Subtitled “Three Daughters of China”, Chang’s memoir follows three generations as they experience Japanese rule of China and the rise of Mao and the Communist Party in China. Although the book is the personal story of Chang’s grandmother, mother, and herself, it is also critical of Mao’s policies and is banned in mainland China, according to Chang’s introduction to the 2003 edition.
“To justify its rule, the Party has dictated an official version of history, but Wild Swans does not toe that line. In particular, Wild Swans shows Mao to have criminally misruled the Chinese people, rather than being basically a good and great leader, as Peking decrees. Today, Mao’s portrait still hangs on Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital, and across the vast cement expanse lies his corpse as an object of worship. The current leadership still upholds the myth of Mao — because it projects itself as his heir, and claims legitimacy from him.” (pg. 17)
Chang’s grandmother was a warlord’s concubine, her mother was a Communist official during the Cultural Revolution, and Change was a Red Guard, a peasant, a ‘barefoot doctor’, a steelworker, and an electrician. The most interesting ‘daughter’ in this tale, in my opinion, was the grandmother with her bound feet and becoming a concubine. However, she is not given very much attention and the majority of the book, however, is devoted to Chang’s father’s experience under Mao as he transitions from a dutiful follower and official to someone who (some what) question’s the regime’s decisions. Her father’s actions definitely affected the lives of these ‘three daughters of China’, but the story is more the story of her father. Not exactly what I was expecting.
“The whole nation slide into doublespeak. Words became divorced from reality, responsibility, and people’s real thoughts. Lies were told with ease because words had lost their meanings — and had ceased to be taken seriously by others.” (pg. 225)
What I did like about the book was the discussion of propaganda and how much this affected the actions and thoughts of Chang’s entire family. Chang even states that as a young girl she chastised herself for coveting another girl’s umbrella over her own, especially since the children in the captialist world can’t even think of owning an umbrella. Or so she was told.
“It was under Mao that China became a power to be reckoned with in the world, and many Chinese stopped feeling ashamed and humiliated at being Chinese, which meant a tremendous amount to them. In reality, Mao turned China back to the days of the Middle Kingdom and, with the help of the United States, to isolation from the world. He enabled the Chinese to feel great and superior again, by blinding them to the world outside.” (pg. 262)
But in the last hundred and fifty pages I started to become bored with the book. Although I was completely interested with the beginning of the book, it just wasn’t hold my attention towards the end. The book was just too long and filled with too many family antidotes — like which of the four children the grandmother loved best — that distract from the overall tale.
“He had been part of my life ever since I was a child. He was the idol, the god, the inspiration. The purpose of my life had been formulated in his name. A couple of years before, I would have happily died for him. Although his magic power had vanished from inside me, he was still sacred and undoubtable. Even now, I did not challenge him.” (pg. 366)
I do feel liked I learned a lot, especially about life in China under Mao, the Kuomintang, and during the Second Sino-Japanese War. What Chang and her family went through provides an important account of the atrocities that this government inflicted on its people, but it is just too long and dragged in too many places to be a completely enjoyable read.
- Chang, Jung. Wild Swans. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2003. Originally published 1991. Print. 528 pgs. ISBN: 0743246985. Source: Purchased.