Wild Swans by Jung Chang – Book Review

Wild Swans’ is an autobiographical account of three generations of Chinese women’s experiences of life in twentieth century China. It tells one hundred years of Chinese history, spanning the end of the Qing Dynasty right through to the rise of Deng Xiaoping.
Jung Chang tells the story of her grandmother, mother and herself. Her grandmother was given to a warlord as a concubine; confined to the house as the property of her husband, she eventually gained her freedom aged twenty four. Her mother was a member of the Communist Party during its early inception. She narrates how her mother struggled to succumb to the revolutions demands and accept her husband’s devotion to the Party before herself. Jung grew up during the height of Mao Zedong’s leadership. Her teenage years spanned the Cultural Revolution and she dutifully served as a member of the Red Guards. During this time she was forced to watch her parents get beaten up by other Red Guards, endure physically demanding peasant labour out in the countryside and recrimination if she was found be subverting the teachings of Mao.
Jung’s story is one of extreme hardship and atrocities. Growing up in the shadow of Mao Zedong provokes many conflicting feelings for her. There are moments in the book where she talks about her devotion to the Communist cause and her desire to fulfil her purpose: to meet Mao and spread his message to the evil capitalists in the world. These are contrasted with the moments later on which follow the tumult of the Cultural Revolution and her “pleasure” at denouncing Mao in her mind. The lives of the three generations are hard on a scale we in the western world cannot imagine, but throughout it all their family unit looks out for one another and remains close together.
The events surrounding the Cultural Revolution and what it is does to her family is the most heart-wrenching part of the book. Jung talks about watching her parents facing repetitious denunciations and imprisonment, and eventually watching her father lose his sanity and deteriorate mentally until his death in 1975; a year before Mao died and China lifted herself out of despair.
There are many moments throughout the book where she remarks on the beauty of life. Even in the darkest moments of life in Maoist China, Jung manages to find something beautiful. She talks about writing poetry as a means of retiring from reality. However, after a raid where she is forced to flush one of her poems down the toilet for fear of being caught with it, she starts to memorise them rather than commit them to paper.
This revolutionary piece of work, which is still banned in China today, is a poignant memoir to a time in Chinese history which is still barely written about through first-hand accounts. ‘Wild Swans’ is a moving piece of literature, the frankness with which it is written and the depth of emotion it conveys is both astonishing and captivating. For anyone wanting to gain an insight into everyday life in China during the twentieth century I strongly recommend it.

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