Book review – Wild Swans by Jung Chang

How do I even begin explaining this book? What is it about? Well, it’s about the people of China, the rise of Mao and his era, it’s about culture and revolution, and it’s about people pushed to their limists, but first of all it is a family saga about thee generations of women beginning with stories about the authors grandmother, before moving to her mother and in the end, herself. I naively thought it would begin with hardship and get better over time; little did I know.

The only way to say no and be taken seriously was to commit suicide. My grandmother bit her lip and said nothing. In fact, there was nothing she could say. Even to say yes would be considered unladylike, as it would be taken to imply that she was eager to leave her parents.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, feels like the theme of the book. This is personal work, as she is writing about her own family members and her own story, as well as she is giving us an introduction to China through the last century with eyes that now know better. It begins with her grandmother with her bound feet being married off to be a concubine ends up running away with her child. That child, the authors mother and the authors father are part of the communist elite and raise their children under Mao’s rule. The stories told are both first and second hand, they are violent, scary, sad, terrifying and heartbreaking in so many different ways.

He told her that she must be strong, and that as a young student “joining the revolution” she needed to “go through the five mountain passes” which meant adopting a completely new attitude to family, profession, love, life-style, and manual labor, through embracing hardship and trauma.

Whatever you do, you just can’t win, the goal is to suffer. I cannot even begin to fathom living under the conditions described in this book. I was in no way prepared for this, and I knew very little of Chinese history, so if you’re anything like me, prepare for a hard introduction. If you already know this, it must also be interesting to see the views of someone that’s lived it. So many parts of this book is so brutal that it’s hard to even think about, let alone try to imagine.

One day a peasant burst into his room and threw himself on the floor, screaming that he had committed a terrible crime and begging to be punished. Eventually it came out that he had killed his own baby and eaten it. Hunger had been like an uncontrollable force driving him to take up the knife. With tears rolling down his cheeks, the official ordered the peasant to be arrested. Later he was shot as a warning to baby killers.

Jung Chang herself grew up in the midst of it, as a red guard, as a barefoot doctor and an electrician. She has seen firsthand how hunger can push a person to do unspeakable things. She knows what it is to grow up in a place where books and movies or any form of appreciating culture is illegal. I cannot even begin to understand what that is like. I can’t pretend to grasp what it means to fear for your life by giving the wrong answer to a question that holds no right answer. This book served me up some perspective and supplied me with a severe dose of gratitude. And I realize that this, THIS, is why it’s so important to read world literature! This is the perfect example, and as Carl Sagan said “You have to know the past to understand the present” and as we deal with globalization and integration, we need more sensitivity not only to what is before us, but what came before the moment we stand in.

Mao offered a magic cure to the peasants: ‘doctors’ who could be turned out en masse, barefoot doctors. “It is not all necessary to have so much formal training” he said. “They should mainly learn and raise their standard in practice”. On 26 June 1965 he made the remark which became a guideline for health and education: “The more books you read, the more stupid you become.” I went to work with absolutely no training.