23 June, 2009

Book 16 - Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, or: Communism is not for lovers

Dunedin trip was pretty awesome - barely froze to death at all due to deliciously heated motel room - but the book I took down with me was decidedly not. I was hoping to finish it last week and write it up, but I'm halfway through and it is still unbelievably dull. So instead, here's a book I read a few months ago, only twenty years after everyone else read it. (In my defence, I was only 5 when it was published).

Title: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991)

Author: Jung Chang

Why this book?
After Bomb, Book and Compass I was dying to learn more about China's history. I remember this book being pretty popular at school when I was 13 or 14, but Chinese Cinderella, which was published about then, put me off reading anything Chinese and autobiographical for a really long time (mostly because it was just so depressing.)

What's it all about anyway? Wild Swans tells the stories of three Chinese women whose lives span most of the Twentieth Century as huge social, political and economic changes come to China; three women the author knows intimately, as they are her maternal grandmother, her mother, and herself.

Chang's grandmother, Yu-fang, is born to a poor family, but her father schemes to have a high-ranking warlord take her on as his concubine in order to gain status. After a wedding ceremony, Yu-fang goes to live in a large household where all her material needs are left; however, she seldom sees her husband, as he has many other concubines as well as a wife. She's pretty miserable, as she distrusts the servants and convention dictates she does not return to her own family. Eventually she has a daughter and goes to live with in her husband's own household; however, after he dies, she realises her daughter is likely to be taken from her and raised by his wife as their own child. Yu-fang escapes back to her mother's house.

Yu-fan doesn't exactly have a lot of status as an ex-concubine living under her mother's roof, but nevertheless she falls in love with a kindly older man, Dr Xia, and he with her. They marry, but his family disapproves greatly of the match and his (adult) children go out of the way to destroy the relationship, even going so far as to hurt Yu-fan's daughter. Eventually, Yu-fan, her daughter and Dr Xia move away from his family home to an economically disadvantaged district; but despite her new poverty Yu-fan is very happy, and begins to learn the customs of Dr Xia's people (unlike her, he's Manchurian).

The story of Yu-fan's daughter is very different. De-hong (also known as Bao Qin) grows up seeing the Japanese and Chinese armies constantly battling for supremacy and is used to stories of their brutality and oppression; so she is surprised when she first meets members of the Communist army, impressed with their gentle manners and egalitarian ideals. She begins working for the Communist Party, and slowly works up the ranks, yet in the eyes of her superiors she is never fully committed to the Party - for one thing, she has friends among the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) that she refuses to see as enemies, and for another the fact that her own father was a high-ranking military officer makes her a possible enemy (despite the fact she never met her own father).

Still, when De-hong falls for a man who is a well-respected officer in the Communist Party, Shou-yu (also known as Wang Yu) she tries to become more dedicated to the Party, if only for his sake. The two marry, but Shou-yu's own conviction that he needs to put the needs of the Party before his own means that he often neglects his wife. De-hong, like her mother before her, is often lonely, and very unhappy, particularly since Party rules dictate that couples are seldom allowed to sleep together. These stiff rules do start to relax eventually - however, at the same time the ideal country that both Shou-yu and De-hong believe they are helping to build also starts to crumble away.

The couple have five children, including Jung Chang, the book's author. Chang's childhood is dominated by the growing cult of Mao; in contrast to Communists like Chang's parents, all Mao cared about was his own personal glory. After rising to power he began to stamp out past dissenters, present dissenters, possible future dissenters... And, of course, began brainwashing the children of China into believing the only way forward was his way. Chang herself willingly follows the other children, but thanks to her parents' influence finds herself starting to doubt Mao as she grew older. Still, she can't voice these doubts out loud, and like everyone else she is subject to the whims of the Communist Party's Leader - such as going to the country to work among peasants, despite constant illness and her lack of skills.

Mao's death leads to changes in China, although these changes are slow coming. Chang gets to go to university - something she's wanted to do for a very long time - and is able to study English, even meet foreigners. Finally, she is offered a scholarship to England, and the chance to leave China for good.

The Good and the Bad
The biggest problem I have with this book is the same problem I have with any autobiography, which is that it is impossible for the writer to describe her characters - her friends, family and enemies - without any bias, or to describe how an event transpired with a wholly impartial view. Chang does do a wonderful job with her grandmother and mother - although she clearly admires and loves them, she doesn't treat them softly, nor does she go the other way and treat them too harshly. When it comes to describing her own life, however, it really felt to me like she was talking herself up a little. Maybe I was just too cynical towards what I was reading, but whatever it was I didn't enjoy her story as much as I enjoyed the stories of her mother and grandmother.

Besides that, this was a wonderful book. It wasn't nearly as depressing as I thought it was going to be, and even when Chang is describing the most horrific of events she does so in such an even tone that it's surprisingly readable - she doesn't lay on the emotion, or revel in shocking her audience, she's simply telling what happened. That's really what makes Chang's story so believable, I think.

So should I read it or what?
This isn't a light read, but definitely worth putting in a few days of reading (even if I did start to skim a little towards the end...)

Unrelated link of the day: Superflat First Love, an animated music video created by Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton. Cute and cracktastic, this link was passed on to me from a friend who as big a dork about anime as I am.

1 comment:

Sadako said...

This looks cool...once I'm in the mood for a heavier type read, I'll try to check it out!