Jung Chang’s Memories of Twentieth Century China: From the Dowager Empress Cixi to Wild Swans

A recent work trip to China, to visit the University of Nottingham’s campus at Ningbo, has had some possibly quite unexpected side effects. As a child, I was fascinated by anything and everything to do with Marco Polo, the idea of long- distance travel, the Silk Road and just the idea of ‘China’ as this unimaginably different place. I read books about the Forbidden Palace and the Silk Road and never expected to ever be able to see these for myself. Visiting China for work and getting even the briefest opportunity to be a tourist for a weekend in a Beijing was, for me, a dream come true. The visual experiences I absorbed on that trip are still very vivid, and I am still trying to work through them- hence the very Chinese flavour of my blog recently- but I have also picked up my reading on China again. And I am also finally acting on my childhood dream of learning Mandarin; beginning in October, I will take evening classes in Mandarin. I have tried to learn a bit of Mandarin by myself ( and pretty much failed ) and while I can write one or two symbols, I have no idea how to pronounce them…. Wish me luck!
20140805-131159-47519132.jpgThere is a stack of books on China sat on the table at home, but after a bit of researching, I decided to tackle this cluster of books in a mildly systematic manner, trying first to get a better sense of Chinese twentieth-century history, by looking at the writings by one and the same author, just to get started somewhere. After a bit of looking about, I settled on starting my reading by concentrating on the works of a female writer who is herself Chinese but now lives in London: Jung Chang. The three books are Wild Swans, both a biography of her grandmother and mother but also an autobiographical account of her own experiences up to the 1980s, and the book that almost inevitably had to follow on to Wild Swans, a biography of Chairman Mao. The third book, her most recent work, is again a very logical follow on to her previous work, again biographical, again focused on a woman, and quite an exceptional one at that, the Empress Dowager Cixi ( died 1908) who overlooked the final decades of the Chinese Empire, whose collapse led to internecine civil war and arguably, ultimately, the rise of Mao’s Communist Party thus providing the backdrop against which Jung Chang herself grew up.
Now, first things first: as has been observed by many a reviewer, Chang is not a historian- and in a way, she doesn’t actually lay claim to being one- but a writer whose experiences and ideas deeply colour her prose.So, for example, she appeared recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival (10 August 2014) where she spoke quite freely about writing her books, from her perspective (link to a piece in The Guardian here).  These are HER books, and these books are her way of making sense of the history and culture of a country she deeply loves but finds by now impossible to live in. Some of her books, Wild Swans in particular, is her way of coming to terms with her own recent history, and by reaching back to a life of Mao and a life of Dowager Empress Cixi she is looking for patterns and longer term explanations for what happened to her family and millions of other Chinese people especially in the 1970s and 1970s. Clearky, writing for her contains an element of therapy and moving on- and part of the interest of these books lies in that very subjectivity of tone. All three of her books are grounded both in personal experience and meticulous research, even if she isn’t always using her research in the way a professional historian would. Nevertheless, once the reader accepts the limitations of her writing, these become very engrossing accounts that provide a lot of food for thought. The one that stands out is Wild Swans, as here Chang’s voice rings out most clearly; her subsequent books on Mao and Cixi are less clear- cut in disentangling her subjective perceptions and investment from the less emotionally coloured story emerging form the documents. Chang, as any writer, offers a subjective discussion of her subject- matter, even though it’s one based on historical documentation. Hers is not a definitive account- how can any biography be ‘definitive’- so the reader needs to accept these limitations, and read the books accordingly.
Wild_SwansWild Swans, originally published in 1991 has quickly established itself as a real classic in its genre. Jung Chang, or Chang Er- Hong, wrote this as a biographical account of the lives of her (maternal) grandmother, her mother and herself, and in charting the experiences of three generations of Chinese women, she tells a story about how politics in twentieth- century China has transformed the options and choices available to women. Some of the changes have been immensely positive- Chang, for example, has benefited from the fact that education is no longer the domain of one son, whereas Chang’s mother never had her feet bound- but others have had far- reaching and as yet undeterminable impact. The story is one of waves of political and absolutist reforms often violently imposed and following a centralised blueprint that is imposed on a country so vast, so diverse, that really, there is no size that can fit all. It’s a story about a move away from a culture and a tradition that is beguiling, enchanting, beautiful and restricting in equal measure,but maybe one that had developed more organically and logically than the subsequent attempts to transform it. Some of it has been lost and destroyed, much of it is now being reconstructed as the material losses of this culture, and the significance of objects and places as sites of memory become apparent. There is also a sense that the past needs a space, a site to be visible, so these reconstructions serve an important part in China addressing aspects of its recent past. But we digress; the strength of Chang’s writing is that she does not attempt to generalise experiences but speaks specifically of her family’s history, and shows very clearly what sort of background she comes from- a politically engaged background of an educated elite with opportunities and restrictions that are certainly not ‘typical’, but as she also suggests that maybe there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ experience for anybody in 20th century China, there are just infinite varieties of experiences and histories, each one like the individual tesserae that make up an enormous mosaic. In Chang’s case, her story starts with recounting the experiences of her grandmother who, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Manchu Empire became the concubine of a local warlord : richly rewarded in material terms for her beauty and fertility, but emotionally starved and isolated, to the point of finally running away with her infant daughter, Chang’s mother. The warlord’s concubine becomes the wife of a respected doctor, with the daughter of the warlord adopted and brought up, and educated by the enlightened doctor. The setting for this: Manchuria, coveted and eventually invaded by the Japanese, and once the Japanese are driven out, contested between the rival parties of the Nationalists, or Kuomintang, and the rising power of the Communists. Chang’s mother is in her teens as Manchuria becomes the battle field for these rival factions. What’s more, Chang’s mother quickly throws in her lot with the Communists, and meets and marries her husband, a Communist veteran and idealist from the far south of China. Chang’s parents leave Manchuria and relocate south, and both quickly rise to prominent positions within the party, making considerable contributions to ‘ the Party’ in their respective jobs.
Chang and her four siblings thus grow up as the children of high officials, living in a party compound, attending school, seeing little of their frantically busy parents, but are settled and thriving in a comparatively stable environment until the political purges of the Cultural Revolution tear the family’s lives upside down. Here, the stories of grandmother, mother and daughter converge, with Chang’s own story coming into sharp focus. She speaks of needing to tell the story to make sense of events, and in particular, she struggles with disentangling what she learnt as a child with what she knows as an adult.
The end of Wild Swans really provides the segue into Jung Chang’s second book, co- authored with her husband Jon Halliday, which is a truly monumental biography of the political spectre overshadowing Chang’s youth, Chairman Mao Tse Dong.

MaoHere, the narrative follows Mao’s rise to power, drawing extensively on documents, diaries, sources along the way, and where possible, eyewitness accounts. Chang is clear that what she wants is the ‘truth’, she wants to know about the man whose decision, between 1949 and 1976 ruled the fate of millions of people, and who so profoundly impacted on her own life and that of her family. Chang is uncompromising in her condemnation of Mao and his personal foibles and political decisions, but she is also meticulous in presenting her evidence to the scrutiny of her readers. The book on Mao, as her most recent book on The Dowager Empress Cixi have been extensively reviewed elsewhere, and for the purposes of this boot, I don’t intend to add to those reviews- rather, I’d like to suggest that they are flawed books as all biographies are flaw, but worth reading as one woman’s attempt to make sense of her present by looking at her country’s past. She very such casts Mao as the sadist and monster, and Cixi as his foil. One is a man with all the power and opportunities at his hands; power gained through brutal and single-minded pursuit of political supremacy, and once attained, used to gain more power, but ultimately power that is wielded without responsibility or humble humanity. Chang sees Cixi in contrast as the woman who attains power, and both through design and necessity retains her grasp on authority, but unlike Mao, she remains acutely aware of her responsibilities and strives to do well, occasionally with disastrous consequences (such as the Boxer Rebellion) but always with a sense of using power responsibly.

These are valuable, readable, engaging books but they are somewhere between light reads and academic texts, so as I have said above- read them carefully but make up your own mind and remain critical as a reader. I suppose this is how you should read anyway, so, have a read and see what you think! Below is a list of links to a number of reviews; I will try and update this occasionally.

Links to Reviews:

Wild Swans:

Elizabeth Sanderson, Daily Mail, 22 April 2012



Lisa  Allardice, The Guardian, 26 May 2005

Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times, 23 October 2005

Andrew Nathan, London Review of Books, 17 November 2005


The Dowager Empress Cixi:

Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, 25 October 2013

Orvill Schell, New York Times, 25 October 2013

Jonathan Mirsky, New York Review of Books, 5 December 2013


3 thoughts on “Jung Chang’s Memories of Twentieth Century China: From the Dowager Empress Cixi to Wild Swans

    • Thank you for taking the time to let me know that you enjoyed the piece- these are interesting books and thought provoking. The Mao book takes time to get through- it’s HUGE!

  1. Pingback: The contemporary Western view of Manchu China: Edmund Backhouse and J.O.P.Bland’s China under the Empress Dowager (1910) | renaissanceissues

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