I am reading a book from every country in the world. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is my book for China. The last book I read was Austria: Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler by Trudi Kanter.
THE BOOK: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang
IN SHORT: This is a memoir sharing the incredible, true story of three women in China—from a warlord’s concubine born in 1909 to her granddaughter, a product of the Cultural Revolution who became the first Chinese person to receive a doctorate (in linguistics) at a British university.
THE BEST BIT: “The Best Bit” just doesn’t work in this context because the whole thing is terrifying and horrifying and moving and really perhaps exactly what you’d expect from a comprehensive retelling from the perspective of three women grappling with literally everything (starvation/privation/repression/everything bad) over nearly 100 years in China.
If you are reading this book from the relative comfort of the United States, U.K., or most of western Europe in the year 2018, in most cases, I would find it difficult to believe that you would not do so with a great bit of relief—for the stability of your government, for life free from terror. What doesn’t happen to this family? Chung’s grandmother survives both the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the war between two rival factions within China, the Kuomintang and the Communists. Her daughter, the author’s mother, is forced by her husband to endure such intense physical hardship that she miscarries their child. Jung has it easier than they do but in many ways I found her story most difficult, as she details how Mao Zedong’s autocratic government brought so much terror to the country.
Beyond the millions of deaths, the torture, and the cruelty — which is some challenging phrasing but OK — what I found most upsetting was the way that beauty, history, and art were so abused. Brainwashed teenagers attacked their classmates and teachers — but also relics of Chinese history, monuments and temples, as well as simple examples of everyday beauty: flowers and gardens. Femininity itself, too. Here is one of the few examples of it, lavishly rendered:
My grandmother kept her hair tied up in a neat bun at the back of her head, but she always had flowers there, sometimes a pair of ivory-colored magnolias, and sometimes a white Cape jasmine cupped by two dark-green leaves, which set off her lustrous hair. She never used shampoo from the shops, which she thought would make her hair dull and dry, but would boil the fruit of the Chinese honey locust and use the liquid from that. She would rub the fruit to produce a perfumed lather, and slowly let the mass of black hair drop into the shiny, white, slithery liquid. She soaked her wooden combs in the juice of pomelo seeds, so that the comb ran smoothly through her hair, and gave it a faint aroma.
It’s more generally like this:
One day in 1965, we were suddenly told to go out and start removing all the grass from the lawns. … Mao had attacked flowers and grass several times before, saying that they should be replaced by cabbage and cotton. But only now was he able to generate enough pressure to get his order implemented. I was extremely sad to see the lovely plants go. But I did not resent Mao. On the contrary, I hated myself for feeling miserable.
This was just one small thread of the myriad injustices suffered by Chung and her family. In another book, her father’s plight would have sufficed as material for the entirety of the book. An utterly devout Communist, he was incorruptible — even regarding seemingly inconsequential matters. When her grandmother comes to visit Jung’s mother, at that point pregnant, Jung’s father tells her that the grandmother is not permitted to cook for his wife — doing so was a violation of Communist rules and made Jung’s mother look “bourgeois.” Jung’s father sided with those making complaints — and order her grandmother to only cook at home two days a week, and no more. Later he would force the grandmother to return to her own home, due to a Communist rule limiting parental visits: “Only officials of a certain rank were entitled to have their parents staying with them, and my mother did not qualify.” So her father made her grandfather leave, while his wife was pregnant and feared another miscarriage: “Amid bitter tears, my grandmother hobbled down to the quay with my mother to take the little boat back down the Yangtze on the start of the long and uncertain journey back to Manchuria.”
So all that happens, and then the party to which her father has dedicated his life turns its back on him, eventually doing tremendous damage to his mental and physical health.
It’s wild, and deeply depressing. I had no frame of reference for the 20th century history of China before reading it. Now that I do, I find it a terrible example of malevolent government: This is a harrowing and often upsetting story. If you have not considered the many, many ways a government can fail its people, this book will provide hundreds of pages of suggestions. What it did to Chung’s family (and without question millions of others) is a crime of literally epic proportion, and I am grateful to this book for giving me a window to it.
More Around the World in Books:
Why I’m reading these books
Austria: Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler by Trudi Kanter
Norway: The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Europe: The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
Portugal: Blindness by Jose Saramago
Spain: The Infatuations by Javier Marías
Germany: A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous