The stuff of nightmares
Jung Chang’s autobiographical story of three generations of women living through China’s tumultuous 20th century is fascinating and terrifying. Given that it is a subjective account of the key events in modern Chinese history, ‘Wild Swans‘ provides a compelling and informative narrative that brings to life complex socio-historic transformations in ways that a straight historical account could not.
‘Wild Swans‘ is most interesting when it deals with Jung Chang’s firsthand experiences during Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution, where a climate of paranoia and political denouncement caused society to practically implode. It seems almost beyond comprehension how Mao could have held such God-like power over his people when the very communist principals he espoused seemed to contradict such form of deification as undignified. Even more extraordinary is how he succeeded in maintaining his grip on power without the assistance of a KGB-type secret police, but by turning the people against each other. By making himself a god, he subtly provoked his populace to fight vendettas in his name while remaining aloof and almost mythical. In effect he presided over a kind of controlled civil war, only reigning in the violence when he perceived his own position to be under threat.
While not particularly literary – it doesn’t need to be – Jung Chang keeps the style relatively factual for an autobiography. But the facts speak horrifically for themselves, with individuals competing for the largely imagined grace of Mao driven to acts of extreme cruelty and humiliation. While ‘Wild Swans‘ often shows a dispiritingly brutal side of people when put in particular conditions, the acts of bravery, kindness and incredible physical and emotional endurance allow a little faith in human nature to persist. Absolutely essential reading.