Book Review: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Published: 2003.08.05 by Touchstone
ISBN: 0743246985
Amazon :: Kindle Edition

My Rating: ★★★★½ 

This was another book I decided to read only because I didn’t have any other books at hand. This time I was lucky, Wild Swans is an excellent book. I’m happy I stumbled upon it because it’s not the type of book I would normally just pick up and read at random.

After a quick glance at the cover, featuring the portraits of three generations of women, I half-expected this to turn out to be a chick book – maybe a “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Thankfully not. The novel is a non-fiction account of the lives of three women: a grandmother, a mother and daughter (the daughter being the author). But even though it focuses on the lives of these three women, the book really tells the story of life in China during the tumultuous events of the twentieth century, as experienced by the average people who lived through it.

Wild Swans begins during the Warlord Period in early twentieth century China and continues through all the major events of the century up until Chairman Mao’s death: the early civil war, the Japanese occupation during WWII, the continuation of the civil war, the rise of the communists, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and finally the death of Mao.

While the focus of Jung Chang’s book is on the history of China during the last century, this is set as the background in the lives of her grandmother, mother and herself. So Chang is able to relate how these major historical events impacted the lives of ordinary Chinese people, and how ordinary people thought about and reacted to the events.

I came away with two major impressions after reading the book. The first is how the people of China really had no chance. Through the entire 20th Century until the death of Mao (and even after Mao), China was ruled by a succession of power-hungry, greedy thugs and maniacs – each worse than the one they replaced. Even Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT). In the west we often think of Chiang and the KMT with romantic but deluded notions – if only they had been able to defeat the communists they would have brought peace and stability to China. Really Chiang was a two-bit warlord leading a party of goons and criminals. The Kuomintang were so corrupt and brutal that when the communists drove the KMT out of China, they were welcomed with open arms by most people.

And the communists were a big improvement, at least at first. That is until Mao consolidated his power and began to exert it. The second thing that this book impressed upon me was just how much of a lunatic Mao really was. Sure, it’s popular to think of Mao as one of the most evil men of the twentieth century – he’s normally grouped together with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot in that category. But I never realized how truly twisted Mao was until I read this book. A child could have seen the stupidity of his policies during The Great Leap Forward, which ultimately lead directly to the deaths of 15 million people in the Great Chinese Famine. Unfortunately that was only his warm-up act. In the Cultural Revolution he managed to transform Chinese society into as close an approximation of Orwell’s 1984 as has ever been achieved. Mao was paranoid and persecuted members of his own Communist Party, from the highest members of his politburo to the lowest regional officials, out of fear that they might plot against him. He also glorified ignorance, and persecuted teachers and the educated. Uneducated peasants were less likely to rebel against him. He built a cult-of-personality around himself to the extent that he was virtually worshipped by most Chinese. All this to satisfy his implacable megalomania. He flamed conflict between all sectors of society, indiscriminately persecuting guilty and innocent alike. Not caring about the misery, suffering and death he was causing, only caring that his power was growing.

Jung Chang’s novel does an excellent job in relating how ordinary people were caught up in the Cultural Revolution. How most people were taken with Mao’s cult of personality and idolized their Chairman while suffering dreadfully from his policies. Wild Swans is an excellent book, one I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in seeing the events of 20th century China through the eyes of common people who lived through it.

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