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The Long-Awaited Wild Swans Post

April 5, 2008

Can I just take a moment to mention how cool book bloggers are? In the past couple days, I’ve gotten to read about Iliana’s book-making, Imani’s published list of book recommendations, and enjoy Carl’s collection of Neil Gaiman videos, and read this charming poem at Stephanie’s. Of course, you’re all super-cool, so just because you’re not linked here doesn’t mean I don’t love it when you show up in my blog reader. :D

Speaking of coolness, Jung Chang’s biography-slash-memoir about twentieth-century China, Wild Swans is definitely going down on my list of ‘best thought-provoking non-fiction.’ It was so long, and so full of detail, that this review is bound to be the same. If you stick with me, you’ll learn a bunch about China that you might not have known before. But if you don’t, I’ll understand. :)

Wild Swans opens with Chang’s grandmother. She had a fascinating early life: her feet were bound beautifully (right before feet binding went out of style), she had an extensive education, and she “was considered the belle of the town. The locals said she stood out “like a crane among chickens.”” I’d just like to include something about foot binding that I hadn’t realised before, although I should have. Chang explains, “Women could not remove the binding cloths even when they were adults, as their feet would start growing again. The binding could only be loosened temporarily at night in bed, when they would put on soft-soled shoes. Men rarely saw naked bound feet, which were usually covered in rotting flesh and stank when the bindings were removed. As a child, I can remember my grandmother being in constant pain. When we came home from shopping, the first thing she would do was soak her feet in a bowl of hot water, sighing with relief when she did so. Then she would set about cutting off pieces of dead skin. The pain came not only from the broken bones, but also from her toenails, which grew into the balls of her feet.” I’ve seen people compare foot-binding to corsets, and it’s true that corsets deformed women’s bodies, but at least there wasn’t rotting flesh involved, you know?
Anyway, back to Chang’s grandmother: a warlord general took her as his concubine. The Chinese approach to concubines sounded much more official than anything I’d read about in the West: they had a wedding and the warlord provided a house for Chang’s grandmother. Unfortunately, this house was like a prison: the servants all spied on her (and would make up evil stories if they were mad at her) and she wasn’t allowed to go out. She and the warlord had a daughter, Chang’s mother, before the warlord died. The warlord’s actual wife was childless, so she informed Chang’s grandmother that she was taking her daughter. There was nothing Chang’s grandmother could do, except make a daring escape back to her home village: this woman was gutsy! She eventually remarried (to another man much older than her), and although she loved her new husband, there were problems with his grown children (who thought it unseemly for him to marry a former concubine so much younger than himself). While Chang’s grandmother’s life was obviously very interesting, I thought this part of the book was rather dull. Even when describing her grandmother’s flight, Chang maintained a disinterested tone that took all of the immediacy out of the story. Fortunately, as soon as the book started focusing on Chang’s mother instead, things got better!

Chang’s mother was a communist, and a very daring young girl. Chang includes a lot of focus on the Civil War, and how it affected her family (and it was very interesting!), but for the sake of time, I’m going to skip to when Chang’s mother is newly married. Her husband was a senior official in, an extreme devotee of, the Party: he believed in what it stood for (egalitarian treatment, for the most part), and his firm adherence to his philosophical standards created some problems. Right after their marriage, Chang’s parents had to march about 1,000 miles, from the northeast province of Liaoning (close to Mongolia and North Korea) to southwest Sichuan (not far from the India-Burma/Myanmar border). I’ve included a physical map of China (click on it to make it bigger)so you can understand what kind of march this was: it involved going through five mountain passes. The first 250 miles, they took a train, but the other 750 miles (about the distance from New York City to Chicago) was on foot. At least, for Chang’s mother it was. Chang explains that

[her mother] spotted a friend of hers whose husband was carrying her across the river. Although the husband was a senior official, and had the right to use a car, he had waived his privilege in order to walk with his wife. My father was not carrying my mother. He was being driven along in a jeep, with his bodyguard. His rank entitled him to transportation-either a jeep or a horse, whichever was available. My mother had often hoped that he would give her a lift, or at least carry her bedroll in his jeep, but he never offered. The evening after she almost drowned in the river, she decided to have it out with him. She had had a terrible day. What was more, she was vomiting all the time. Could he not let her travel in his jeep occasionally? He said he could not, because it would be taken as favoritism since my mother was not entitled to the car. He felt had had to fight against the age-old Chinese tradition of nepotism. When she mentioned that her friend was being carried by her husband, my father replied that that was completely different: the friend was a veteran Communist. In the 1930s she had commanded a guerilla unit jointly with Kin Il Sung, who later became president of North Korea, fighting the Japanese under appalling conditions in the northeast. Among the long list of sufferings in her revolutionary career was the loss of her first husband, wh ohad been exectued on orders from Stalin. My mother could not compare herself to this woman, my father said. She was only a young student. If other poeple thought she was being pampered she would be in trouble. “It’s for your own good,” he added, reminding her that her application for full Party membership was pending. “You have a choice: you can either get into the car, or get into the Party, but not both.”

I know that’s a long passage, but I include it, because I had no real idea about the kinds of hardships the Party forced on its members: not only that, but Chang’s mother couldn’t cry, because if other Party members heard her, those tears could keep her out of the Party. She, as some of you might have guessed, was pregnant during the march, and she had a bad miscarriage (she almost bled to death). At this point, she had pretty much decided she wanted a divorce. However, Chang’s father “apologized profusely. He had had no idea idea she was pregnant…he had not know what a miscarriage was. He promised to be much more considerate in the future, and said over and over again he loved her and would reform. While [she] was in a coma, he had washed her blood-soaked clothes, which was very unusual for a Chinese man. Eventually [she] agreed not to ask for a divorce…” While this is one of the more dramatic examples in the book, Chang’s parents’ marriage was continually plagued by the tension between her father’s strict adherence to the Party’s ideals and her mother’s expectation that people should help their friends and family. Throughout, I admired how the father always stood up for his beliefs (later, when the Party began acting differently, he defied it and went to prison several times for that), but I would not have wanted to be married to him. Her mother, who also eventually became a relatively high-ranking Party official (although the Party was always suspicious of her, partly because some of her childhood friends had been Loyalists in the Civil War and partly because she didn’t follow Party directives slavishly), displays an amazing amount of resourcefulness that I also admired: she kept her family out of danger, and fought for her husband’s release, against seeming impossible odds.

Obviously, I can’t look at every instance in the book (it’s a very long book and filled with stories), but here’s a time I particularly admired Chang’s mother. It’s the 1956-58 period, when after the ‘intellectual flowering,’ Mao cracked down on anyone who didn’t agree with him in an “anti-rightist campaign.” All of the Party officials, including Chang’s mother, had quotas of “rightists” they were expected to denounce. Her mother refused to denounce innocent people.

By now, Mr. Ying [her boss] was fed up with the lack of zeal displayed by my mother and her colleagues, and he told her that the fact that she could not spot rightists showed she was “rightist material” herself. To be labeled a rightist not only meant becoming a political outcast and losing one’s job, but, most important, one’s children and family would suffer discrimination and their future would be in jeopardy. The children would be ostracized at school and in the street where they lived. The residents’ committee would spy on the family to see who was visiting them. If a rightist was sent to the countryside, the peasants would give the hardest jobs to him and his family. But no one knew the exact impact, and this uncertainty was itself a powerful cause of fear. This was the dilemma facing my mother. If she was labeled a rightist, she would either have to renounce her children or ruin their future. My father would probably be forced to divorce her, or he too would be blacklisted and under permanent suspicion. Even if my mother sacrificed herself and divroced him, the whole family would be marked as suspects, forever. But the cost of saving herself and her family was the well-being of more than a hundred innocent people and their familes.

She was an education director, and fortunately she managed to get out of it when Mr. Ying accused 130 college students who had taken part in demonstrations of being rightists. She didn’t oversee the college, but it was in her district, so it counted as her quota. Mr. Ying intended to accuse her of being a rightist also, but fate intervened and “before he could do anything, he was condemned as a rightist himself.” This story really brings home the precariousness of living in Communist China, even for government officials (who, in ‘normal’ countries, one would expect to be the safest).

While the stories of Chang’s parents are fascinating, the heart of this book is when Chang herself takes center stage. Her experiences growing up in Communist China are always compelling. Take one of the earliest ones:

In the autumn of 1958, when I was six, I started going to a primary school about twnety minutes’ walk from home, mostly along muddy cobbled back alleys. Every day on my way to and from school, I screwed up my eyes to search for every inch of ground for broken nails, rusty cogs, and any other metal objects that had been trodden into the med between the cobbles. These were for feeding into furnaces to produce steel, which was my major occupation. Yes, at the age of six, I was involved in steel production, and had to compete with my schoolmates at handing in the most scrap iron….In my school, cruciblelike vats had replaced some of our cooking woks and were sitting on giant stoves in the kitchen. All our scrap iron was fed into them, including the old woks which had now been broken to bits. The stoves were kept permanently lit-until they melted down. Our teachers took turns feeding firewood into them around-the-clock, and stirring the scraps in the vats with a huge spoon. We did not have many lessons, as the teachers were too preoccupied with the vats. So were the older, teenage children. The rest of us were organized to clean the teachers’ apartments and babysit for them.

What a way to begin school! And soon after this, which was of course the Great Leap Forward, came famine. I was particularly impressed with Chang’s treatment of this time: she looks at the ‘big picture’ stuff (like why Mao continued in the policies that led to the famine) and the impact on the individuals. Here’s a taste of what happened:

Years later I met an old colleugue of my father’s, a very kind and capable man, not given to exaggeration. He told me with great emotion what he had seen during the famine in one particular commune. Thirty-five percent of the peasants had died, in an area where the harvest had been good-although little ws collected, since the men had been pulled out ot produce steel, and the commune canteen had wasted a large proportion of what there was. One day a peasant burst into his room and threw himself on the floor, screaming that he had committed a terrible crime and begging to be punished. Eventually it came out that he had killed his own baby and eaten it. Hunger had been like an uncontrollable force driving him to take up the knife. With tears rolling down his cheeks, the official ordered the peasant to be arrested. Later he was shot as a warning to future baby killers.

What more needs to be said?

Chan also explains how her own views were shaped by the culture of propoganda she grew up in. This passage is long, but I think you’ll find it as fascinating as me, since it’s all about us Westerners.

As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless “Little Match Girl” in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teachers often said: “Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!” In school, when they were trying to make us work harder, the teachers often said: “You are lucky to have a school to go to and books to read. In the capitalist countries children have to work to support their hungry families.” Often when adults wanted us to accept something they would say that people in the West wanted it, but could not get it, and therefore we should appreciate our good fortune. I came to think this way automatically. When I saw a girl in my class wearing a new kind of pink translucent raincoat I had never seen, I thought how nice it would be to swap my commonplace old wax-paper umbrella for one. But I immediately castigated myself for this “bourgeois” tendency, and wrote in my diary: “Think of all the chilren in the capitalist world-they can’t even think of owning an umbrella!” In my mind foreigners were terrifying. All Chinese have black hair and brown eyes, so they regard differently colored hair and eyes as strange. My image of a foreigner was more or less the official stereotype: a man with red, unkempt hair, strange-colored eyes, very, very long nose, stumbling around drunk, pouring Coca-Cola into his mouth from a bottle, with his legs splayed out in a most inelegant positions. Foreigners said “hello” all the time, with an od intonation. I did not know what “hello” meant: I thought it was a swear word. When boys played “guerilla warfare,” which was their version of cowboys and Indians, the enemy side would have thorns glued onto their noses and say “hello” all the time.

Isn’t that interesting?

Oddly enough, hand-grenade throwing was an essential skill for Chinese schoolchildren. Chang was bad at it, and worried that her “classmates were questioning [her] resolve to fight the U.S. imperialists.” Then there was the year that Mao declared China should have no grass (it, along with flowers and pets, had become a bourgeois habit). So, the students spent time at school trying to rip out all of the plants; while the flowers were easy, the grass had “thousands of roots which drill down into the soil like claws of steel.” This made it very difficult to pull up, and “any fragment left behind would make a triumphant combeack after even a slight rise in temperature or a gentle drizzle, and we would have to go into battle all over again.” That reminded me of when I was in elementary school and had a 20 gallon fish tank, which I loved. We went on vacation once, and our neighbour who agreed to take care of my tank introduced this little snails into it. It was almost impossible to get rid of them, since they reproduce asexually. I detested that neighbour with all the passion of a ten-year-old after that. But I really shared that passage with you to bring the absurdity of Mao’s rule home. If it hadn’t really happened, if that story was part of some dystopian novel, it’d make you laugh out loud. As it is, isn’t a bit tragic to picture all these little children and their teachers on their hands and knees, ripping out their school’s landscaping?

When Chang’s in high school, the Red Guard movement occurs. Chang joins in (she doesn’t have much of a choice), although she tries to avoid the violence and humiliation many of the Red Guards (all young people) inflicted on adults, especially their teachers. At the time, the government was paying for the Red Guards to travel around China, so Chang went on at ultimate young person experience: a road trip! She and her friends go to Beijing to see Mao…the ‘dormitory’ has miserable conditions, but it’s worth it as they wait for their day to see the Chairman. Here she is in Tiananmen Square, waiting for him to show up:

After lining us up tidily, our officers ordered us to sit down on the hard ground cross-legged. With my inflamed joints [from the dormitory], this was agony, and I soon got pins and needles in my bottom. I was deadly cold and drowsy-and exhausted because I could not fall asleep. The officers conducted nonstop singing, making different groups challenge each other, to keep up our spirits. Shortly before noon, hysterical waves of “Long live Chairman Mao!” roared from the east. I had been flagging and was slow to realize that Mao was about to pass by in an open car. Suddenly thunderous yelling exploded all around me. “Long live Chairman Mao! Long live Chairman Mao!” People sitting in fron tof me shot up and hopped in delirious excitement, their raised hands frantically waving their Little Red Books. “Sit down! Sit down!” I cried, in vain. our company commander had said that we all had to remain seated throughout. But few seemed to be observing the rules, possessed by their urge to set eyes on Mao…..All I cared about then was catching a glipse of Chairman Mao. I turned by eyes quickly from Liu to the front of the motorcade. I spotted Mao’s stalwart back, his right arm steadily waving. In an instant, he had disappeared. My heart sank. Was that all I would see of Chairman Mao? Only a fleeting glimpse of his back? The sun seemed suddenly to have gone gray. All around me the Red Guards were making a huge din. The girl standing next to me had just pierced the index finger of her right hand and was squeezing blood out of it to write something on a neatly folded handkerchief. I knew exactly the words she was going to use. It had been done many times by other Red Guards and had been published ad nauseam: “I am the happiest person in the world today. I have seen our Great Leader Chairman Mao!”

I thought Chang perfectly captured the intensity (and, to outsider’s eyes, creepiness) of moments like that.

Here is a sadder scene that I also thought was perfectly captured: when the Red Guard came to burn her father’s books (he loved foreign literature).

Mrs. Shau slapped by father hard. The crowd barked at him indignantly, although a few tried to hide their giggles. Then they pulled out his books and threw them into huge jute sacks they had brought with them. When all the bags were full, they carried them downstairs, telling my father they were going to burn them on the grounds of the department the next day after a denunciation meeting against him. They ordered him to watch the bonfire “to be taught a lesson.” In the meantime, they said, he must burn the rest of his collection. When I came home that afternoon, I found my father in the kitchen. He had lit a fire in the big cement skink, and was hurling his books into the flames. This was the first time in my life I had seen him weeping. It was agonized, broken, and wild, the weeping of a man who was not used to shedding tears. Every now and then, in fits of violent sobs, he stamped his feet on the floor and banged his head against the walls. I was so frightened that for sometime I did not dare to do anything to comfort him. Eventually I put my arms around him and held him from the back, but I did not know what to say. He did not utter a word either. My father had spent every spare penny on his books. They were his life.

That cuts close to home, doesn’t it? I can’t imagine being forced to burn my books: I know it would make me hate the government. A lot. In the book, this is also when Chang’s father has his definitive break with the Party.

Well, I think I’ve shared enough with you for you to decide whether or not you want to read the book. It’s an incredible study into how a totalitarian government controls every aspect of its citizens’ lives. From gardening to reading to where they lived to even if they could keep their children, Mao had a tight control over everything. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Chang’s mother had to put her children in state nurseries for several years (she eventually got them back, but even then she couldn’t spend a lot of time with them due to her obligations to the Party). Later, when she’s in the countryside being “rehabilitated,” she realises the full extent of her loss.

At night, lying in her straw mattress, she thought back over her children’s early years. She realized that there was not an awful lot of family life to remember. She had been an absentee mother when we were growing up, having submitted herself to the cause at the cost of her family. Now she reflected with remorse on the pointlessness of her devotion. She found she missed her children with a pain which as almost unendurable.

This book is often tragic, but the ending is full of hope. I recommend it to everyone: you’ll learn about the history of twentieth-century China and how everyday Chinese people survived it (or didn’t). The book itself is user-friendly: it has a brief pronunciation guide, a map of China, a family tree, and a mutlipage chronology. While the first hundred pages are a bit boring, after that the writing becomes, and stays, fascinating.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2008 8:29 pm

    Wow Eva! That is quite the review!! I have this book on my bookshelf and I swore I had read it before but your review doesn’t sound familiar or ring a bell at all! I always thought it was about a older woman spending most of her life in prison. Dang. What book is that? I guess this means I haven’t read this one before, even though I always thought I had. I’m glad you set me straight.

  2. April 5, 2008 9:37 pm

    This might be the most thorough review I’ve ever read! Which isn’t to say that I don’t feel like I need to run out right now and read the book, because I do. This might be what you call an appetizer.

  3. April 5, 2008 10:47 pm

    Maw Books, I’ve done that w/ books before too!

    Raych, thanks! I knew it was going to be really long, which made me very nervous since lengthy posts don’t usually work on blogs, but this is one of those books that had a huge impact on me, so it was hard to leave stuff out.

  4. April 6, 2008 2:15 am

    Excellent review! One more for the wishlist.

  5. April 6, 2008 4:11 am

    You’re cool, too. *insert cheesy smile here*

  6. April 6, 2008 5:40 am

    That’s a great review, and chimes very well with what I remember of the book. I don’t think Chang is a great writer but she’s certainly thought-provoking. The footbinding! I had never realised exactly how small the feet were supposed to be. And then the whole madness of the Great Leap Forward. And also the sheer numbers of people who were involved, who died in famine etc. I can’t wrap my head around it.

  7. April 6, 2008 9:19 am

    Fantastic review!

    I thought of you this morning when I was browsing at Books-a-Million and found myself with an armload of five non-fiction books to peruse and whittle down to an affordable pile. I finally decided on Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’ve been craving non-fiction like crazy.

  8. April 6, 2008 9:19 am

    This was my favorite non-fiction from last year. Loved it!

  9. April 6, 2008 10:18 am

    I read this book back in the mid-90s and I really loved it. Your review captures it so thoroughly and so beautifully – well done!

  10. April 6, 2008 11:26 am

    Honestly, I had to quite reading your review because the description what women did to their bound feet turned my stomach. I don’t know if I could manage to read more about that in the actual book itself.

  11. April 6, 2008 11:40 am

    We book bloggers are a cool bunch aren’t we? :)
    Absolutely wonderful review Eva. I’m going to read this book later this year for a challenge and book group discussion and I can’t wait. I get the feeling I will be learning a lot!

  12. adevotedreader permalink
    April 6, 2008 3:01 pm

    Thanks for writing such a detailed review Eva! It’s made me want to read Wild Swans to find out more.

  13. April 6, 2008 3:58 pm

    I loved this book. I’ve read several books of fiction about the Cultural Revolution, but Wild Swans takes us from the turn of the century through the Japanese invasion, the civil war, Mao’s ascendancy, and through the Cultural Revolution from the view point of 3 generations of one family. An eye-opener fro sure.

  14. April 7, 2008 3:35 am

    Wow, incredible review, Eva! This book sounds utterly fascinating! I know it would take me forever to read, but it definitely sounds like it would be time well-spent.

  15. April 8, 2008 4:44 am

    Great review. You brought back many memories of my own reading of it, about two years ago. It makes a powerful impression, doesn’t it? And it does so despite her somewhat disjointed writing style, which (I agree with you) is most notable in the first section (perhaps because she knew her grandmother least well of all?). It seems when I read it, I was either talking about it in my own blog or commenting about it on others for quite a while.

  16. April 8, 2008 5:20 pm

    Bybee, thanks!

    Nik, awww-now I have a cheesy smile. :)

    Becky, I agree-writing (at least in English) isn’t her strength, but her story is so good it doesn’t matter!

    Andi, hehe-whittling down book piles is so sad!

    3M, glad to see another fan. :)

    Logophile, thanks!

    Jeane, honestly, the foot-binding is a tiny, tiny part of the book. But a lot of sad things do happen, including beatings, murders, and hard labour. I think it’s worth it, but you’d have to decide for yourself.

    Iliana, thanks! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it. :)

    ADevotedReader, I’m glad you liked it!

    JenClair, I agree-the scope of the book was just awesome. I think I’ll remember Chinese history much better thanks to the personal approach.

    Debi, it took me awhile to read too, because it’s just so dense. Definitely worth it, though!

    Emily, thanks! I agree-I think the writing is worse w/ the grandmother because of Chang’s distance. I went and read your post, and it was awesome. :D

  17. April 11, 2008 7:06 am

    Happy Birthday! I’ve had a good time catching up with you. I also loved Wild Swans and you’ve reminded me of so many interesting facets of this book. I know that I didn’t completely grasp everything that was going on politically, but the human side of the story kept me spellbound. I would also recommend this highly!

  18. Fran permalink
    July 1, 2013 4:47 am

    Why should family be more important than country? No one forced the mother into the honor of being in the Party ; if she CHOSE to be part of an organization dedicated to the greater good, in which personal sacrifices were EXPECTED, what point is complaining? Obviously she chose to be in the Party as an opportunist who wanted career positions it made available, and I have no respect for that,


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