Thursday, September 28, 2017

Wild Swans

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
© 1991 Chang Jung
525 pages

(My edition uses Chang's family name first, following the Chinese custom.)

Read the records of the 20th century totalitarian states, and the number of lives destroyed numbs the brain. Eleven million in Germany, twenty million in Russia -- such a mass of suffering is too large to grasp. Distill that suffering into three lives, however, and it is conveyed with intimate efficiency.  Wild Swans uses the family history of three women -- a concubine of a warlord, a young Communist, and an untrained doctor turned untrained electrician turned writer in exile -- to deliver a history of China's brutal 20th century.   Although a three-part biography, the real weight of of the book lays in the middle, in the lives of the author's mother and father. Through them -- both Communists from their teens on, who  resisted the Japanese and the Kuomintang, who advanced the Communist revolution -- we see the hopes of China turn to ashes as Mao commits everything that isn't worship of the Chairman to the flames.

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century,  when a poor-but-pretty girl caught the eye of a warlord. Though her family's rank and wealth  disqualified her as a marriageable mate,  she was -- just barely -- acceptable as a concubine. Living alone in a gilded cage,  Chang Jung's grandmother had to face the hostility of the warlord's other concubines after she became pregnant. Her response was to escape, faking illness so she could smuggle her daughter and herself out.  Chang's grandmother married a Manchu doctor, a connection that came in handy after the Japanese invaded northern China and created a Manchurian puppet state.   Although the family had to live through the casual tyranny of the Empire and the food shortages of war,  the only fighting that ever threatened their village was between the Nationalists and the Communists guerillas.  Chang's mother, growing up in this environment, looked to the Communists as poor heroes against the imperial Japanese and the utterly corrupt Kuomintang.  As an adolescent, she smuggled in literature and helped the Communists gain intelligence inside the city for their covert actions,  aiding the cause.  Eventually she would meet and marry a young official, who was even more ardent than she. Together, they would witness the triumph of the war against the Kuomintang: the declaration of a People's Republic of China.

The dream would not last long. As this memoir-biography develops,  the faith of these two Communists is stressed, strained, and eventually crushed.  Chang's father was a New Communist Man through and through: he was effectively married to the Party, treating his wife as the other woman.  Devoted to the republic, he stood on principles absolutely, time and again choosing the party before his family.  He was assigned to another province?  Very well, his wife would have to wallk; her rank in the party didn't merit riding in a truck.  Was she pregnant? She would have to work until the delivery, because peasant women didn't have the luxury of taking it easy. Had he been given a ticket to a play for his daughter?  Yes, but she would need to trade it for an inferior ticket. It wouldn't do for a young girl to take a front seat just because her father was a senior official.   Chang's father was a hard man, but he believed that after centuries of imperial corruption, a new China needed to be built on the foundation of principled citizens.   As puritanical and cold as he could seem to his family, readers can only praise him after living through the Cultural Revolution via his family.

There's no shortage of brutality, inhumanity, and mass terror in this book: the Japanese and Kuomingtang give us a taste early on, and as soon as the Communists take control there are the murderous purges and the equally deadly incompetence-induced famine that killed millions.  As the biography develops, however, more and more of the problems have one man at their root: Mao,  who was creating a new imperial system around himself.    After a period of relative freedom of expression he suddenly purged those expressing themselves,  Mao claimed it was a premeditated act designed to draw out the traitors-in-waiting.  But with the cultural revolution, Mao would top himself. He would make Hitler the mean kid on the playground, make Stalin look like a common gangster. Mao, facing resistance from the Party itself, decided to destroy the party, destroy what institutions had been built upon since his victory, and destroy everything from China's past. He appealed to the first generation of children raised in the People's Republic to  rise against their teachers, their parents,  and the legacy of the past:  burn it all. Nothing could be great in China but Mao,  the man who praised poverty and lived in mansions,  who waged war against even the grass.  The Chinese would be set against one another and their own past, creating an atmosphere of constant abuse, paranoia, and savagery.

Chang herself was a student during the Cultural Revolution,  and through her we witness the complete breakdown of society.  Her father, a man of principle who stood on self-control and had reason to be confident in his solid Party Man reputation,  became the target of the "Rebels".  Both he and Chang's mother -- whose youthful devotion to the Party had fast waned thanks to the famine and her treatment during pregnancy --   were detained and tormented, After her parents took the bold step of appealing to Mao personally,  matters grew worst still.  Although many Rebels appreciated his principled defiance -- he refused to recant and declared he would stand against the cultural revolution even if  Mao had ordered it -- a key feature of the  rebel reign of terror is that it was unorganized chaos. At first was was merely bands of students harassing teachers, but their numbers grew and the Party was dumped from power in favor of the new student groups, they began fighting against one another.  Chang's father lost his sanity after one period of detention, and when he died it was a consequence of a long period of constant abuse. Chang could only wonder, as she witnessed her parents' emotional destruction at the hands of the regime -- if this was Paradise, what could hell be like?   The devotion she had for Mao perished in the orgy of murder and mayhem that he inaugurated.

Bao-Quin and Wang-Yu,  Chang's parents

Wild Swans is an incredible look into some of China's most horrible years, particularly given the way the Changs are put on the rack for being too faithful to the cause.  Anyone who has believed in something -- a politician, an ideology, a religion -- and truly loved it, only to have to abandon it because of mounting evidence that it is not what it promised to be -- will sympathize with the Changs' plight. They never changed; Mao did. In fact,  many people were punished throughout Mao's regime for following instructions, merely because the managing authorities had changed.  Reading this and witnessing the idealism of the Communists giving way immediately to nepotism and human nature makes me more aware of both the immutable frailty of human society,  and the treasure that is the rule of law which we in the west enjoyed for so long.


  1. I've read several books in the last year on the Cultural Revolution. This one sounds like it would fit in perfectly. Thanks for the heads up...:)

    1. Books about the CR seem like books about the Holocaust...there's only so much a reader can take! I have Frank Dikotter's history of the CR, but am musing over whether I want to try it this year. Thank you for dropping by!

  2. The Cultural Revolution is a classic, and quite probably the classic, example of the failed attempt to fit people to an ideology no matter what the hardship, pain and death toll that resulted. Humanity is adaptable by nature - one major reason why we're such a successful species - but we are only so-plastic before we break. I wonder if that lesson we ever be learnt?

  3. Going by Chang's account, the revolution wasn't so much an attempt to conform anyone to an ideology as it was a reign of terror to increase Mao's power. Nothing constructive was attempted -- just destruction. Of course, Maoist China before and after the CR was full of "thought reform"...of making people constantly criticize themselves and others so everyone was terrified of saying anything at all. Even the blandest observation about the way a policy was working might be viewed as "rightist".


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