This book is the story of China seen through the eyes of three generations of the same family. It covers a great period of change for the country from the Imperialist way of life endured by Grandma to the advent of communism and shows the brutalities in all of the regimes. There are some excellent photographs that bring the characters in the book to life.
Grandma, born in 1909 was sent, aged just 15 years old, as a concubine to General Xue, the local Chief of police and war lord, by her father who is keen for advancement. Trading your daughter as a concubine was considered a way to improve the social and economic standing of the family . It was not frowned upon as would have been the case in European society but was actually seen as a social advantage, one to be publicised and talked about. Living in her palatial imprisonment, careful not to excite any anger or resentment in her servants, Yu Fang manages to preserve her position as concubine away from her husband’s main household where she would have been one of many. The birth of her daughter BaoQin takes place in 1931 and she contrives to keep her out of the general’s household. In the General's household controlled by his first wife she could have been in danger as the other wives would be jealous of her preferred status.
Following the generals death a second marriage to the elderly Dr Xia is followed by the rise of Mao and the occupation firstly by the Japanese, then by the Kuomintang and finally by the communists. The marriage is made to ensure that she and her young daughter have the means to survive, even if the Doctors' children do not support the marriage. Life has changed for the gilded lily but the family survive using their ingenuity and adapting to each change as it happens.
BaoQin, the daughter of the general and the concubine marries a diehard communist and party member, following him on his long and physically arduous trek to power. In the course of their marriage they have healthy sons and daughters and enjoy in the early years, preferential treatment as one of China’s ruling elite. Following the Cultural Revolution in 1966 things change, there is poverty, famine and eventually internship for both parents in camps. What intrigued me most was the fact that although condemned and interned the salaries of the parents were still paid as if they were working.
A child of the Communist Revolution
It is the third generation of the family that produces the author of this book, Jung Chang who was born in 1952. The book “Wild Swans” depicts a young woman who from an early age was keen to echo the chants of millions of others in support of Chairman Mao and the Communist party. In the early years of her life she is one of the privileged the child of a high ranking communist official and she enjoys excellent accommodation and food, the family even manages to have a servant. Whilst at school she joins the Red Brigade but finds its violence hard to stomach. There is a graphic account of a pilgrimage to see Chairman Mao . The students live in very basic accommodation; without adequate heating and sanitation, sitting for hours on cold concrete just to catch a glimpse of Chairman Mao as he passes by in a parade. It was at this point that I realised that China was such a vast country that its seasons were both hot and cold.
As she moves from teenager to young woman Jung Chang starts to question what she sees around her and the events that happen. She sees Madame Mao as the Chairman’s tool and begins to believe that Mao is flawed in thought and deed. Exposure to western culture whilst studying English at University leads to a realisation that her life so far has been based on communist lies. Mao’s death leads to interaction with the west and Jung Chang is given the opportunity to study in the west, where she has remained. Initially she received support to study at the University of York and later received support from the University itself receiving a PHD in linguistics in 1982. Jung Chang has been awarded honorary doctorates from the University of York, The University of Warwick, Buckingham University and the Open University. She is allowed to travel to China to visit relatives.
This is a real story of a family seen through the lives of three generations of females. It can be difficult to read, death lurks just around the corner with the contrasts of wealth and poverty. If you get a copy of Wild Swans by Jung Chang , clear your diary and grab a comfy chair ,enjoy the trip back into both modern and seemingly ancient history.