Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Wild Swans - by Jung Chang

Superlatives are racing around my brain -- and I want to say something like "best novel of the 20th Century" -- but it's not even a novel -- it's a first person account of a family's life in the 20th Century that's probably as honest as the author could make it
(given the constraints of writing about your own family)

But it still feels like a novel -- because it's so colorful -- and it addresses great issues - both psychological and social.

For my first superlative -- I'll propose that the author is a genius -- in her ability, like Conrad's -- to write with such command of a foreign tongue -- and to encompass such a range of emotion and event.

Here - for example - is a slice taken from page 402:

"This group of "old city youth" was very friendly. They gave us an excellent meal of game and offered to find out where the registrar was. While a couple of them went to look for him, we chatted with the others, sitting on their spacious pine veranda facing a roaring river called the "Black Water". On the high rocks above, egrets were balancing on one long slender leg, raising the other in various balletic positions. Others were flying, fanning their gorgeous snow-white wings with panache. I had never seen these stylish dancers wild and free.

Our hosts pointed out a dark cave across the river. From its ceiling hung a rusty looking bronze sword. The cave was inaccessible because it was right next to the turbulent river. Legend had that the sword had been left there by the ancient wise prime minister of the ancient kingdom of Sichuan, Marquis Zhuge Liang in the third century."

(the author then procedes to to tell of the story of how Zhuge defeated the local tribal leader 7 times -- each time releasing him only to have him rebel again -- finally winning over the barbarians' "hearts and minds" -- and then comparing it to Mao's strategy -- and with the Charles Colson - Richard Nixon variant of "when you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow")

So as you can see --in this short passage Jung Chang:

1. Continues the story of her own personal Odyssey (she needs to find the registrar to approve her relocation from the countryside to the city -- a very important move for any Chinese)

2. Refers to recent the recent history -- of the "old city youth" - which she had just explained was the group of city youth who went to the countryside BEFORE the Cultural Revolution because they had failed the entrance examinations to schools and they had bought into the idealism of helping their country

3. Sets a scene of great natural beauty -- showing her love for such things -- which is an important, and recurring feature, of her character -- as well as telling us that she had never had the opportunity in her life to see some of these things before -- as well as her attraction to what is "stylish, wild, and free"

4. Refers to the hero of that most important saga of Chinese literature, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" -- every reader of which (including myself) is absolutely thrilled by a relic from same. (since "Three Kindoms" is an historical novel - it's characters were based on real people)

5. Discusses how the current leader of Chinese civilization applies a similar strategy -- but with a difference, as noted by reference to then-current American civilization.

So her story is intensely personal -- even as it explains contemporary society -- and puts it into the context of 2000 years of Chinese civilization.


And by the way -- so many details of her life correspond exactly to the story I've been writing about my friend

Both born in the early 50's
Both have parents who were high officials of almost the identical rank
Both have 4 siblings
Both fathers are accused during the Cultural revolution - and suffer terribly
Both mothers devote their lives to restoring their families
Everyone sent to the countryside
Both use the "backdoor" clout of their parents to get back to civilization
Both manage to get jobs as nurses
Both get into college by the skin of their teeth
Both go to a foreign language institute to study English
Both leave China at the first opportunity
Both never come back (except to visit the family)
Both marry Anglo intellectuals.

The major differences are:

My friend is from Beijing (northeast) - Jung Chang is from Chengdu (southwest)

Jung Chang's father was a lot closer to the top party leadership. He had spent five years in Yan'an with Mao and company -- and he could get some of them on the telephone.

Jung Chang's parents come from the urban business class -- while my friend's parents were born to peasants

(and more than that -- Jung Chang's maternal grandfather and step-grandfather were both remarkable men -- the one being a renowned physician, the other a powerful warlord)

Jung Chang's father comes from a devoutly Buddhist family -- my friend's father was Christian (and his brother became a priest)

And regarding the story of the family throughout the century -- the most important difference is that Jung Chang's mother really wanted to get that story told -- and she spent every day for many months giving an oral history to her daughter.


This is a one-of-a-kind book -- about a one-of-a-kind event in one of the planet's great civilizations.

Apparently it became the #1 selling non-fiction book of all time when it was released in 1991 -- and I'm not surprised. The story is as gripping as anything I've ever read.

Mao was a major character in "Wild Swans" -- and he's the focus of all attention in her next book -- "Mao - the untold story" -- which I can't wait to read.