On Wild Swans

I recently finished reading Wild Swans – Three Daughters of China – by Jung Chang. This book was selected as our next reading within the Houston Nonfiction Book Club that I am a member of.

The author’s introduction outlines the driver behind writing this book and the stories that are about to follow:

But it was years before I wrote Wild Swans. Subconsciously, I resisted the idea of writing. I was unable to dig deep into my memory. In the violent Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, my family suffered atrociously. Both my father and my grandmother died painful deaths. I did not want to relive my grandmother’s years of untreated illness, my father’s imprisonment, and my mother’s kneeling on broken glass. The few lines I produced were superficial and lifeless. I was not happy with them. Then, in 1988, my mother came to London to stay with me. This was her first trip abroad.

I wanted her to enjoy herself thoroughly, and spent much time taking her out. After a short while, I noticed she was not having the time of her life. Something was on her mind; she was restless. One day, she declined a shopping trip, and settled at my black dining table on which a bouquet of golden daffodils shone. Cupping a mug of jasmine tea in her hands, she told me that what she most wanted to do was to talk to me.

My mother talked every day for months. For the first time in our lives, she told me about herself and about my grandmother. My grandmother, I learned, had been the concubine of a warlord general, and my mother had joined the Communist underground at the age of fifteen. Both of them had eventful lives in a China that was tossed about by wars, foreign invasions, revolutions, and then a totalitarian tyranny. In the general maelstrom they were involved in poignant romances. I learned about my mother’s ordeals, her close shaves with death, and her love for my father and emotional conflicts with him. I also came to know the agonizing details of my grandmother’s foot binding: how her feet had been crushed under a big stone when she was two to satisfy the standards of beauty of the day….

As I listened to my mother, I was overwhelmed by her longing to be understood by me. It also struck me that she would really love me to write. She seemed to know that writing was where my heart lay, and was encouraging me to fulfill my dreams. She did this not through making demands, which she never did, but by providing me with stories—and showing me how to face the past. Despite her having lived a life of suffering and torment, her stories were not unbearable or depressing. Underlying them was a fortitude that was all the time uplifting.

It was my mother who finally inspired me to write Wild Swans, the stories of my grandmother, my mother, and myself through the turbulence of twentieth-century China. For two years, I shed my fair share 01 tears, and tossed and turned through quite a few sleepless nights. I would not have persevered had it not been for the fact that by that time ; “I’d found a love that filled my life and cushioned me with a deep tranquility. Jon Halliday, my knight without armor, for his inner strength under the softest exterior is enough to conquer, is the most priceless treasure I have taken from my adopted country, Britain. He was there, and everything would be all right—everything, including the writing of Wild Swans.

Wild Swans turned out to be a success…The sad thing in this otherwise perfect happy ending is that Wild Swans is not allowed to be published in Mainland China. The regime seems to regard the book as a threat to the Communist Party’s power. Wild Swans is a personal story, but it reflects the history of twentieth-century China, from which the Party does not come out well. To justify its rule, the Party has dictated an official version of history, but Wild Swans does not tie that line. In particular, Wild Swans shows Mao to have criminally misruled the Chinese people, rather than being basically a good and great leader, as Peking decrees. Today, Mao’s portrait still hangs on Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital, and across the vast cement expanse lies his corpse as an object of worship. The current leadership still upholds the myth of Mao— because it projects itself as his heir, and claims legitimacy from him. This is why publication of Wild Swans is banned in China. So is any mention of the book or of me in the media.

Since a significant portion of the book occurs during the beginnings of the communist era, there is a significant focus on Mao and his leadership/influence:

Mao made himself more godlike by shrouding himself in mystery. He always appeared remote, beyond human approach. He eschewed radio, and there was no television. Few people, except his court staff, ever had any contact with him. Even his colleagues at the very top only met him in a sort of formal audience. After Yan’an, my father only set eyes on him a few times, and then only at large-scale meetings. My mother only ever saw him once, when he came to Chengdu in 1958 and summoned all officials above Grade 18 to have a group photo taken with him. After the fiasco of the Great Leap Forward, he had disappeared almost completely.

Mao, the emperor, fitted one of the patterns of Chinese history: the leader of a nationwide peasant uprising who swept away a rotten dynasty and became a wise new emperor exercising absolute authority. And, in a sense, Mao could be said to have earned his g god-emperor status. He was responsible for ending the civil war and bringing peace and stability, which the Chinese always yearned for—so much that they said “It’s better to be a dog in peacetime than a human being in war.” It was under Mao that China became a power to be reckoned with in the world, and many Chinese stopped feeling ashamed and humiliated at being Chinese, which meant a tremendous amount to them. In reality, Mao turned China back to the days of the Middle Kingdom and, with the help of the United States, to isolation from the world. He enabled the Chinese to feel great and superior again. by blinding them to the world outside. Nonetheless, national pride was so important to the Chinese that much of the population was genuinely grateful to Mao, and did not find the cult of his personality offensive, certainly not at first. The near total lack of access to information and the systematic feeding of disinformation meant that most Chinese had no way to discriminate between Mao’s successes and his failures, or to identify the relative role of Mao and other leaders in the Communists’ achievements.

Fear was never absent in the building up of Mao’s cult. Many people had been reduced to a state where they did not dare even to think, in case their thoughts came out involuntarily. Even if they did entertain unorthodox ideas, few mentioned them to their children, as they might blurt out something to other children, which could brine disaster to themselves as well as their parents.

Following his death:

In the days after Mao’s death, I did a lot of thinking. I knew he was considered a philosopher, and I tried to think what his “philosophy really was. It seemed to me that its central principle was the need—or desire?—for perpetual conflict. The core of his thinking seemed to be that human struggles were the motivating force of history, and that in order to make history “class enemies” had to be continuously created en masse. I wondered whether there were any other philosophers whose theories had led to the suffering and death of so many. I thought of the terror and misery to which the Chinese population had been subjected. For what?

But Mao’s theory might just be the extension of his personality. He was, it seemed to me, really a restless fight promoter by nature, and good at it. He understood ugly human instincts such as envy and resentment, and knew how to mobilize them for his ends. He ruled by getting people to hate each other. In doing so, he got ordinary Chinese to carry out many of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by professional elites. Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. That was why under him there was no real equivalent of the KGB in China. There was no need. In bringing out and nourishing the worst in people, Mao had created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred. But how much individual responsibility ordinary people should share, I could not decide.

The other hallmark of Maoism, it seemed to me, was the reign of ignorance. Because of his calculation that the cultured class were an easy target for a population that was largely illiterate, because of his own deep resentment of formal education and the educated, because of his megalomania, which led to his scorn for the great figures of Chinese culture, and because of his contempt for the areas of Chinese civilization that he did not understand, such as architecture, art, and music, Mao destroyed much of the country’s cultural heritage. He left behind not only a brutalized nation, but also an ugly land with little of its past glory remaining or appreciated.

China has become an altogether different place since I left. At the end of 1978, the Communist Party dumped Mao’s “class struggle.” Social outcasts, including the “class enemies” in my book, were rehabilitated; among them were my mother’s friend?; from Manchuria who had been branded “counterrevolutionaries” in 1955. Official discrimination against them and their families stopped. They were able to leave their hard physical labor, and were given much better jobs. Many were invited into the Communist Party and made officials. Yulin, my great-uncle, and his wife and children were allowed back to Jinzhou from the countryside in 1950. He became the chief accountant in a medicine company, and she the headmistress of a kindergarten.

Verdicts clearing the victims were drawn up and lodged in their files. The old incriminating records were taken out and burned. In every organization across China, bonfires were lit to consume these flimsy pieces of paper that had ruined countless lives.

A must read both as a personal story and for its historical and political significance.

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