Wild Swans may well be the most depressing book Ive ever read. Dont let that keep you from giving it a try, though, for by some strange mechanism, it also ranks among the most uplifting books Ive read, chronicling as it does a courage, resilience and will to survive which are nothing short of riveting.
I could sum the book up by saying its the greatest ode to courage and resilience ever written, or that its one of those rare books which make you despair of humanity and then go a long way towards restoring your faith in it, but no, Im not going to leave it at that.
Im going to do this book justice, because damn it, it deserves it.For those of you who missed the hype back in the early 1990s, Wild Swans is the true history of three generations of women living through the horrible nightmare that is modern Chinese history.
One is the author herself, now a naturalised British citizen. The second is her mother, an earnest Communist who raised a large family at a time which was extremely bad for family life. The third is her grandmother, who was married off as a concubine to a warlord as a girl and lived to see her family suffer for this unfortunate connection again and again. About Vilda svanar: tre dР“В¶ttrar av Kina Using these three extraordinary lives as her main focus, Jung Chang tells the history of Chinas even more extraordinary twentieth century, from the late Qing Dynasty in the first decade of the century to the relatively free 1980s, a period comprising the Republican era, the battle between the Kwomintang and the Communists, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Its gripping stuff even for those who know their Chinese history, and it blew me away when I first read it halfway through my Chinese degree, making me wonder (for the first time but not the last) whether I really wanted to devote the rest of my life to China. It took me two more years to decide that I did not, but this book, whose memory has always stayed with me, played a large part in that decision.
To this day, I vividly remember the horror I experienced when I read the long section about the Cultural Revolution. It brought alive the terror of that particular episode of Chinese history better than any other book Id read, and it shocked me to my core. While Wild Swans is largely about the three women mentioned above, the most interesting person in the book (I hesitate to call him a character as he was obviously a very real person) is the authors father, a high-ranking cadre who genuinely believed in the Communist ideals and strove all his life to implement them in daily life.
At first, he is infuriating in his refusal to grant his wife and children the privileges to which they are entitled as his relatives (on the grounds that to do so would amount to nepotism and corruption, which is precisely what the Communists are supposed to be trying to eradicate), but as the story progresses, you realise that there is something quite heroic about Mr Chang — that he is, in his daughters words, a moral man living in a land that [is] a moral void.
By the time the Cultural Revolution rolls around the corner, you feel such admiration for him that youd personally drag him away from the humiliations and beatings he receives for sticking to his guns if you could, to prevent him having to experience that loss of faith and dreams which is bound to follow.
His is a tragedy with a capital T, and its harrowing — one of the most painful things Ive read, and then some.Yet for all the personal struggles described in the book (and there are many of them), the main struggling character of Wild Swans is China itself.
Chang does a great job chronicling what J.G. Ballard called the brain-death of a nation, sharing historical facts in a way non-sinologists will understand and showing the cruelty and mercilessness inherent in the Chinese — or should that be humanity in general?
She does a marvellous job describing the panic and unpredictability of the early Cultural Revolution, when absolutely everybody could be denounced at the drop of a hat, and when pettiness and lust for power reigned.
Along the road, she provides fascinating insights into Mao Zedongs selfishness and megalomania, and into the hypocrisy and incongruity of the movements he set in motion, which brutalised human relationships like nothing else ever has. And all these atrocities she juxtaposes with the integrity and courage of her parents and grandmother, who get through it all with some hope and optimism left intact.
Its a riveting story, and Chang tells it well.If I have any complaints about Wild Swans, they concern the first few chapters and the romanisation of names. The early parts of the book, which deal with events the author did not witness herself, feel a bit aloof and lifeless. (It gets better once Chang starts telling about her parents, and once she reaches the part of the story to which she herself was privy (the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution), the book becomes quite unputdownable.) As for the romanisation, I wish the publisher had hired an editor skilled in Pinyin, as Changs spelling of Chinese names is all over the place (something non-sinologists wont notice, but which is an eyesore to me).
These are minor flaws, though, which hardly detract from the overall quality of the book. Wild Swans is an intensely compelling read — moving, unsettling and unforgettable. It should be compulsory reading for everyone remotely interested in China, or in history in general.