Real life history can make for some great narratives; especially one that maintains the honesty and reality of a personal journal while concurrently exhibiting a seasoned novelist’s vivid penmanship in its delivery. Wild Swans is a meaningful, enjoyable and thoughtful experience in historical, and autobiographical narration. Written by Jung Chang and first published in 1991, Wild Swans is an epic multi-generational autobiographical narrative. The breadth of the book is nothing less than epic. It spans three generations of women in Chang’s family line. While serving as a history of her family, the story is just as importantly a great primary source on several interesting periods in Chinese history. Note that the women in Chang’s family were alive at a time when rapid transformation occurred in China and the world at large. The portraits of their lives are like peering through a looking glass and observing China as it was for people experiencing the rapid change sweeping patchwork and inconsistently through the country.
The narrative is written in very clear language. It’s not overly flowery and doesn’t try to assume too much about the reader’s understanding of China’s history over the past century. Wild Swans is a textbook in this way and will teach you the basic outlines of the important events. Jung Chang gives you deep and valid instruction in 20th century China but with all of the personality of a diary and the style of a novelist.
The lives of Jung Chang, her mother and her grandmother offers you this very powerful image of what life was like for women during these very different times. The grandmother is basically a pawn of her father with what basically seemed like no value other than her gender. Her father basically sold her for favors as a concubine. She was raised, with bound, painful bloody feet to be a suitable concubine to a person of high status. Through the portrait of her life you get a very personal understanding of the way things were for women at that time. Chang’s mother, growing up in the next generation through a time of numerous revolutions and a greatly divided China has a very different experience. While her life was certainly difficult and tumultuous at times, she does have a certain level of freedom that her mother would find generally unfathomable. She joins the communist party and is a revolutionary in her own right. She marries not for status or out of obligation but with a man of her choosing who himself was in the thick of the revolution and both participated in the Red Army and Mao’s government that was installed later. The story of their life within Mao’s bureaucracy is jarring. The things they went through and the strains it put on not only their lives but the also the relationships within their family will grab you and beg for your pity. However the writer wants none of it. Her prose is an affirmation that they simply survived as people had to in those times.
Jung Chang’s autobiographical story follows linearly after that of her grandmother and mother. The book is a straight shot through their lives following through from one generation to the next. It’s epic. That is the only way in which to describe it. Chang’s story is so thoroughly interesting. Obviously her life is the light at the end of the tunnel but it is wrought with disturbances.
Although the story primarily details the lives of the matriarchs in her family the stories of the men in their lives are vital to an understanding of their lives. Her grandmother was raised by her great grandfather to be married off for status. But it is interesting to see how he himself was raised with expectation as well. Her grandfather was groomed and married off at an early age to a woman who was supposed to help raise him into a man as was tradition in the norther part of China were they lived. He was taught that they aim of his life was status and prestige. He was sent to study for the old civil service examinations at great expense to his family and after achieving as far as he could through merit, he used the only other asset he had at his disposal. And that was his daughter. Chang doesn’t particularly write negatively about him. She is honest about his motives but also is able to maintain a level head in depicting him as not some simple heartless villain of a father but also a man. Her grandmother’s second husband, after her time as a concubine to a General, shows the strength and care of a good man who truly loved her grandmother and cared for her mother as his daughter. Once again, she avoids hyperbole in her explication of her characters, choosing instead to follow as close a she could to a type of academic objectivity although it was obvious just how fond she was of the memory of her grandfather.
I will confess far and away that the most engaging set of circumstances come during China’s Great Leap Forward. The story of her father and mother during that period after the establishment of Communist China is one of horror, fear, famine and strife. Mao’s Great Leap forward nearly destroys their family in all facets of life. It takes a dramatic toll on them socially. It nearly eviscerates the personality of her father. He suffers severe mental breakdowns directly due to the policies implemented by the Mao government. He dedicates his life to the ideals of a communist society and when that government proves itself not to be what he had envisioned, he is emotionally distraught, losing himself for an extended tract of time. Read it and you will see. The meltdowns are described in frightening detail. At one point the family is in utter fear of who he has become.
The greatest take away from this book for me was the precariousness of their lives. So many of the terrible things they experienced were caused by arbitrary decisions at the whim, or unprovoked antipathy of someone. Her grandmother feared for her and her daughters life when they lived in luxurious splendor in the harem of her grandfather the general. As one of many wives, and receiving very little actual face-time with the general she was widely at the mercy of his primary wife. She could not trust the servants who attended her either and therein she and her young daughter lived in resplendent and decadent loneliness and fear. One rumor spread by a maid, or one angry tantrum thrown by the general’s main wife could end her life or cause her daughter to be taken away from her. Then there was the situation of her mother’s and father’s careers in the communist bureaucracy. Any false claim made by a comrade could have them labeled for the rest of their lives. There is one great part in which the future of the family’s position within the communist party hinges on someone receiving a letter. Their lives depended on who was happy with them within the communist party and who would actively come after them. I must mention that part of this was due to the fact that in his idealistic righteousness her father challenged the bureaucracy and this brought about a lot of his and subsequently the family’s persecution. The country at large also suffered greatly due to arbitrary decisions made by the bureaucracy because of the social pressure created by Maoists. The massive famine can at least in some part be attributed to the arbitrary expectations placed on Chinese agriculture that were carried out and exacerbated by lower level civil servants who were under too much social pressure to admit the emperor’s new clothes were not clothes at all.
If you want to learn more about modern China, if you want a heart wrenching autobiography to cry through, or if you just want an epic deeply captivating novel to read then I suggest you read Wild Swans. It is a brilliant novel, a historical portrait, a history book and an exploration of the human condition in one of history’s most turbulent settings all rolled up into one beautifully written narrative.
Also, if you would like to know more about the writer and the life of the characters who lived the story try Jung Chang’s official website. Jungchang.net