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an interview with Jung Chang

Jung Chang`s Wild Swans is the story of three extraordinary women, and the story of China over the last hundred years. It reveals the secrets of one family, from the sale of Chang`s grandmother to an ageing warlord in 1924, to that of her daughter, Xia De-hong (‘wild swan’), who became a Communist during the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-Shek and on to Jung Chang`s own experiences as a Red Guard and a peasant `bare-foot` doctor, before she left from China in 1978 to study in Britain.

Probably the most enduring impression of Jung Chang`s Wild Swans is the courage of all three women in a society characterised by extraordinary political upheaval and horrific cruelty. In a calm and rational style Jung Chang describes the footbinding intended to make women of her grandmother`s generation more attractive to their husbands, which left them permanently mutilated and barely able to walk. Jung`s mother was permitted to remain with unbroken feet but was subjected to brutal beatings including being forced to kneel on broken glass as a punishment for `disobedience` to the Communist Party. The violence is at times unthinkable, but the women retain their ability to see through the pain. Wild Swans is a book about what happens to the human spirit when it is put under extreme pressure for very, very long periods of time, and a story, ultimately, of survival and triumph.

Still banned in China, Wild Swans is one of the greatest testaments to the horrors of that country in the twentieth century and provides a chronicle of missing history saved from the book burnings of Mao and his propagandists. Jung Chang`s mother never dared tell her story in her own country, so her daughter`s book has acted for her as an exorcism. Wild Swans has now become the biggest-selling non-fiction paperback in recent publishing history.

We visited Jung Chang at her home in London where she now lives with her English husband, to find out her views on the Cultural Revolution and how she came to write this saga of Chinese history.

You have now lived in Britain for some time. How do you view British society, and do you still miss your own country?
'I love Britain, I`m very happy here but I feel perhaps my heart is still in China. I don`t pass judgement on the British, people always look for a better society. I like to have Chinese furniture in my home as a constant, and painful, reminder of how much has been destroyed in China this century. The contrast between the beauty of the past and the ugliness of the modern is nowhere sharper than in China, so I want to preserve in my immediate environment some of the beauty of my country`s past.'

One image that appears very early on is the `three inch golden lilies`, the bound feet. Chinese women at the time seemed to accept this brutal custom as a way to acquire beauty and respect. This is hard for us to understand. Did it amaze you?
'Before I wrote Wild Swans I didn`t realise the full impact of bound feet. I grew up being used to the concept, since as a child I used to see my grandmother soaking her feet after a shopping trip or something, cutting the dead skin and saying how painful it was, but still I didn`t realise the full impact. I remember one moment when my mother pointed to a stone which had been the seat of a column, and she said this was the kind of stone people used to place on the feet of the baby girls to stop them trying to climb away and unbind their feet. My mother then for the first time described to me how it was done, and it struck me very hard. I described the process in the book for people to register the full horror of the bound feet. 'I think it`s a horrible thing, and some people still feel that there was a suggestion that it was just a commonplace practice. They felt it had been sensationalised. I feel that somehow before people didn`t realise the full pain and terror of this practice, which is basically the mutilation of women. Imagine a whole nation embarking on hundreds of years of mutilation of their women. I think the horror of it cannot be exaggerated, and I wanted to bring it to people`s attention. We mustn`t accept cruelty on this scale any longer. I think because of their terrible past, particularly this century, the Chinese have come to accept cruelty more than many other people, which is something I feel very unhappy about.'

How did you come to write such an extraordinary book?
'I always wanted to be a writer, but for a long time I didn`t want to write this particular book because it was very painful. In 1988 my mother came over from China to stay with me in London. It was her first trip abroad and for the first time she told me the story of her own and my grandmother`s lives, and as I was listening to her I kept thinking, `I`ve got to write all this down.` That`s how it started.'

How was it that you never knew about your family history before this point?
'A lot of things I didn`t know because for anyone to open their heart, they need the right atmosphere, and something to prompt them. For my mother it was her trip abroad: she had leisure here, she was in a very relaxed, understanding environment. I was very sympathetic towards her because the first story she told me was how she and my father walked from Manchuria to Sichuan, when my father was entitled to a horse or a jeep but my mother was new to the revolution so she had to walk. My father wouldn`t give her a lift because this would have been breaking the rules and regarded as a form of nepotism, which the Communists had vowed to get rid of. As a result my mother suffered a miscarriage. In China many people still think my mother was in the wrong, that she shouldn`t have complained, so she opened her heart to me only when she realised I was sympathetic. 'But a most important reason why we didn`t have these conversations is that when I was in China Mao was Chairman, and parents were terrified to tell their children anything that differed from the party line in case the children repeated it and endangered the whole family. And if children were brought up to become non-conformists it would only ruin their lives. So parents all over China who loved their children told them to do as Chairman Mao said. It was not possible to tell them anything else.'

Did you find the writing of Wild Swans a painful or cathartic experience?
'Both. The process of writing was perhaps more painful, but afterwards it became cathartic because I no longer have the terrible nightmares that I used to have when I first came to Britain. I came over in 1978, Mao had just died in 1976, and China began to open up. For the first time scholarships to go to the West to study were awarded on academic merit. If my mother had spoken out against the Communists to me when I was a child, I would not have been allowed to come.'

It must have been very difficult to write such a powerful account of these painful experiences without showing bitterness.
'I don`t think I`m a bitter person, nor were my mother and grandmother. We tend to look for the best in people. We have an eye for the good and the beautiful even in a world of ugliness and I think that`s kept us from becoming bitter.'

When you were writing Wild Swans, did you intend it to be a novel or a historical account?
'Chinese lives during this century are stranger than fiction, they are so dramatic and so strange to an outside eye that you don`t need to embellish them. But it was also a conscious decision to write a readable, interesting book. I don`t like reading dry, impersonal historical books. I like a good story and good characters so I set out consciously to do the same. 'I think basically it`s a human story, people are moved by it and they can identify with the characters. It`s not so much because it`s about China but it`s a story that has universal appeal.'

Despite its success world-wide, the book is still banned in China. How do you feel about that?
'I feel very angry and frustrated. Obviously I would love mainland Chinese to read my book. There is a Chinese translation which I worked on myself, published in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Many copies have gone into China but it is still banned. I am very unhappy about that and hope one day it will change.'

You go back to China to visit your family and do research for your next book. Do you see change emerging there and does this give you hope?
'Great changes. Although my book is banned I am still allowed to go to China and travel around. There is no longer the kind of control that Mao used to have - there have been deep fundamental changes in society. I think on the whole the changes are for the better and are happening very fast in many areas. It`s just that in certain areas where the media are still controlled, the changes have come to a halt, which is a very frustrating situation. I would like the changes to take place throughout China. 'The most important change perhaps is that the regime has lost the kind of control that Mao used to have, the totalitarian regime. They can have control of the media, perhaps prevent people forming opposition parties, but they can`t have control of the whole of society.'

In Wild Swans you recount many different types of cruelty including ancient Chinese customs, Japanese occupation and Communist rule. Do you feel that this harshness has left an indelible imprint on the Chinese people?
'Yes, people were dehumanised and traumatised in many ways. Now the nation is struggling to be rid of these terrible legacies from the past, but still I think, without a proper discussion about the impact and effects these brutal regimes left on the Chinese people you can never have a truly happy and confident nation. I think what you can say about China is that it is more prosperous than before. The people have better lives but they are not happy and confident because the scars are still there. I feel that books like mine really should be published so that people have a chance to get off their chests what`s been bothering them.'

Was there anything you felt you had to omit from the book?
'Inevitably when you write a book you have to be selective editorially, but there was nothing I left out because it was too painful. In fact before my mother told me the story in 1988, I tried to write something about my past, but I couldn`t dig deep into my memory. Then my mother told me her story and she struck me as being so honest, she really let herself go, and I felt I was drawing strength from her; so I was able to really open myself up to face the most painful parts. I think that`s one reason why Wild Swans worked, because I believe it is an honest book.'

You also describe a deep corruption that existed within society. Do you think that the past will ever be forgotten, can the Chinese people ever move beyond the regimes that have been imposed upon them?
'In those days China wasn`t a modern state. We didn`t have all these state institutions so it was not out of the ordinary to have a pawn shop which doubled as a bank, since people didn`t have the same mobility as they have now. Chinese society wasn`t a civil society; family was the basic unit in society so there wasn`t a civil infrastructure. 'The Chinese people have been deeply marked by these regimes and I don`t think they have come to terms with that reality because we are still not allowed to talk about these things. Without proper discussion we can`t put these ghosts to rest because the marks are very much alive in people`s psyche. What has marked Chinese society is its level of cruelty, not just revolutions and wars. I think we ought to reject it totally, otherwise in another upheaval there will be further cruelty.'

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Latest Title:
Wild Swans
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List of Titles:
Wild Swans (Audio cassette, 4 cassettes) [Abridged edition]
Wild Swans (CD-audio, 6 CDs) [Abridged edition]
Wild Swans (Paperback)
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