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This book, written by the Chinese author Jung Chang, documents the life of three generation of women in China during the 20th century (her grandmother, mother and herself). It provides unrivalled access into a world that has remained closed off for most foreigners, through its personal and emotional account of life there. It starts off with her grandmother, living in Manchuria after the turn of the century. One of the first things Jung tells us of is of how her grandmother participated in the practice of feet binding. This process stopped the feet from growing by bending the toes back into the sole and breaking the bones at a young age. Men found small feet erotic, as the women could only walk in small, mincing steps. Despite the great pain that women had to endure to achieve them, they begged their mothers not to give in, when they sometimes wailed for them to undo the cloths that kept the foot bent back.

Jung’s grandmother eventually marries a Chinese warlord and has a daughter by him. The marriage is relatively short-lived and she marries a doctor called Xia. Despite being much older than her, their marriage is happy and they weather all that live throws at them, including the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. The book then deals with the Kuomintang and the Communist rise to power in Manchuria after WWII. Most interesting is the time under Communist rule. Jung’s parents are devoted members of Communism who stick with it even at its most controversial. But what is most heart-warming is their inability to go along with the harsh policies of the Cultural Revolution even though it results in them being arrested and detained for a time, the father in awful conditions.

Through this, Jung describes the confusion she had as a young girl growing up, unable to understand the reasons that many children her own age had for persecuting people like teachers and complete strangers. Even so, like her parents she finds it impossible not to be brought along with the more pure ideal of Communism, namely to help others and do your fair share. She has more than one profession as a young woman, once working as a barefoot doctor (following the footsteps of her adoptive grandfather, Doctor Xia) and later as an electrician. Her fight to learn English and eventual departure to England to study there, provides a somewhat happy ending, amongst the pain and suffering shown that occurred under Mao, as is the fact that her mother uses all of her power to push her through the red-tape and past the preferential treatment high-ranking officials’ children got.

Style and Criticism

Wild Swans is an inviting and well constructed insight into 20th century Chinese life. Jung Chang uses her eloquence to paint a vivid picture for the reader. When I read this book, I could easily imagine the events she describes. Not just the dirty yellow colour of the dust in Harbin, or the tall mountains in Sichuan, but the smells of the dumplings her grandmother made and the cosy atmosphere of the kang. The joy of her early life, the pain of her father's madness - I felt all of it.

Jung Chang is also careful not to devote the book to criticising the Communist Party or Mao. Of course it is clear she fells betrayed by both and reserves some anger toward them. Yet she gains our sympathy not by directly attacking them, but by explaining the events that rocked her family in such descriptive detail. She highlights the conflict in the Party between Mao and the other leading cadre members. Much of her criticism is therefore directed towards Mao, but she does make it clear that not everyone thought like him. Several times a brief respite is gained by appeals to other members in the leadership, when her parents are unjustly attacked by jealous local officials.

Some Chinese critics have hinted that Jung Chang may have exaggerated the events in question, in the tradition of many Chinese historians. But it is undeniable that many people suffered during the mid 20th century from the chaos in China - some of my friends's families suffered too, so much so that they were paid compensation by later governments. I should also point out that this book has plenty of happy stories. Jung Chang had a pleasant childhood compared to many of the children of her generation. However, due to the fact that the Chinese people suffered grealty during the 20th century, there are also a great deal of sad ones.

Jung Chang currently lives in London and taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a London university.

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