Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang


Another book off the TBR shelf completed!  Finally, this was one of the books I'd been meaning to read since forever.  When I posted my original list for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge (hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader) this was the book that by far had the most positive comments.  And yet, I waited  almost a year to start it.

But back to Wild Swans.  I've been on a read nonfiction kick this year; almost 25 percent of the books I've read have been nonfiction, and I hope to read even more in 2014.   This is the story of three generations of Chinese women in the 20th century: Jung Chang's mother, who became the concubine of a warlord; her daughter, who embraced the communist cause after World War II; and finally, Jung Chang herself, a child of communism who survived the Cultural Revolution and became one of the first people to study abroad in the 1970s after Mao's death.

This book was both depressing and uplifting.  It's a somewhat long book, more than 500 pages, but it took me longer than usual because the writing is pretty dense and I was mostly able to read it in small chunks due to work.  However, this was probably for the best, because parts of this book were difficult to take.   I didn't know that much about what life was really like in communist China from the 1950s through the 1970s.  Basically, it sucked.  If you've read 1984 by George Orwell (which I haven't read since high school), it was pretty much like that, but set in China, and affecting nearly a billion people.  Spying, lies, backstabbing, doublespeak, paranoia -- with a backdrop of the cult of Mao.   Seriously, it sounds exactly like a cult.  The author admits it herself.

After WWII, when the Japanese left after invading Manchuria, the Kuomintang and Communists fought over control, and the Communists won out.  Mao took power, anyone remotely associated with the Kuomintang would be under suspicion for life (and often, the entire family was tainted by association); and things go from bad to worse with famine and the Cultural Revolution.  Remember that saying about how you should finish everything on your plate because there are children starving in China?  Well, know I understand why.  This book is really insightful about the history of China in the 20th century, the mentality of the Chinese people and how they wind up with Communism -- and how it's not what they were hoping for at all.

Parts of this book deal with really terrible things, but the story is so fascinating I had to keep reading to find out what happened next.  (Spoiler alert -- Jung leaves and writes a best-selling memoir!).  It sounds so awful, but there are good things too.  Despite all the hardships, Chang's family is very close and ultimately supportive of one another, and there are a lot of random people that end up doing really good and kind things.

Chang's story ends in the late 1970s when she moves to Britain to study English and she still lives there, but I'd really liked to know more details about her life since.  (I think it's in the introduction to the 2003 book, but I may have to take a little break before reading it.)  Chang has just published a biography of The Empress Dowager Cixi and now I really want to read that too.

12 comments:

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    1. It's one of my top reads of the year -- I can't believe I waited so long to read it.

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  2. It's very painful to read on times but nevertheless an astonishing book. My work colleagues in china had never heard of it - seems it is not available in the country even now.

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    1. Sadly, I'm not surprised that it's still unavailable in China -- it's a very unflattering portrait of life in that time period. I know it's sold more than 10 million copies worldwide so far.

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  3. I just loved this book and have read it 2 or 3 times. Her biography of Mao is also excellent if you ever get a chance to try it.

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    1. Definitely one of my best reads this year! I'll have to look for the Mao biography also.

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  4. It's a long time since I read this - and I can't quite believe now that I did - but I'd say depressing and uplifting sums it up beautifully.

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    1. Some of the events are pretty shocking. I'm really glad that things seem to be getting better in China, in some ways at least.

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  5. My book club read this right before I joined, and they loved it. I haven't read it yet. You keep alluding to horrible events, though, and I am really in need of upbeat lit right now. So while this is on my TBR pile, your review is telling me to leave it there for a bit :)

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    1. There's some terrible things that happen, but overall the book is pretty uplifting. I can definitely understand it might not be the right time -- I read a really depressing book about French POWs in Auschwitz this year and afterward I couldn't even consider reading anything remotely depressing. There's definitely a right and wrong time for a lot of books.

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  6. I've been so caught up in fiction lately, that my non-fiction reading has been suffering. I should put this book on my list for next year--I know so little about China (most of what I know comes from Amy Tan!) and this does sound interesting, but grim.

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    1. I found this to be incredibly insightful and informative -- I really feel like I understand the situation in China much more. For example, why Communism really took hold, and and why Mao was basically worshiped in a godlike fashion. It explained a lot. An excellent read, I highly recommend it.

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