Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

This fascinating book tells the true story of Jung Chang, her mother De-hong, and her grandmother Yu-fang.  It spans seven decades beginning in the 1920’s, and tells the story of modern China through one family’s experiences.  Yu-fang was born in 1909 and became a concubine to a famous warlord.  Her feet were bound in the old style when she was two.  She was given to the warlord at age 15, although she did not live with him and he only visited a few times. De-hong was born in 1930 and joined the Communist Party as a young woman.  She lived through the invasions of the Japanese in WWII, marched with Mao on his famous trek, and later became a high ranking Communist Party member, along with her husband.

Jung Chang, the author, grew up during the 1950’s of the Chinese Great Leap Forward, which was an attempt to reorganize China from an agricultural society to an industrialized one.  Most of the policies of that time were terrible failures and led to widespread famine. Life was good for Chung’s family, though, until her father criticized Mao Tse Tung by name. He lost his position and because he was no longer protected, the family became a target during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s.  Many other former powerful officials and wealthy people were also targeted. The children of these former officials were pulled out of schools and reassigned to menial jobs.  Jung was assigned various jobs over several years, including working as a doctor to the other farm workers despite having no training.

As a young girl, Chang happily joined in the youth Red Guards like many of her friends. She tried hard to live up to the communist ideals by participating in marches and other youth activities.  But after her parents became outcasts and were tortured, she began to have doubts about the great leader.  Then her own experiences of the incompetent policies of the Cultural Revolution changed her mind forever.   Chang’s book is so interesting because it tells of the history of China in the past century through the story of one family.  My only criticism is that she does not explain fully what her parents did or how much they were complicit in the harsh policies of the regime before they fell out of favor.  But it is understandable for a child to want to see the best of her parents.  Read this book if you are at all curious about recent Chinese history.

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