Ten years ago, the college where I worked developed a relationship with a several universities in China. This allowed me to travel to China a number of times. In the beginning I knew very little about China or the women who lived there. Someone recommended the book, Wild Swans by Jung Chang, (1991, Simon and Shuster, ISBN# 13-978-0-7432-4698-9), and I am glad they did.
Wild Swans was written in 1991 by Jung Chang, a Chinese woman now living in England. The story chronicles her family over three generations in post-imperialist and Communist China. The book illustrates not only the experiences of Chang’s family, but also provides an outline of the changing political and social climate in China during the 20th Century. Wild Swans is effective as a passionate memoir and as an historical reference.
The book begins with a description of Chang’s grandmother’s life in Manchuria during the warlord era, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Chang’s grandmother lives for some time as a concubine to a warlord general with whom she has one daughter. She is confronted by the trials of raising a daughter in a culture and era in which women had little to no say in their own lives and those of their children. Living in Manchuria, Chang’s mother grew up under the political authority of the Japanese and then the Kuomintang. Chang’s mother yearned for a sense of pride in her country and for equality among Chinese. She joined the Communist cause in her mid-teens with the belief that the party could unite the country and bring justice and equality to the people.
Chang’s mother and father, a young Communist official, met and fell in love just as the government of China changed hands. They were married and given posts in the newly established Communist government. Chang herself was born three years after the birth of the People's Republic. The trials of Chang and her family, her father, mother and five siblings, through the various campaigns and purges of the Communist Era, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution become the main focus of the book, which ends when Chang accepts a scholarship to study abroad in England.
What intrigued me the most about this book was reading the lives of three generations of women from the same family and how each generation was so drastically different. In the span of 80 years the woman in Chang’s family go from having bound feet, to embracing communism in a closed country to studying abroad in England. The story of each generation allows the reader to enter into the lives of three women whose lives spanned the 20th century in a country that few outside of China knew anything about. While most historical and personal accounts of life in 20th century China are written by men, Chang provides us the opportunity to read about, as Mao stated, the Chinese women who hold up half the sky in their own words.
Diane Burke recently retired from a 30 year career in education and moved to Hampton Roads from upstate New York. One of her life long passions has been reading books about real women. A retirement goal was to find a way to share this passion with others. She created a website www.booksaboutrealwomen.com in which she has organized and reviewed over 100 books about women. She lives in Chesapeake with her husband and is the mother of three and the grandmother of eight.