History: First published in 1991, Wild Swans contains the biographies of her grandmother and her mother, then finally her own autobiography.
The biggest grossing non-fiction paperback in publishing history, it sold more than 10m copies worldwide and was translated into 30 languages. It wasn't just a popular success appealing mainly to women (as is sometimes sniffily assumed), it was also acclaimed by literary heavyweights such as Martin Amis and JG Ballard.
Published two years after the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Jung Chang's family memoir, following the lives of three generations of women through China's terrible 20th century, arrived at just the right time to satisfy a readership hungry for information about this unknown country. For many in the west, Wild Swans was their first real insight into life under the Chinese Communist party.
The book won two awards: the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year. The book has been translated into 30 languages and sold over 10 million copies. Wild Swans was first translated into Chinese and published in mainland China in 1997.
Plot: The book starts by relating the biography of Chang's grandmother (Yu-fang). From the age of two, she had bound feet. As the family was relatively poor, her father schemed to have her taken as a concubine to a high-ranking warlord General Xue Zhi-heng, in order to gain status, which was hugely important in terms of quality of life. After a wedding ceremony to the General, who already had a wife and many concubines, the young girl was left alone in a wealthy household with servants, and did not see her "husband" again for six years. Despite her luxurious surroundings, life was tense as she feared the servants and the wife of the General would report rumors or outright lies to him. She was not even allowed to visit her parents home.
After his six year absence, the General made a brief conjugal visit to his concubine, during which a daughter, Chang's mother, was conceived. General did not stay there for long, even to see his daughter but he named his daughter Bao Qin meaning precious zither. During the child's infancy, Chang's grandmother put off persistent requests for her to be brought to the General's main household, until he became very ill and it was no longer a request. Chang's grandmother had no choice but to comply. During her visit to the household, the General was dying. The general had no male heir, and Chang's mother was very important to the family. Realizing that the General's wife would have complete control over her life and her child's, when he would die, Chang's grandmother fled with her baby to her parents' home, sending false word to her husband's family that the child had died. With his last words, the General unexpectedly proclaimed her free at age twenty-four. Eventually she married a much older doctor (Dr. Xia) with whom she and her daughter, Chang's mother, made a home in Jinzhou, Manchuria. She was no more a concubine, but a true, beloved wife.
The book now moves to the story of Chang's mother (Bao Qin/De-hong), who at the age of fifteen, began working for the Communist Party of China and Mao Zedong's Red Army. As the Revolution progressed, her work for the party helped her rise through the ranks. She met the man who would become Chang's father (Wang Yu/Shou-yu), a high-ranking officer. The couple were soon married but Communist Party dictates meant they were not allowed to spend much time together. Eventually, the couple were transferred to Yibin, Chang's father's hometown. It was a long and arduous trek. Chang's mother traveled on foot because of her rank, while her father rode in a Jeep. He was not aware that Chang's mother was pregnant. After arrival at Nanjing, Chang's mother undertook gruelling military training. After the strain of the training coupled with the journey, she suffered a miscarriage. Chang's father swore to never again be inattentive to his wife's needs.
In the following years Chang's mother gave birth to Jung and four other children. The focus of the book now shifts again to cover Jung's own autobiography.
The Cultural Revolution started when Chang was a teenager. Chang willingly joined the Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions. As Mao's personality cult grew, life became more difficult and dangerous. Chang's father became a target for the Red Guards when he mildly but openly criticised Mao due to the suffering caused to Chinese people by the Cultural Revolution. Chang's parents were labeled as capitalist roaders and made subjects of public struggle meetings and torture. Chang recalls that her father deteriorated physically and mentally, until his eventual death. Her father's treatment prompted Chang's previous doubts about Mao to come to the fore. Like thousands of other young people, Chang was sent down to the countryside for education and thought reform by the peasants, a difficult, harsh and pointless experience. At the end of the Cultural Revolution Chang returned home and worked hard to gain a place at university. Not long after she succeeded, Mao died. The whole nation was shocked in mourning, though Chang writes that: "People had been acting for so long they confused it with their true feelings. I wondered how many of the tears were genuine". Chang said that she felt exhilarated by Mao's death.
At university Chang studied English. After her graduation and a stint as an assistant lecturer, she won a scholarship to study in England and left for her new home. She still lives in England today and visits mainland China on occasion to see her family and friends there, with permission from Chinese authorities.
Review: In Wild Swans Jung Chang recounts the evocative, unsettling, and insistently gripping story of how three generations of women in her family fared in the political maelstrom of China during the 20th century. Chang's grandmother was a warlord's concubine. Her gently raised mother struggled with hardships in the early days of Mao's revolution and rose, like her husband, to a prominent position in the Communist Party before being denounced during the Cultural Revolution. Chang herself marched, worked, and breathed for Mao until doubt crept in over the excesses of his policies and purges. Born just a few decades apart, their lives overlap with the end of the warlords' regime and overthrow of the Japanese occupation, violent struggles between the Kuomintang and the Communists to carve up China, and, most poignant for the author, the vicious cycle of purges orchestrated by Chairman Mao that discredited and crushed millions of people, including her parents.
Opening Line: “At the age of fifteen, my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general, the police chief of a tenuous national government of China.”
Closing Line: “There have been moments of frustration in the years of hard work, and times I exclaimed to myself and to friends, “I’m fed up,” but I am in seventh heaven.”
Quotes: “The Cultural Revolution not only did nothing to modernize the medieval elements in China’s culture, it actually gave them political respectability. ‘Modern’ dictatorship and ancient intolerance fed on each other. Anyone who fell foul of the age-old conservative attitudes could now become a political victim.”