Family History During a Tumultuous Chinese Century

YOU may feel you've read enough about the vicissitudes of 20th-century China - the subjugation of women with foot binding, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the "Great Leap Forward," the violence of the Red Guards. But in Jung Chang's book, you'll actually want to read about them again because you'll want to know how Yu-fang, Bao Qin, Chang herself, and their family fared through it all.This is a cohesive, richly detailed personal account covering most of a century - from grandmother Yu-fang as a young woman to granddaughter Jung Chang at the same age. It's a century in China we in the West will want to know about, because among its great tragedies and tumultuousness are indicators of what comes next for China - the last significant holdout still languishing under communism and reactionary, aged leaders. "Wild Swans" helps us understand the impact of this century's events on Chinese people we can relate to: educated, principled, loving people who learn how to fend for themselves. What we can't relate to is what they and their compatriots are confronted with by a capricious, often virulent, leadership. But through Chang's skill in making her family members familiar to us, they become a constant as events swirl around them. Mao's maneuverings can be measured through their eyes. Bao Qin, Chang's mother, was a loyal Communist Party member and - ironically, but typically - one of its millions of victims. Born of a "lily footed" (having bound feet) concubine (Chang's grandmother, Yu-fang) and a warlord-general in 1931, Bao Qin's adolescent years saw Chinese tradition upended and a brutal Japanese occupation defeated. She agitated against the Japanese as a student leader; risked her life as an agent for the Communist underground in Manchuria; married a young veteran of the Red Army's Long March; suffered a miscarriage on her own "long march" to her husband's ancestral home of Yibin 1,000 miles southwest on the Yangtze River; had four children; was imprisoned for months under suspicion of being a "hidden counterrevolutionary;" nursed her husband through a violent mental breakdown; was "sent down" during the Cultural R evolution to a remote labor camp; and was finally rehabilitated in 1971 - all by the age of 40. Although Jung Chang wasn't old enough to be fully aware of many of those events in her mother's life, or hardly any in her grandmother's, she covers it all in the kind of colorful detail that reads like a novel. One wonders how she achieved such detail. Yet, despite her direct involvement in the story (Chang herself was a Red Guard) and firsthand experience of many of her parents' struggles, Chang has also managed to get some scholarly distance from it all. She has given these lives, including her own, w ell-researched historical context. After Tiananmen Square, and with all that's happened in Europe and the Middle East, the world has become exasperated with China and, partly because of that, has to a degree lost interest. But interest needs to be maintained and public pressure applied to help another ossified leadership over the threshold of political reform. Books like Jung Chang's do their part to help us understand the conditions from which China's people need to be freed.

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