At the beginning of Wild Swans, the author Jung Chang provides a useful chronology of the book’s contents. Family and personal histories are documented against the general history of Chinese politics. Beginning with the birth of her mother’s stepfather, Dr. Xia, in 1870 during the Manchu Empire, the chronology notes important dates such as the births (and deaths when applicable) of the author’s grandparents, parents, and siblings, as well as the dates of the rise and fall of the dominant powers of twentieth century China.
The narrative ends in 1978, when the author embarks from China for Great Britain as the recipient of a coveted academic scholarship. A short epilogue informs the reader that in the time since 1978, the author made London her home, and she writes, “I avoided thinking about the China I left behind.” In 1988, after Chang had earned a doctorate in linguistics from York University in Great Britain and secured academic employment, her mother visited her in England and began to tell her about the family history. The personal stories of her mother’s and her grandmother’s lives prompted Chang to extend her annual visits to China in 1989 to research the material for Wild Swans.
The book is composed of twenty-eight chapters, with each chapter covering the events of a few months or several years. The title of each chapter is taken from a significant saying that encapsulates the emotional or psychological impact of the events under scrutiny. Chapter 14, for example, is entitled “Father Is Close, Mother Is Close, but Neither Is As Close As Chairman Mao” and covers the height of the “cult of Mao” in the years 1964 and 1965. The title clearly emphasizes the place and precedence of politics in everyday lives. The individual’s first family is Mao Tse-tung the leader, and this attitude helps to justify the separation and destruction of countless biological families.
As the events unfold, Chang’s reasons for departure from China become more obvious, even though the author presents the matter as objectively as possible under the circumstances. The two main loyalties—to political means or to one’s own family—are frequently at odds, and the struggle to balance the loyalties is best exemplified in the author’s portrait of her father, Chang Wang Yu (Chinese place the family name first, although for Western presentation—as in Jung Chang—the names are inverted).
Chang recounts many incidents concerning her father’s incorruptible nature. Some stories are obviously told by her mother, since they deal with events before the birth of the children, and some are accounts witnessed by the author. The most astonishing incident takes place shortly after the father’s marriage to Xia De-Hong, Jung’s mother. During an arduous journey to join other Communists both parents are required to show their loyalty and endurance. Because Jung’s father is a high-level party officer, he is allowed to ride in a jeep, a luxury he will not share with her mother, since she has not been officially elected to the Party. The forty days of marching through rugged and dangerous terrain result in the miscarriage of their first child. Similar acts of strict moral behavior characterize her father’s treatment of other family members. His disdain for nepotism and special favors for relatives earn the Party’s commendations but separates him from his family.
Ironically, as the author observes late in the book, this adherence to avoiding corruption leads to Jung’s father’s expulsion from the Party. Following Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” program in the late 1950’s, when resources are spent on producing industrial steel rather than food, and millions die from starvation, Chang Wang Yu writes a critical letter concerning the famine, and the act leads to a lifetime of denunciations. Meant as constructive criticism of Mao’s incentives, the letter is nevertheless interpreted as a grudge against the Communist Party instead. After the first purges of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960’s Chang Wang Yu is arrested and detained in labor camps.
As the author and her siblings grow up in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, they too, as a part of the elite class who need to be reeducated through labor, are outcast from the mainstream proletariat struggle. Each of the five children are sent to different countrysides to live and work among the peasants. The author serves as a “barefoot doctor” and an electrician, all without formal education on the subjects, since Chairman Mao distrusts intellectual programs and institutions in general.
Despite the various hardships recounted, what appears constant in Chang’s documentation is the family’s love for and loyalty to one another. Each capable child travels long distances to visit with their father or mother, especially when one suffers ailing health. Chang’s younger brother, Jin-Ming, frequently passes along Western books in translation to his sister, at great risk, since the books are usually banned by the regime.
Like both her parents, Chang harbors a deep love of books, although in her childhood and youth reading any other text except the works by Mao himself is illegal. Chang recounts with great sorrow witnessing her father’s torment while all of his beloved literary and philosophical books are burned by the authorities in the 1960’s.
In the China depicted in Wild Swans, any act that broadens an individual’s intelligence or horizon is considered counterproductive. A person’s political allegiance is frequently identified by possession of a book; for example, Chang’s mother recounts the interrogation and torture of a young girl in the 1940’s who is found carrying a copy of a book by Mao. Ironically, a decade later, reading the same text would have been considered exemplary.
As young Chang grows more disillusioned by what she perceives as whims or arbitrary acts of the ruling party, she plunges into reading whatever books she can get her hands on. She discovers in them worlds different from the one in China, places where people do not always have to go...