Monday, July 14, 2014

Books before I'm 30: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Wild Swans has been sitting waiting to be read by me for a while. I am very glad of this project, as every time I came to start a new book I would read the blurb of Wild Swans and think "phew, that sounds heavy" and read something else.

Wild Swans is a remarkable novel, and really is essential reading, especially for anyone (like myself) whose knowledge of Chinese history over the twentieth century is pretty shaky. It manages to tell a very personal story of three generations of women, but also tell the history of China in the twentieth century, which comes across as a slow tragedy.

The remarkable thing about the book is how many stories and themes it contains. It begins by being about the place of women in society, with Jung Chang's grandmother becoming a concubine (effectively an unofficial wife) of a local warlord, so that her father can improve his position. To use his daughter effectively, the grandmother has her feet bound at birth, a tradition that is going out of fashion and is insanely cruel. We see just how perilous her position is: she has to appease the wife of the warlord as well as the other concubines, and even her servants need to be treated extremely well, lest they make up stories about each other. This society turns women against each other as they struggle for security. Her story is heroic, as she manages to struggle to protect her daughter from others who would treat her cruelly.

Alongside this personal tale is a story of occupation by a series of cruel occupiers. The Japanese are replaced by the  Kuomintang who are in some ways even worse, and more corrupt. Communism, when it comes, comes as a breathe of fresh air, but this only makes it more heartbreaking as this new system, which held so much promise, betrays Jung Chang's mother. In particular Jung Chang's father, who is presented as an incorruptible figure who believes utterly in the communist cause, strikes a tragic figure as the full insanity of Mao is revealed. The madness of the great leap forward followed shortly by the cultural revolution are vividly described.

The writing is clear and involving, and managed to deliver a wild sweeping story in a very engaging fashion. I would absolutely recommend that everyone who has not read this book.

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