Book Review: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Wild Swans by Jung ChangReading this book, totally caught up with the unfolding terror, I kept thinking that Wild Swans ought to be a set text in schools.  I am shocked at how ignorant I was about China and its history.  The events of the country’s last century alone would have kept me enthralled with horror during my history lessons if they had been mentioned on the curriculum.

The novel recounts the lives of three generations of women: the writer Jung Chang, her mother, and her grandmother.  In her youth, her grandmother lived the traditionally repressed life expected of a Chinese woman of her time, with no voice and no freedom.  She was forced to become a concubine to increase her father’s power and standing in society, but was lucky to escape this “gilded cage” when her daughter was two years old and was eventually able to forge a new life somewhat more on her own terms.

This part of the book, perhaps the first quarter, was written honestly and gracefully.  In my head I could hear what I imagined to be the soft, quiet voice of the narrator describing both lavish Chinese dwellings and the day-to-day misery of existence as a concubine with bound feet.  My interest was piqued, and yet the pace allows the reader time to become charmed by and attached to the characters introduced.

Then, as the focus of the novel gradually switches to the narrator’s mother and political fever begins to grip the country, the tone of the novel seemed to me to shift.  The new Communist ways inject a sense of urgency and intensity into everything, totally rejecting the country’s deep-rooted traditions, values and culture, which the reader has grown accustomed to during Chang’s grandmother’s story.  Interestingly, the reader actually gains a deeper insight into the characters’ lives from this point on, as their true strengths, personalities and emotions are forced into the open – ironic really, seeing as Communism aimed to remove individualism from society.

As the narrator describes the Communists becoming more and more powerful, and we see Mao’s new policies becoming increasingly extreme, the book’s grip on me strengthened.  I found it more frightening to read knowing it to be a memoir than if it had been a fictional horror story.  You can become a little desensitised to horror, being exposed to it in a ‘safe’ way in the media here in the West, but this book spooked me because the events described actually happened to real people: the brainwashing, scapegoating, fingerpointing, and the inciting of hatred quite simply hit too close to home.

You can’t help but feel outraged at the injustice and irrational behaviour which was actively encouraged by the party at the time, a mere 50 years ago.  And yet Chang reveals how easy it was for a glory-crazed dictator to manipulate a whole population.  It chills me to think of Mao’s tactics applied to today’s Western society, but just look at the way American politicians can suck in a whole audience to follow their every word.  It’s crucial to reflect on the fact that something like this can happen in modern history.  Once the ball starts rolling, once you’re involved it can be easier to let it carry on gathering pace than to get in its way.  Many writers have tackled this theme: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, imagines a future world plagued by infertility where women are categorised and their freedom slowly but successfully taken away, under the guise of being for the good of the country.  Bank accounts are frozen, uniforms are allocated, and even their names are replaced with ones indicating that they are now mere possessions: “Offred”, our narrator, is “of Fred”, or belonging to Fred.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The other frightening aspect of Wild Swans is the honesty of our narrator.  The reader comes to trust her voice and her opinion, and yet she herself is sucked into the cult of Mao.  She frankly describes actions which she is now ashamed of, such as joining the Red Guard as a teenager, and examines the fanatical emotions she held at the time for the party, while at the same time reflecting on the calculating cleverness of Mao’s brainwashing.  We are therefore able to abhor Mao, while understanding and even sympathising with her reactions and those of others around her.

Wild Swans is an intelligent and well-written account of a personal history.  Whether you read it to educate yourself or read it to become captivated by a natural storyteller, you are sure to be moved by the time you read the final pages.

You can buy Wild Swans from Waterstones here, or from Amazon in print or as an eBook here.

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