'I just wanted to tell their stories'

One of the biggest non-fiction bestsellers in recent times Wild Swans is still banned in China. Here for the Galle Literary Festival, author Jung Chang talks to Renuka Sadanandan of the writing of the book and the women who inspired it

The first time her mother told her about her past was ten years after Jung Chang had left China and was living safely in the UK. Her mother had come to visit her in London. It was her first visit and Jung had planned all sorts of entertainment for her; to take her shopping and sightseeing but as she recalls, her mother didn't seem interested.

"Then one day she told me she wanted to talk, and I said what do you mean talk, we are talking every day." That was not though, what she had in mind. The first story her mother, De-hong told her was of a journey of a thousand miles -how when she was just 18, and newly married she had to walk from Manchuria to Sichuan. Her husband, Jung's father Wang Yu, was an officer in the Communist Party and he was entitled to official transport- a horse or a jeep.

She was new to the Revolution and had to make the arduous journey on foot, like all the others. Being absolutely dedicated to the party principles, and a stickler for the rules, he refused to let his wife ride with him, feeling that it would smack of nepotism. The mountain terrain was treacherous and a pregnant De-hong suffered a miscarriage. She was furious with her husband for not showing her the concern he should have; he unaware that she had been pregnant, later suffered agonies of remorse.

"It was the first time that I realized that my parents' marriage had had its difficulties - I thought they were blissfully, happily married," says Jung, tracing the beginnings of Wild Swans, the epic memoir that tells the story of three generations of women and their struggle to survive and hold on to their familes in the restrictive and often cruelly crushing society that was China in the 20th century. "When I was a teenager in China all I saw was how my mother stood by my father and suffered tremendously-- she refused to denounce him when he stood up to Mao. I didn't realize she had all this bitterness inside, it showed me a side of my parents' relationship that I didn't know."

Wild Swans has sold some 13 million copies (she corrects me gently when I put the figure at 10), been translated into 30 languages and is indeed one of the best selling non-fiction books in recent times. Yet her celebrity status rests lightly on the soft-spoken author, who sits before us on the windy terrace of the Galle Face Hotel, just hours before heading down South to Galle where she is one of the big draws at this year's Galle Literary Festival. Her black hair pinned up revealing her delicately chiselled features, she seems not much changed from the small but beautiful portrait that graces the cover of her book, along with the pictures of her mother and grandmother - three daughters of China.

Remembering the past: Jung Chang at the Galle Face terrace. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Today, on the final morning of the Festival, Jung will speak with her husband, historian Jon Halliday on the book they co-wrote after Wild Swans- Mao: The Unknown Story. Though Mao's biography which they researched exhaustively for all of 12 years was for them a hugely important book, a story which needed to be told, it is Wild Swans that Jung is forever associated with.

Upon hearing that first story, Jung asked her mother to tell her more, the stories she could never tell her before when they lived in China where it was impossible for any parent to talk to the children about their past - it was too dangerous.

"I didn't know about the stories of our family. I was astonished by the fact of how much my mother wanted me to understand her because even when I was out teaching (at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London), she would talk into a tape recorder. She left me 60 hours of tape recordings."

"She wanted me to write. When I was listening to my mother I realized how much I wanted to be a writer, how much I had always wanted to, but it was impossible in the Cultural Revolution to even think about it." The stories and poems were all written in her head, she says in the book. "It was as if she knew that this was my unspoken dream. This was her way of helping me fulfil my dream."

The indomitable spirit and courage of these two women in her life - her mother and grandmother were the stories that Jung realized then that she wanted to document. "I just wanted to tell their stories. I didn't write it to show their characters but to tell their stories, let the stories speak for themselves, but of course, they both were very strong characters. "

Wild Swans begins with Jung's grandmother who was sold at the age of 14 to an ageing warlord to be his concubine. An early chapter describes the practice of binding girls' feet so that they would not grow but remain small, considered at that time to be aristocratic. "My grandmother's feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother who herself had bound feet first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long round her feet, bending all the toes, except the big toe inward and under the sole.

Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony and begged her to stop. Her mother had to stick a cloth into her mouth to gag her. My grandmother passed out repeatedly from the pain," she writes in the book. After the warlord general's death, Jung's grandmother found happiness when she married a much respected doctor but that union too was marred by sorrow for one of his sons from his first marriage shot himself at the thought of his father marrying a lowly concubine. It was her stepfather who had given Jung’s mother a new name-- ‘De Hong’ made up of two characters: Hong, meaning ‘wild swan’ and ‘De’ the genaration name, meaning virtue.

"In my grandmother's time, a lot of concubines perished but she escaped with my mother- it was not easy at all. And my mother, not many wives would have fought the way she did," says Jung referring to the time of her father's fall from grace for opposing the Cultural Revolution, when all she would have had to do to be spared the trauma would have been to just write one poster denouncing her husband. "She tried to secure my father's release, she was put through over a hundred of those ghastly denounciations and yet, she fought for her children."

Photographs from Wild Swans: Jung’s parents in Nanjing, the former Kuomintaing capital, en route from Manchuria to Sichuan, a few days before her mother’s miscarriage.
Jung’s grandmother holding her (aged two with ribbons in hair) and her mother holding her siblings

Both her books, Wild Swans and Mao: The Unknown Story are still banned in China though copies have made their way into the country. Wild Swans was published in 1991 and Jung recalls that her mother was in Moscow at the time visiting a friend and she had joined her there, somewhat apprehensive of the regime's reaction to the book which depicted in such detail the brutal realities of the Cultural Revolution. She concedes that the country has changed enough for there to have been no repercussions on her mother for her daughter having written such a frank book, unlike in earlier times when perceived transgressions of one member would see the entire family suffering the consequences.

That the book has brought recognition of her mother's amazing courage is deeply gratifying to her. Her face lights up as she talks of how she had spoken to her mother at home in Chengdu the previous night, on the phone from Colombo. Her mother had told her of a dinner she had attended recently for some 500 guests where she had been virtually the centre of attraction, with many people coming up to her and slipping her pieces of paper with their names and addresses asking her for copies of the book.
As much as Jung had a particular empathy in writing of the women in her family, writing about her father, was one of the painful aspects of the process. A gentle learned man he was made to suffer enormously when he acted according to his conscience. "He really believed (in the Party) and he ultimately died of a broken heart. My father spoke up against the Cultural Revolution, he went through so much and (for that), he was driven insane."

Jung recalls the time she stayed with him at home during that period because hospitals wouldn't admit him, on the pretext that he was faking the illness to hide his responsibility for attacking Mao. Later when he recovered he said it was the most horrible thing to lose one's mind, she says. He died at the age of 54. But it was not just him. As much as 70 -80 million people died unnecessarily as a result of Mao, she remarks sombrely.

Last year when Jung visited China, they went to her father’s tomb and that of Jung's grandmother who also died in the Revolution. "My mother who is usually very composed wept. And then I realised how many of these millions, had families who have buried their memories of the past in their hearts. The past hasn't become real memory, it has been swept under the mental carpet and that's actually quite dangerous,” she says. Wild Swans carries a heartfelt dedication - 'To my grandmother and father who did not live to see this book'.

For Jung herself, the bitterness and the anguish left with the writing of Wild Swans. The nightmares that were part of her life till then despite living in the safety of Britain away from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution no longer haunt her. "Compared with other Chinese I was very lucky because I was from a privileged background, Communist elite. After I was 14, I witnessed horrible things- but I have not been tortured, beaten up. I was exiled to the mountains but that's nothing compared to what other people faced. But because I had seen some horrible things, I did have nightmares but writing Wild Swans put that to rest. I think it's so important to have the past properly looked at and sorted out. They have become memories rather than traumas."

Mao died in 1976 and in 1978 Jung who was then an assistant lecturer at the University of Sichuan after having been a Red Guard, peasant worker, barefoot doctor, steel worker and electrician applied for a scholarship to study in the West. She was the only one from the landlocked Sichuan province that had a population of 90 million, chosen to be sent for higher studies to the West. "When I left China was just beginning to open up. I was one of 14, the first group to come to the West, to England. When I got my Ph.D in 1982 in linguistics, I was the first person from a communist country to get a doctorate from a British university."

Even after 30 years of living in the West, she is deeply aware of her good fortune. "I'm extremely lucky. But I also fought, and my mother also fought for me." There remain too, deep, strong feelings for the country she left behind. "When I see Chinese tourists I feel so happy. These things are taken for granted in the West but when I see people having their first flats, their first cars, having their first foreign tours I feel extremely happy.

The frustration still surfaces though, in her yearly trips to visit her mother- “When I go back I always feel extreme happiness and also extreme frustration--I wish that things would change more in the assessment of Mao.”

"Obviously things have changed in China.. people have a much better life. But Mao's portrait still hangs in Tiananmen Square, his corpse is still in the mausoleum." Remarking on a newspaper report she has read in Colombo, she says, "They are having a poll in Russia about removing Lenin's body from Red Square. I really wish they would have a poll in China; it is time for the country to turn its back on Mao and Mao's legacy. People often ask me about the future of China. I think the day Mao's portrait comes down from Tiananmen will be the day of real liberation for the Chinese people.

"Mao has been dead for 35 years. With the economic development, I thought the regime would reassess Mao, after all they are not sharing a lot of policies with Mao. But I think the regime thinks that if you reassess Mao you are reassessing the past of the Communist Party and there is a lot of blood and dirt that would be uncovered and it would create such a situation which I think they fear they may not be able to control which would undermine the legitimacy of this grand party. They may probably also fear that if they loosen the lid, China might break up, like the Soviet Union. They fear that - the loss of the monopoly of power. As they are doing well economically and giving increasingly more people a better life, I think their way of thinking is: why change? And so I don't have any hope realistically of having my books published in the near future.”

London is her home now and she says frankly, "I have a very happy life with my husband, my family, mother, brothers and sisters. My husband and I are together most of the time. I have my study, he has his. We have lunch together, in the evenings we see friends, we love watching great Hollywood movies. We travel to many parts of the world, both for our past books and our future books. I am very happy being a writer, which was my life's dream."

In 2008, after she finished translating Mao- The Unknown Story into Chinese, Jung began working on the story of another indomitable woman - the much-maligned Great Empress Dowager Cixi who ruled till 1908. After she died China quickly became a republic. "She was a very strong woman. She had no legitimacy. When she ruled China women were not allowed to go out. She launched a coup and made herself the Regent. In the Forbidden City, there was a throne and behind it a yellow screen. And she was behind the screen – the power behind the throne. For a woman to rule was to bring the country disaster. But she was the person who brought China into the modern age."

There is still some years of work to go; but for Jung Chang another journey into China's past has begun.

Top to the page  |  E-mail  |  views[1]
SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Other Plus Articles
Chimamanda: Tougher than she looks!
Still an intimate affair
Letters to the Editor
Mystery of the ‘freedom table’
Brain exchange and not brain drain
When writers met and mingled
'I just wanted to tell their stories'
Jon Halliday and Mao: The Unknown Story
SOSL heralds the season with Dvorak and Villani-Cortes
Church with a miraculous beginning celebrates 175 years
Friends of Prisoners’ Children step in to fill a void
Memoirs of a happy diplomat
Come let us build a new CLUB for us
Along the ancient maritime trails
One man’s Dutch courage to shed light on history
Pariyari Mama: the oldest living Unani physician
Sharing deepest meaning of Dhamma in the most simple manner
People and events


Reproduction of articles permitted when used without any alterations to contents and a link to the source page.
© Copyright 1996 - 2011 | Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved | Site best viewed in IE ver 8.0 @ 1024 x 768 resolution