I first tried reading ‘Wild Swans’ many years ago. I distinctly remember making it through a description of Jung Chang’s grandmother’s bound and rotting feet (in chapter 1: ‘Three-inch Golden Lillies’). I stopped reading in the section where the narrator’s mother sees her class-mate mutilated when their school is conscripted to work in a textile factory. I think I had been told that this was an important book in the feminist canon, without anyone warning me of quite how hard it was to survive as a woman during the decades chronicled.
Now, I’m older, more accustomed to reading about harsh truths in literature and absolutely determined to complete my 2016 non-fiction reading project. Making a good start to July, I have succeeding in finally completing ‘Wild Swans’; at last I’m fully qualified to join the ranks of those who love it.
If, like me, you get much of your general knowledge from literature, ‘Wild Swans’ is a must-read for understanding 20th century Chinese history. Although it does not shy away from the horrors (and the biographical focus makes these stories all the more personal and disturbing), it also celebrates the narrator’s family and heritage. While the grandmother may be forced to hobble rather than walk with pride, she also finds love and proves herself to be a surviver in her restrictively patriarchal world. Chang’s parents were both high ranking officials in the Communist party, proving their commitment through physical and emotional suffering, but also showing determined humanity and loyalty in the face of systematic persecution. Finally, Chang herself presents an incredible contrast to the life story of any UK child of the ’50s. Whether going on a pilgrimage to catch a glimpse of Chairman Mao, working as a teenage ‘barefoot doctor’ or trying to visit her parents in different prison camps, she is a human and sympathetic guide to a bewildering period of history.
‘Wild Swans’ is every bit as enthralling as its enduring reputation suggests. According to Wikipedia it’s sold over 13 million copies worldwide, all I can say is that I hope every one of those books was read and then re-read. It may have taken me some time, but I couldn’t have found a better introduction to recent Chinese history, or a better narrator to explain it to me. Highly, highly recommended.