Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Written By: Jung Chang
Published By: Simon and Schuster
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
After reading two novels based in earlier periods of China’s history, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity when I saw Wild Swans by Jung Chang for a terrific price at Barnes and Noble. I expected that this book would give me some insight into what the people of China went through during the various volatile periods in their history. I never expected to experience the emotional ride that is Wild Swans.
The 2003 edition begins with a new forward by the author in which she describes her life of study in England after the oppressiveness of Mao’s China. She wraps up the intro by making us understand how this book came to be. Wild Swans is about three generations of women in the time period just before, during and just after Mao’s reign of power.
It all begins with Jung Chang’s grandmother, daughter of a town policeman who desires a higher position in the government. In an effort to secure the position of his desire, he sells his own daughter, Yu-Fang, to a warlord, making her one of his concubines. A young teenager, Jung’s grandmother decides to make the best of things, attempting to find love in the situation until her warlord goes into hiding. When he returns, he doesn’t stay long, just long enough to impregnate her. After the birth of her daughter, Yu-Fang discovers that the warlord is dying. The warlord’s wife wants Jung’s grandmother gone, but not without giving her the one thing she can’t have – offspring. She decides she will take custody of De-Hong, but Yu-Fang, with the help of her family and a family friend fights this and retains custody of her daughter.
De-Hong’s life with her mother is soon to be vastly improved when her mother marries a prominent doctor. Unfortunately, life is rough as Dr. Xia’s family protests their marriage. Persecution comes from the family and from the Japanese who have invaded. It takes a combined effort of the Kuomintang and Communists to defeat the Japanese and run them out of the country. Once this is achieved, the two sides resume their own fight for power and Xia De-Hong becomes allied with the Communist cause despite her friendship and familial associations with many a Kuomintang official. It is through her devotion to the Communist cause that she meets her future husband, Wang Yu.
Devoted as she was to their cause, De-Hong realized great hardships for the sake of Communism under Mao Zedong. Yet despite all of these hardships - the loss of a child, the harsh labor, the scrutiny and denouncements and more, De-Hong and Wang Yu followed the Communist way as laid out by Mao Zedong. They would have no idea that their idolized leader would eventually lead them astray, causing famine, mass murders and a state of fear to exist in China for decades. This was the China that their children, including the author of this book, Jung Chang, would experience for most of their lives until they became young adults.
Jung Chang's experience under the reign of Mao was not harsh at first - after all, her parents were well-placed Communist Party officials. But as Mao became obsessed with power and decided that the Party should be dissolved as it was to enhance his own power and idolatry, Jung Chang's parents were placed under investigation. Jung Chang joined the Red Guards, a group empowered by Mao's new Cultural Revolution to destroy all that China had now become in favor of a more fearful, less individualized country.
The hardships endured once Jung Chang's parents become one of the many denounced - the beatings, the mind-breaking tactics, the fear and the suffering - were astounding and it is miraculous that she survived and eventually thrived once Mao was no longer in power. This is Wild Swans' most important message - each of the women whose stories are told in this book find a way to hold on to what they believe in and, through the strength of their convictions, achieve almost the impossible. Their stories are inspirational and offer up hope to all oppressed and downtrodden. There are also lessons in what blind faith can bring you; a call to examine what you are told from all angles to thereby find the truth in the teachings.
Wild Swans is an epic journey through three generations of some of the strongest women I have ever read about. It is a lesson in history, strength and determination that I recommend to anyone, especially the new entitled generation that has been cropping up here and there. To understand what it is like to face amazing diversity...to have nothing handed to you...and still succeed under one of the harshest and oft times deadliest of regimes is an opportunity one should not pass up. Wild Swans gives you a glimpse into what life was like for a woman in a nation in which womanhood was not exactly a celebrated thing, especially in the time period before, during and just after Mao's reign. This book is an excellent and thoroughly engrossing read.