Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Salon: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

There was a time, about fifteen years ago, when everyone seemed to be reading this book. I didn't - just because it was so popular. Usually, when I read best sellers I am disappointed. Now I just wish I'd read it then, and also think that it's an important book that deserves as wide an audience as possible. It's an excellent way of learning about recent Chinese history - at least from the viewpoint of one family.

Jung Chang's grandmother was the daughter of a war lord and his concubine. This concubine, Jung Chang's great grandmother, was regarded as one of her father's greatest assets. She was beautiful with a slender frame and delicate features, and she also had 'lotus feet' achieved by binding and breaking bones when she was a toddler - an operation carried out by her mother. As I have mentioned before bound feet were supposed to be erotic and Jung Chang explains why. Men were supposed to find the helpless way of walking, and the woman's child-like dependency arousing some kind of protective feeling in the man. Youthful features are generally thought to be sexually attractive - it is thought to be one reason why blondes have more fun, and women constantly strive to look slim. All these features mimic the young of our species - and maybe the attraction of the new and unsullied. Maybe, in some way, the bound feet were associated with virginity.

The concubine rarely saw her lover, but on the second occasion that she did she became pregnant. The daughter, Jung Chang's mother, was given a name (in earlier generations some daughters had just been allotted numbers ('number three daughter') meaning Wild Swan. It was a strange life of isolation and comfort. She was constantly on tenterhooks because servants were spies, quite happy to report transgressions to the warlord master in order to ingratiate themselves. Since these might be invented and the punishment for even some trivial-sounding crimes was death.

Eventually the warlord becomes politically and physically weaker, and Jung Chang's great grandmother has to yield to his request to come and live with his wives and other concubines. Life there is predictably unpleasant with much bullying, and the prospect of being sold into slavery or prostitution when the old warlord dies. Jung's grandmother and mother escape, and the warlord's last act is to grant them their freedom.

Eventually she marries the mysterious and very attractive figure of Dr Xia. He is already fairly elderly when they marry and there is much opposition from his children (who are already parents and grandparents in their own right). In fact there is so much opposition that Dr Xia has a show-down with his eldest son which causes the son to have so much loss of face that he accidentally kills himself. Despite this Dr Xia marries, and although very wealthy makes the noble decision to leave his wealth to his children and take ex-concubine and her daughter to live elsewhere in a shack.

The mother grows up defiant and unafraid. She lives through the turbulent periods following the second world war and eventually becomes an ardent communist. She meets her husband, Jung Chang's father who has already shown his mettle as a Communist terrorist. Jung Chang's father is dedicated to communism. He refuses to make allowances for his wife, and when they have to march long distances is unsympathetic to her exhaustion, and even when this is shown to be due to pregnancy (after a miscarriage) he is little warmer. He seems cold, disciplined and above all highly principled.

Jung Chang's father in 1966 before the Cultural Revolution, and in the camp just over 5 years later.

When the Communists are eventually fully in charge the life of Jung Chang's parents, siblings and Jung Chang herself is one of relative luxury. At first the husband and wife are only allowed to spend the night together once a week, but eventually they have superior accommodation in Yibin together. They have a wet nurse, a maid and various other trappings. Things take a bit of a downturn when a powerful woman called Mrs Ting tries to seduce the father but they move to Chengdu be out of her influence.

Mrs Ting turns out to be the families constant adversary. She has many enemies and is endlessly vindictive. I think most people have their Mrs Ting but in Communist China this Mrs Ting was powerful. As Mao and Mrs Mao plotted and twisted in Beijing, turning against former allies and plotting anarchy as a way to divide and weaken enemies, so Mrs Ting and her husband plotted and conspired too. The advent of the Red Guards (of which Jung Chang was one), which victimised isolated people like teachers and artists, was the start of the Cultural Revolution. Then came the Rebels who were encouraged to attack the officials of the party, and then these rebels became factions fighting each other. Everyone had a side, and everyone could be attacked. There were new political campaigns and Jung Chang's parents had to endure months of meetings in which they would be verbally and physically attacked, eventually being detained and then sent to the countryside in conditions close to a gulag. Somewhere along the way the father has to burn his precious books, and this scene, and a scene where he eventually glimpses the mother after two years are the most touching in the book.

The schools by this time (end of 1960s) are closed. Jung Chang, together with her sister and friends are sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants. They live in a mud hut and work in the fields. It is back-breaking work. Getting back to have town citizenship and the all-important food ration is difficult and involves an arduous trip to get pieces of paper sealed, but eventually Jung Chang's family is reunited when the Tings are removed from power and her mother and then her father have been rehabilitated. By this time it is too late. Jung Chang's father is a broken man. Earlier he had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and now he lives on tranquilisers. In the labour camp he had time to reflect. When news had come that his wife was seriously ill he had asked her to 'accept my apologies that come a life-time too late.'

The mother returns to work and makes the essential back door negotiations for Jung Chang to go to university, but her father refuses. It is only after being pressurised that he gives in and lends his influence. It is Jung Chang's father that I shall remember mostly from this book. He was a graceful, learned man who loved literature. He was harshly correct and disciplined and yet photographs show him to be a man with a sensitive tormented face. He is strong willed and confident in his beliefs which makes his breakdown all the more dramatically tragic. When he died Jung Chang's mother had to work hard to make sure he had the correct eulogy, but she succeeded. It meant that his children would no longer carry the stigma he had accumulated at the end of his life. As with all such eulogies it seems a pity he didn't hear it.


Blogger SomeBeans said...

I too regret not reading Wild Swans sooner, it is a great book.

I think the thing that really sticks in my mind are the opening stages of the Cultural Revolution where young students are urged to rise up against their teachers, it was terrifying.

I once worked in a research group where a Chinese professor in his fifties was visiting, the boss said he'd "worked in a field" during the Cultural Revolution: I had no idea.

Sun Jan 17, 04:45:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, and the things I kept thinking is that there is always the potential for this to happen anywhere - all it takes is for the restraint to go.

Your comment about the field work has made me think about the time I shared an office with a man about my age in the late eighties. He was from China on a studentship - I now wish I could speak to him again and ask him about his life. I also wish that I'd read this before I'd made my own trip to China...well in some ways...I had no idea either.

Sun Jan 17, 05:12:00 pm  
Blogger Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I read this a few years ago (probably at the same time as everyone else!) I remember finding the content of the story fascinating, but the style - all those short sentences - really started to grate on me by the end.

Mon Jan 18, 06:51:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I hadn't noticed that Cath! I suppose I just got swept along by what was happening. I'll take another look now. Thanks for your comment.

Mon Jan 18, 09:47:00 pm  

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