Past Issue




Heartbreak and Hope

Diane Sherlock on Jung Chang

Jung Chang's Wild Swans is the story of three extraordinary women, and the story of China over the last hundred years. It reveals the secrets of one family, from the sale of Chang's grandmother to an aging warlord in 1924 to that of her daughter, Xia De-hong ("wild swan"), who became a Communist during the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-Shek, and on to Jung Chang's own experiences as a Red Guard and a peasant "bare-foot" doctor before she left China in 1978 to study in Britain.

– HarperCollins Publishers Australia

A combination of insightful memoir and descriptive chronicle of China from 1909-78 through the experience of Chang, her mother, and her grandmother, Wild Swans is an excellent introduction to visiting that country. It is also a fascinating account of how war affected three generations, from the concubine with her bound feet . . .

[A] woman teetering on bound feet was supposed to have an erotic effect on men, partly because vulnerability induced a feeling of protectiveness in the onlooker [24]

to one of Mao's party members to the author herself. The book is still banned in China, but on our trip, we found that a number of Chinese had read it.

Our visit included Beijing, Xi'an, five days down the Yangtze River, and ended in Shanghai. We went to palaces and rural farms, to modern buildings and ancient tombs. It is a testament to her narrative skill that Chang weaves into the story so many experiences and areas of China, a vast and diverse country, and gives the reader an understanding of some of the history and culture during the early to mid-20th century. Throughout our trip, we saw echoes of that old China, of Maoist China, along with rural China, bustling modern cities, old villages and brand-new towns created after similar villages were submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. It's been said that whatever you say about China, the opposite is also true. Even after a short trip of two weeks, that makes a lot of sense.

Chang's father was born in Yibin and moved to nearby Chongqing in 1935 to find a job. We visited Chongqing. With a population of less than a million in the 1930s, it is now one of the world's largest cities, with nearly 30 million people. It's difficult to describe the scale; cities in China give new meaning to the word crowded. As with Chang's father, the father of our guide was a staunch Maoist, despite the tens of millions who died from torture, forced labor, purges, assassinations, ethnic massacres and class genocide under Mao's rule, including the 20-40 million who starved during the Great Leap Forward (both of which Chang documents in her exhaustive biography, Mao: The Unknown Story). Even now, the occasional joke or mild criticism we heard about Mao was followed by a quick look over the shoulder.

Through the haze of pollution that's everywhere in Beijing, we saw Mao's picture still prominently displayed and a long line to view his tomb. In the middle of Tiananmen Square, we were treated like rock stars by locals who wanted our picture. We began to wonder how many photo albums around China we ended up in. We also had the opportunity to visit a private home in the hutongs [narrow streets] outside of the Forbidden City and stroll the walkways of the Summer Palace, as well as the Great Wall, with some appreciation of the history, thanks to Wild Swans and our guide.

Throughout China, it was repeatedly called to our attention how much was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Fortunately, aesthetics have returned to China. Many of the new buildings are beautiful, and there are artists and artisans at work. We attended the Peking Opera, site of one of the more heart-rending scenes in the book:

There was a performance of the Peking Opera that night in another part of the city, with one of China's most famous stars in the lead. My mother inherited her mother's passion for the Peking Opera and was looking forward eagerly to the performance.

That evening she walked with her comrades in file to the opera, which was about five miles away. My father went in his car. On the way, my mother felt more pain in her abdomen, and contemplated turning back, but decided against it. Halfway through the performance the pain became unbearable. She went over to where my father was sitting and asked him to take her home in his car. . . . "How can I interrupt (the driver's) enjoyment just because my wife wants to leave?" [145]

And so her mother walks back the five miles to her barracks and loses her first child with no one around.

As with China, there is much in the book to break one's heart, but also reasons for hope. Wild Swans ends in the years 1976-78, which include Chang's re-education assignment on the outskirts of Chengdu and from there to Xi'an (now known for the Terracotta Warriors), where she took the exams that enabled her to go to London and ultimately to write this book. China has come a long way since the days under Mao, when,

The whole nation slid into doublespeak. Words became divorced from reality, responsibility, and people's real thoughts. Lies were told with ease because words had lost their meanings-and had ceased to be taken seriously by others. [225]

There is still much to make the case that for Old Hundred Names (the peasants), not much has changed since the time of the emperors, and yet China is modernizing at a staggering pace. In many ways, China is on the cusp, with a myriad of factors that could tip its future. Whatever conclusions one draws about China, the opposite is also sure to be true.

Diane Sherlock is the author of four novels, Dead Weight, Willful Ignorance, Growing Chocolate, and the upcoming Wrestling Alligators. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, scissors and spackle, The Citron Review, Mo+th (Bombshelter), and Bird in the Hand: Risk & Flight (Outrider). She co-founded and edits and maintains a blog on the craft of fiction writing. Diane holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Born in La Jolla, California, she currently lives in Los Angeles. Twitter: @Diane_Sherlock.