expressed it better. From the fall of an empire to Japanese occupation, civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists, to Maoist fanaticism and the Cultural Revolution, the twentieth century in China was a period of unbelievable conflict and change.
The lives of three generations of Jung Chang’s family are retold in a personal and detailed way, focussing primarily on the struggles of her grandmother and mother and then telling of her own journey from unquestioning adoration in ‘the Cult of Mao’ to a much more critical and open-minded stance later in life which leads her to seek a life of exploration, travelling the world and ultimately settling in England. This is the story of three dynamic, independent and strong-willed women and their struggle to create a life for themselves in a rapidly changing world. Essential reading not only for those interested in the history of China, but for those who know what it is to feel proud of the line of strong and inspirational women to which you belong.
Image by Jung Chang