Friday, June 9, 2017

Wild Swans and the Long Sorrowful Song of China

Jung Chang's memoir was one of those books that I had been "meaning to read" for a long time. Wild Swans was first published in 1991. I had an old paperback copy lying around getting dusty on top of some other books on one of many shelves.

I recently wrote an article that required me to look at 20th century China, and I remembered this book and actually found it (that doesn't always happen in our vast, uncatalogued library😜). I ended up reading the whole thing.

I always thought I knew this history of China and its characters, and all their brutality and crimes.

I. Had. No. Idea. 😰!

Jung Chang tells the story of China from the end of the 19th century until about 1980, as experienced (vividly) by three women: her grandmother, her mother, and herself.

It's a story that begins in the Manchu Empire, passes through the revolution of 1911-12, the ensuing disintegration, the brutal Japanese invasion, the (often corrupt) regime of the Nationalists during the civil war, the Communist victory and all the madness that came after leading up to era of Deng Xiaoping.

Chang went to Britain in 1978, perfected her English and earned a Ph.D., married a British historian, and decided to stay in the West.

We should all be glad she did.

Chang gives us a rare view of a harrowing historical period in a country whose history we scarcely know but whose presence in the world today is critically significant.

When I was a little kid, "nothing" in America was "made in China." We had some things from Taiwan, which America still regarded as the "official" China (I even remember calling it Nationalist China). But an immense fog covered the mainland, and all we knew was that things were very bad beneath that fog. It covered over a place called Red China.

Then, I remember, the President of the United States visited China. We all saw pictures in the media of a jowly Richard Nixon meeting with a grandfatherly-looking old Chinese man who called himself "Chairman Mao." Of course, everyone knew that Chairman Mao had done lots of scary things (even The Beatles knew that "carrying round pictures of Chairman Mao" was off the deep end). But Nixon and Kissinger and company told us that things were going to get better.

So much for my memories.

Jung Chang has richer and more complex memories. She grew up in China during this period. She gives us a picture in which concrete experience opens up into a panorama of the whole: she gives us China with its beautiful mountains, forests, and rivers as well as its ecologically ruined landscapes; China with its deep traditions and its ossified habits; China full of good people, dedicated people including Communist officials who really believed they could build a better society, and also corrupt people, ruthless people, bad people.

She also conveys what it was like to grow up enraptured by, in awe of, and ready to die for a man who effectively demanded worship from a quarter of the earth's population and who is still today venerated as the father of his country. She recounts how, gradually, even while keeping up appearances out of fear (along with so many of her compatriots), she began to discover that this man was in fact a psychopath who was responsible for the deaths of 70 million people.

Mao Zedong was a ruthless, monstrous fraud intoxicated with his own power and with perpetuating destruction and violence.

But Wild Swans is not written as a systematic, intensively researched expose of Mao and deconstruction of the "Mao myth" (Chang does that in her 800 page biography Mao, The Unknown Story published in 2005). Wild Swans is the story of three women and their fathers, husbands, and children. It is the story of a Chinese family held together by love, loyalty, honor, and honest (even if badly mistaken) commitment to the alleged ideals of the Chinese Communist Party. It was a family with its fair share of flaws and ugliness and regret. And it was a family that was agonizingly ripped apart beginning in 1966 by the chaos and mayhem that Mao called his "Cultural Revolution."

By the end of the book, I felt ripped apart. It is a riveting, intense, heart-rending account written in beautiful English.

The book is not a "conversion story," except insofar as Chang discovers and adopts (in some measure, and in her own way) the ideals of Western secular humanism. It's not about Christianity. Chang does not indicate that she has any religious convictions, but she does have a deep devotion to classical Chinese literature and the most noble elements of its ancient culture. She clearly has the capacity to mediate this perspective to the West.

White Swans is a very intense book. I would only recommend it to people who have a disposition to read about some really really sad and really really awful stuff. I'm not sure that it was good for me to read it at this time, but I can't unread it now (I am not ready for her Mao biography -- I need to "recover" from the existential shock of Swans, and go back to some "lighter reading" about the comparatively small blunders and ordinary incompetence of the good old-fashioned monarchies of Europe).

I should also read and reread some classics and some more history of China. It's so easy for a Westerner to forget about this mysterious place that seems so far away (even though many of our products are made there today). In fact, China is a profoundly human place and we in the West must remember it and know it better.

Jung Chang's justly famous memoir is 26 years old now, but it remains timely. It's still "officially banned" in China even to this day, though it has been widely read by anyone who can get it. Perhaps it's even more important for a generation that knows nothing of this history. It is a great story told with beauty and pathos. It is an ardent, compelling, devastating book.