Wild Swans is one of those astonishing books where the accolades carried on the dust jacket – ‘heart-rending’, ‘masterpiece,’ ‘extraordinary,’ ‘mesmerising’ and so on – are all absolutely true. All convey the incredible achievement of the author, Jung Chang, as she traces her family over three generations from the early 1900 s to the ‘epilogue’ in the 1990 s. We are taken into an increasingly insane and surreal world, as the dark heart of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960 s is gradually laid bare. Oppression oozes from every page.
The godlike Chairman Mao infiltrates every aspect of daily life, literally down to each thought – and even breath. Even before we reach the Cultural Revolution – the term first appeared in the Chinese press in 1965 – we are launched into a society of custom and tradition at once venerated, yet also the source of depredation and violence; a society, as Chang points out, in which justice is arbitrary and cruelty both institutionalised and capricious. Within a few pages we are confronted with the practice of foot binding, for instance. Jung Chang’s beautiful grandmother had her feet bound when she was two. They were regarded as her greatest asset and were referred to as ‘three-inch golden water lilies.’ Chang explains that this meant she walked ‘like a tender young willow shoot in a spring breeze.’ In the society of the time: “The sight of a woman teetering on bound feet was supposed to have an erotic effect on men, partly because her vulnerability induced a feeling of protectiveness in the onlooker.” The description of how the feet were bound is painful to read, yet sets the tone for much of what is to follow: the cruelty, the oppression, the deprivations of a whole nation at the hands of a ruthless and calculating tyrant.
Lately I have noticed that society thinks the people should act and look like something that most people arent. Appearance is a main issue of society today. People look more at looks of one person more than their personality or abilities. Growing old is frowned upon and more people try to make them themselves look younger by having surgery, taking pills, or using creams. Most people dont really ...
Chang’s account never descends into self-pity, however. In its level-headed and fiercely intelligent rendering, it takes us not simply into the heart of darkness, but also that of understanding. We learn how, incredible though it may seem, people’s spirit can be crushed, how millions can be coerced into a life they have no control over and how, when your every word and action are being scrutinized, it becomes impossible to speak out. Yet there is also an uplifting of the spirit, a resilience that ultimately manifests itself in the fact that the book has been written at all, and in the lives of those who survived against the grimmest odds. The book arouses a complex mix of emotions and disbelief, exposing not only a cultural aberration of the recent past, but also placing our own society and what we take for granted in a new light. Yet, all the time, it reads like an incredible adventure story.
Its lucid writing holds our attention from the outset. Once you ” ve started, you simply have to read on to the end of the 700 or so pages.