Wild Swans | Jung Chang

non-fiction | biography | history | china

First published 1991

Close up of the book cover for Wild Swans by Jung Chang






"Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao." 



We begin the book with the story of Chang's grandmother (Yu-fang). Her feet were bound when she was two years old, and because she came from a relatively poor family, her father planned to make her a concubine of the high-ranking warlord General Xue Zui-heng. Her father's plan worked, and after being married to the General (who already had a wife and many other concubines), Yu-fang was left alone in a big house with servants and did not see her husband for another six years. The General returned for a brief conjugal visit after six years and Chang's mother, Bao Qin, was conceived. The General asked to see his daughter while he was on his deathbed, telling Yu-fang that Bao Qin was very important as he had no male heir. Fearing that the General's wife would have complete control over her and her daughter' life, Yu-fang fled back to her parents' house, sending false news that Bao Qin had died. Yu-fang married a much older doctor and built a life with him and Bao Qin in Jinzhou, Manchuria.

The next part of the book tells the story of Chang's mother, Bao Qin. She began working for the Communist Party of China and Mao's Red Army at the age of fifteen. As the revolution progressed, she rose through the ranks of the Party where she met Chang's father, Wang Yu. They were married quickly, but due to their responsibilities to the party, were not permitted to spend much time together. The couple were transferred to Yibin, where Chang's mother suffered a miscarriage due to the long and difficult journey to their new home.

The final part of the book is Chang's own autobiography. The Cultural Revolution began when she was a teenager and she willingly joined the Red Guards. The cult of Mao grew and grew, and life became increasingly difficult and dangerous. Chang's own father, despite his high position within the Party, became a target of the Red Guards when he criticised Mao and the suffering he had caused the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. Her parents were labelled as "Capitalist Roaders" and were subjected to meetings and torture. Her father's treatment eventually led to his death, after his physical and mental health deteriorated as a result of his treatment by the Red Guards. 

Her father's treatment led Chang to doubt Mao. She was sent to the countryside for education and thought reform by the peasants. Afterwards, she returned home and won a place at university. Shortly after she entered the university, Mao died. She was happy about his death and after her graduation, she won a scholarship to study in England. She left China and still lives in England to this day.

My Verdict: I'm ashamed to admit that I really didn't know anything about China's history and the rise of Mao and Communism or the Cultural Revolution. This book taught me so much. Many of the scenes described were quite brutal and difficult to read at times. Mao and the Red Guards were not the great leaders they convinced themselves and the people that they were. The sheer extent of the brainwashing campaigns and rule by fear was astonishing and stunning. I was turning the pages and just asking the question, why? Why would you want to do these things to people? Especially your own people who you claim to be helping. Like with all megalomaniacal dictators, Mao feared his own people much more than any foreign state, and so he knew he had to keep them under control by any means necessary. It is estimated that over 30 million people died during Mao's reign, mostly from starvation. His cult still lives on, which is probably because not enough people have read this book!

Review Award | 5/5

Posted 11.04.2021

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