London Book Fair. Event 1.
Jung Chang's family biography, Wild Swans (my review is here), has sold more than 13.5 million copies, but probably many more people have read it since it has been scanned and put on the internet for readers in China, where it is banned. It is a piracy that has its author's blessing. Jung Chang wants, above all, to have her work read.
Jung Chang's second book was also controversial: a biography of Chairman Mao, Mao: The Unknown Story, which was co-written by Jon Halliday. The research was conducted in the 1990s when there was a window of openness. Such research would not be permitted today. This biography was banned very strictly, and partly as a result of this, the Wild Swans memoir was banned, but not quite as strictly.
Jung Chang talked about the necessity of writing with an 'invisible pen' when she was exiled to the Himalayas during the Cultural Revolution - although she didn't have a chance to physically write she was writing it in her head. When she did, the process of writing the book brought her closer to her mother, and her mother said that even if the book did not prove to be a success it had served its purpose in this way.
She said that the Mao myth is perpetuated today in modern China. He caused the death of millions of people, and without Mao she proposed that China would today be like Taiwan. She says that even today writers write from inside a strait jacket.
Gillian Slovo suggested that maybe living under repression could cause great literature to flower, but Chung Jang said no - in fact it suppresses creativity. She likened the repression to magma under a dormant volcano. There is trauma there, but it is suppressed. A mention of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution can cause even the most controlled high-ranking bureaucrat to become agitated. Dreadful things happened, but writing about such things is discouraged.
Jung Chang's current project should prove less controversial - it is a biography of the Empress Dowager who was responsible for bring China into the twentieth century. It sounds like it will be another very good read!