When Jung Chang’s Wild swans: three daughters of China was first published in 1991 (quite soon after the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations), curiosity in the West about people’s lives under Maoism ensured it huge popular success. This was soon followed by a tide of condescension from sinologists and China-watchers, understandably envious at the eclipse of their own more careful, measured research on the period. Still, rather few of them seem to have aired their reservations publicly (see e.g. Lin Chun, and Harriet Evans, “Hot-house history”, in TLS 1992).
While the way that Jung Chang (pinyin: Zhang Rong) enmeshes the personal and the political is a strength, her general slant may read like simplistic Commie-bashing, lacking in empathy—treating the development of the regime as alien (cf. Dikötter, “The tragedy of Liberation”).
It was hardly new to expose the iniquities of the Maoist system, and they do indeed need to be exposed. But surely they deserved a wide audience outside academia—not just the famine and the Cultural Revolution, but the whole catalogue of abuses before and after the 1949 “Liberation”. And personal accounts make a fine way of communicating such stories.
I found the chapters on the Great Leap Backward and the famine particularly revealing. At a time when the detailed scholarship on the latter was only just taking off, when such details were still not common knowledge, Jung Chang’s readings of the political tides are mostly sound. While she portrays her father, a high-ranking cadre in Chengdu, as a righteous official, and she herself was largely cocooned from the extreme sufferings of the time, she evokes the plight of the desperate peasants and political machinations among the leadership, combining her own memories with her later understandings.
I had little idea that famine was raging all around me. One day on my way to school, as I was eating a small steamed roll, someone rushed up and snatched it from my hands. As I was recovering from the shock, I caught a glimpse of a very thin, dark back in shorts and bare feet, running down the mud alley with his hand to his mouth, devouring the roll. When I told my parents what had happened, my father’s eyes were terribly sad. He stroked my head and said, “You are lucky. Other children like you are starving.” […]
These people with edema were mostly peasants. Starvation was much worse in the countryside because there were no guaranteed rations. Government policy was to provide food for the cities first, and commune officials were having to seize grain from the peasants by force. In many areas, peasants who tried to hide food were arrested, or beaten and tortured. Commune officials who were reluctant to take food from the hungry peasants were themselves dismissed, and some were physically maltreated. As a result, the peasants who had actually grown the food died in the millions all over China.
The way Jung Chang relates her early memories reveal the texture of daily life amidst upheavals—my doubts about how much a six-year-old can recall of their youth are largely assuaged by the author’s in-depth conversations with her mother. Indeed, much of the success of Wild swans was in its focus on three generations of women. It was “joined by a clutch of cygnets” (in Julia Lovell’s phrase) in similar vein, such as Anchee Min (Red azalea), Gao Anhua (To the edge of the sky), and Mu Aiping (The Vermilion Gate).
I first read Wild swans as part of my general education on the Maoist era, as I was striving to build up a picture of the modern history of the village of Gaoluo just south of Beijing—a very different world. Meanwhile the rural picture was being amplified by scholarly works like those of Chan, Madsen, and Unger on Chen village and Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden on Wugong. Such studies inspired me seek ever greater detail from my friends in Gaoluo about their experiences, year by year, month by month—which bore fruit in my own book Plucking the winds, and later in my work on the Li family Daoists.
Now that I come to re-read Wild swans in the light of all my fieldwork, I still find myself impressed by Jung Chang’s attention to both the personal stories of her family and the wider picture. I’m sorry some academics can’t see the merits of this.
With her husband Jon Halliday, Jung Chang followed up Wild swans with Mao: the unknown story (2005)—which sinologists didn’t refrain from criticising (e.g. Gregor Benton and Lin Chun, eds, Was Mao really a monster?, and Andrew Nathan in the LRB, complete with spat).
For later revelations on the Maoist era, see e.g. Guo Yuhua on a Shaanbei village; the documentaries of China: commemorating trauma, and Kang Zhengguo’s Confessions: an innocent life in Communist China. See also Maoism tag.