Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Jung Chang, Wild Swans:Three Daughters of China (1991)

Reviewed by John Bedell

This amazing, beautiful book captivated me from the first sentence: “At the age of 15 my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general.” Jung Chang was born in China in 1952, and in this book she tells the story of her family from the 1930s to 1978, when she left China for England. Her grandmother was born into a middle class urban family in Manchuria, in far northeast China. Her great grandfather was a police official who raised his beautiful daughter to be a pawn of his ambitions. Her feet were bound and she learned to play chess, go, and an instrument called the qin, used by courtesans. When the time came he displayed her to a visiting general, who took to her. The match worked out well for the father, who was promoted, but the daughter became a prisoner of the warlord’s servants and then, when she bore a child, an abused servant of his wives. Thus is introduced one of the story’s two themes, the terrible cruelty of humans toward each other. In this telling – which came to Jung Chang from her mother in the 1980s, after her grandmother was already dead – the wives, servants and concubines of General Xue are like starving rats fighting over scraps of meat. The general barely notices this squabbling among the women. It’s only women, after all. Eventually Jung Chang’s grandmother flees, taking her daughter Bao Quin with her. At home, she is abused by her father’s concubines, who see her as a rival for his none-too-lavish fortune. Eventually she marries a kind Manchu doctor named Xia, a much older man whose grown children are so opposed to the match that one commits suicide. The survivors, of course, hate the new wife even more after their brother’s death, and do all they could to make her life miserable.

And that was peace. Then comes war, in the form of the Japanese invasion. At first life in the puppet state of Manchukuo is not so bad in material terms, although all Chinese are required to bow to any Japanese and they are subjected to intense propaganda. As a girl in a Japanese-run school Jung Chang’s mother Bao Qin had to sing songs like

Red boys and green girls walk on the streets,
They all say what a happy place Manchukuo is.
You are happy and I am happy.
Everyone lives peacefully and works joyfully free from any worries.
But when the war goes badly the Japanese conscript thousands into forced labor and ship most of the food out of the province, leading to starvation. In 1945 the Russians come, causing more destruction. When they leave they dismantle the city’s two oil refineries and take them back to Russia with them, leaving only bare earth.

After the Russians leave, Manchuria is reclaimed by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT). The officials they appoint are from the south and distrust the people of Manchuria, both Chinese and Manchu. Because Doctor Xia treated Japanese patients during the occupation, his family was always suspected of collaboration. The KMT were savage toward collaborators real and imagined, and even worse toward suspected Communists. At first Bao Qin works for the KMT, but she becomes aware of the torture and harsh treatment all around her she turns against them and begins to help the Communists. Soon the civil war between the Communists and the KMT is raging, and since the Communists control most of the countryside there is starvation in the cities. Children are sold for sacks of grain.  Working actively with the Communists, Bao Qin meets her future husband, a senior Communist operative from Sichuan. They fall in love and marry in the communist way, without ceremony – despite much complaining from Bao Qin’s mother. Bao Qin applies to join the party. Despite her marriage to a senior official, she is subjected to intense scrutiny because of her bourgeois status and her brief association with the KMT. She is accused of carrying on love affairs when she was supposed to be working for the party and is forced to undergo hours of criticism and “self-criticism” in which she was supposed to berate herself for her failings. She appeals to her husband for help but he says this is the communist way, which it is. And it still is, in 2011, although I have the impression self-criticism is taken a lot less seriously now. Things are so bad for Bao Qin in Manchuria that she tells her husband they must leave. He applies to be transferred back to his home region of Sichuan. The party agrees, and they set off on a thousand-mile journey across war-ravaged China, during which Bao Qin miscarries but has to keep marching so as not to show bourgeois weakness among the peasant revolutionaries.

Once in Sichuan, they enter a period of relative prosperity. The civil war ends and Jung Chang’s father becomes a high official, and he and Bao Qing have three children. They live in a special compound for the families of officials, Jung Chang attends a “key” school with the best teachers. For Jung Chang, this was a wonderful time; her chapter on her own life in the years from 1958 to1965 is called ‘Thousand-Gold Little Precious’ – In a Privileged Cocoon.

The 1950s were the golden age of Chinese communism. The party seized all farmland from landlords and redistributed it among the people, with the landlords (if they did not resist) getting the same share as everyone else. The banks and the biggest industrial businesses were nationalized, but smaller firms were left under the control on their owners, or under teams of workers and managers. There was oppression, but it was mostly limited to former KMT officials or people who spoke out against the party and its policies. The country was not wealthy, but after 20 years of war nobody expected it to be. Because of their land reform, the party was hugely popular with the peasants, and many workers were also pleased with the changes. The expulsion of most foreign “enclaves” and the reassertion of Chinese sovereignty pleased intellectuals. No doubt many people were unhappy with the generally puritanical tone of life, and the deluge of slogans and programs, but on the whole the party was very popular. Jung Chang's father was the perfect communist official, well educated, rigidly moral, and hard working. He refused to use his position to help his extended family, and he opposed corruption and nepotism within the party, which made him very popular with the people. One of the people who was not satisfied with the situation was Mao, who saw China settling back into familiar patterns. As Jung Chang admits, the children of high communist officials acted like spoiled rich brats, abusing the cooks and janitors in their compound. Communist officials were very much like the old mandarin class, entrenched in power and feared by all the people, and many were busy promoting their relatives in the traditional way. Peasants and workers were still despised. This was not the revolution Mao wanted, and he began casting about for ways to further shake up the system. Personally paranoid, he also saw enemies everywhere and suspected that officials from educated backgrounds despised him for his peasant roots and his obscure rural dialect. His first move was to announce an intellectual liberation – “let a thousand flowers bloom” – and then crack down savagely on anyone who used this freedom to criticize the party and its policies. This “anti-rightist” crackdown was limited to party members and intellectuals, though, so most Chinese did not suffer. Not so with Mao’s next gambit, the “Great Leap Forward.” Although the ownership had changed, the way Chinese business and agriculture were run had not. There were still bosses giving orders to workers, and peasants were still at the mercy of outside forces that set the prices for their products, and so on. Plus the economy, while growing, was not making the great progress Mao expected. So Mao resolved to revolutionize the economy. Peasants would be grouped into communes and share their work, which Mao thought would lead to a giant leap in productivity. All businesses were nationalized and production put under the control of party committees. If Chinese factories could not match those of the west, China would outdo them with the mass application of motivated labor. This led to the famous lunacy of backyard iron smelters; every commune and neighborhood was assigned a quota of iron to make, which led to the smashing of millions of cooking pots and the chopping down of millions of trees to make thousands of tons of useless slag. The disruption brought on by communization, the crazy mandates, and the diversion of effort into making slag led to a terrible famine across China in which about 30 million people died.

For Jung Chang, the Great Leap Forward was a sort of lark. Rations in her compound were cut, but her family still had plenty to eat and she did not learn about the famine until years later. For her parents, though, it was a much more traumatic time. They knew how bad things were because they were worked nearly to death trying to save the situation, and they both began to lose faith in Mao and the party.

Mao had to retreat and let more pragmatic officials take charge of the country, chief among them Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. They were able to stabilize the situation and end the famine. Mao was left stewing in his failure. His ideology and his megalomania had collided with reality, and reality won. A less proud and ambitious man might have slid into elder statesman status, but Mao was not ready for that. He schemed to get his power back. Realizing that he had lost control of the regular party bureaucracy, since thousands of key officials felt the way Jung Chang’s parents did, he resolved to go around it. The result was the Cultural Revolution.

Jung Change experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand. Mao’s opening move was to promote a cult of personal devotion to himself, aimed first at young people, and Jung Change was just the right age to get swept up in it. She used to say to herself, “How lucky I am to be living in the great era of Mao Zedong!” She loved and worshiped Mao, as did millions of Chinese. Jung Chang has this to say about Mao:

Mao found the idea of peaceful progress suffocating. A restless military leader, a warrior-poet, he need action – violent action – and regarded permanent human struggle as necessary for social development. His own Communists had become too tolerant and soft for his taste, seeking to bring harmony rather than conflict. . . .

And Mao was sore. He felt that his opponents had humiliated him by showing him up as incompetent. He had to take revenge, and, being aware that his opponents had widespread support, he needed to increase his authority.
I have always wondered how anyone can take personality cults seriously. Whatever impulse it is that leads someone to idolize another person and view him or her as beyond or above the rest of us, I lack it completely. And yet the story of the Cultural Revolution shows that these cults can be created and that they can have profound effects. Mao demanded worship of himself, and he got it. It was at this point, in 1964, that Mao’s sayings were printed as the Little Red Book and distributed throughout the country. People did “loyalty dances” to Mao, holding up their books, chanted his name, sang songs in his honor, attributed every good thing to him and every bad thing to his enemies.

With the cult of himself covering the country, Mao’s next move was to encourage teenage students to rebel against their teachers. They were told to identify “reactionary” teachers and drive them from their schools. Beginning with the children of high officials in Beijing, they did so. Teachers with any aura of conservatism about them were attack by gangs of students, locked in their rooms, and shouted at for hours in “denunciation sessions.” Many were severely beaten. Education ground to a halt across China as revolution and denunciation took over. One group of students in Beijing proclaimed themselves to be “Mao’s Red Guards,” and this organization spread in weeks across the whole country. The Red Guards expanded their targets beyond the schools and began to attack other “reactionary” institutions – theaters, clubs, museums. In Sichuan, Jung Chang participated in closing the traditional tea shops, and her fellow students smashed all the statues in her centuries-old school.

Mao then extended this model to the Communist Party. He sidelined the regular bureaucracy and created “Revolutionary Committees” in each province and city, reporting directly to him. These committees singled out hundreds of old party officials as “class enemies,” or “blacks,” and persecuted them in Red Guard fashion: denunciations lasting for hours, with severe beatings. Some poor victims were brought back again and again for this treatment, their abuse providing a way to whip up the enthusiasm of huge public meetings. Some of the officials thus singled out were actual opponents of Mao, but some were not. Mao did not care, as long as the point was made that loyalty to him was now the only criterion of virtue. To further revolutionize the country, new targets were constantly announced for the people’s anger. All entertainment was banned except a few films, operas, and songs that glorified Chairman Mao. Everything old was to be destroyed, and all across China gangs of young people attacked historic buildings, works of art, and gardens. Even stretches of the Great Wall were demolished. Education was halted, and any educated person was suspect; books were burned by the millions. Absurdity was piled on absurdity:
One day in 1965, we were suddenly told to go out and start removing all the grass from the [school] lawns. Mao had instructed that grass, flowers, and pets were all bourgeois habits and were to be eliminated.
The grass at Jung Chang’s school, though, had a network of tough roots that made its elimination almost impossible, and this task was never finished. It did provide a convenient way of punishing “class enemies”; for the next few years, anyone who was denounced could be sent to whack away at the roots for a few miserable weeks.

Jung Chang’s parents were among the Communist officials targeted by the revolutionary committees. At first they tried to stay out of the conflict for the sake of their children, who would become “blacks” if their parents were denounced. But her rigidly moral father could not be kept quiet for long, and eventually he spoke out against the Cultural Revolution, writing letters to higher authorities. He disappeared into “protective custody” and eventually into a labor camp. There he discovered that his stand was much admired by many people, and his own guards honored his courage and gave him special treatment. Still, he did not long survive the life of hard work and meager food, and he died in a camp. By that time Jung Chang’s mother had also been sent to a camp, and the children were all working with peasants in the countryside. Mao intended that living with the peasants would revolutionize the children of party officials, so he closed the schools and sent millions of teenagers off to labor. There they were hated by the peasants, who resented having to share their food with such poor workers, and instead of being revolutionized they were turned against Mao and Communism. Later on they provided the key support for Deng Xiaoping's reforms. Meanwhile the Cultural Revolution had degenerated into a low-grade Civil War, as rival Revolutionary Committees called each other “black” and fought over power with guns and even artillery. As Mao declined, power came to be held by a clique of his closest supporters known as the Gang of Four.

In 1976, Mao died. After that point things moved very quickly. Deng Xioaping was released from prison, where he had spent years in solitary confinement, and he soon jailed the Gang of Four and took control of the party. The denunciation campaigns were halted, the Revolutionary Committees disbanded, and the reform program set underway that eventually led to the China was know today. Education was restored and Jung Chang was able to go to a university, where she studied English. In 1978 she was allowed to go to Britain to study, and there she stayed.

What can a rational person say about the Cultural Revolution? The “lessons” are hard to sort out. On the one hand it confirms that the basic structure of all civilizations, with an educated elite on top, is all but inevitable. Mao’s attempts to completely overturn this order led only to chaos and the decline of Chinese power. One of Deng Xioaping’s motives in launching his reform was to restore the might of China’s armed forces, which were crippled by Mao’s political upheavals and his assault on education. Peasants can’t make fighter planes. To understand what an educated elite does in a modern society, one only has to compare the catastrophe of the Chinese economy during the period of Mao’s personal ascendancy with its good performance under the Communist mandarins of 1950 to 1956, or its spectacular boom under Deng Xiaoping’s reformists. The right kind of leadership is the difference between ruination and prosperity. China paid other prices for Mao’s madness, including the flight overseas of a generation of its most talented citizens – in 1991 Jung Chang and all three of her brothers lived abroad.

Yet the fact that both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were disasters did not lead to the overthrow of Mao. The horror stopped only with his death, and because the people at the top of the system chose to end the freak show and return to a path of peace and development. There was never any effective opposition to Mao’s policies. As North Korea shows, an elite can keep ruinous policies going for decades as long as it remains determined to do so. What’s more, Mao’s reign of terror was not imposed by secret policemen or soldiers. He got the Chinese people to police and oppress each other. Maoist China had hardly any secret police, and they played no role in the Cultural Revolution. Mao set up a system in which insiders were empowered to attack and abuse outsiders, and people fought to become insiders. They willingly abused their own neighbors and colleagues as the price of not becoming “class enemies” themselves. The beatings, denunciations, and destruction of the Cultural Revolution were carried out by millions of ordinary Chinese people. With Mao’s encouragement, they brutalized each other. Jung Chang documents that no matter how bad things got, the horror was always mitigated by acts of individual kindness – this is her second theme, the way many people tried to get on with ordinary life amidst it all, and how they tried to take care of each other. Yet in political terms, none of this mattered. Probably a large majority of Chinese disapproved of the Cultural Revolution, but they could not stop it. The history of totalitarianism shows again and again that individual acts of moral courage are irrelevant. Opposition must be organized to be effective, so as long as totalitarian states prevented opponents from organizing, they stayed in power. Opposition must also be based on accurate information, so as long as the government retains control of all information, they can manipulate the people with ease. Another lesson of totalitarian history is that the way to sustain tyranny is to keep it as radical and brutal as possible. It was only after they reformed themselves that the Soviet and Chinese systems experienced any opposition. In North Korea, the regime is still firmly in power despite starving and brutalizing its people. I would say that it is still in power because it starves and brutalizes its people, since starved, brutalized people cannot rebel, especially when they are kept in a state of ignorance. Perhaps the end result of the Cultural Revolution should make me more optimistic. After all, the Communist leadership did eventually turn against Maoism, and since 1980 they have accomplished amazing things in making China a better place to live. Besides, today's China depends on the accomplishments of the Communist period in many ways. Reading the earlier part of Wild Swans I got the sense that traditional Chinese society was so rotten, so sexist, so closed, that only something as radical as Maoism could have shaken the nation out of its old wickedness. Democratic nationalism had been tried but had failed, undermined by corruption, nepotism, localism, the absolute power of landlords over their peasants, and shear meanness. Post-communist China is unquestionable a better country for its poor citizens than pre-Communist China was. Perhaps the example of North Korea should inspire me to think how rare it is for a nation's elite to choose barbarism over development. The awful visions of a totalitarian world that preoccupied so many in the mid twentieth century have not come to pass, because the elites of Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere could not see any reason to carry out the necessary soul-destroying brutality. Yes, China and Russia are still authoritiarian countries, but their sort of loose dictatorship is something most people can live with, and it is far from the mad world of 1984.

Wild Swans is an amazing record of an extraordinary time, mixing historical writing with personal experience in a remarkable way, and I give it my highest recommendation.

July, 2011

From the 
Commonplace Book

Like everyone else, I was supposed to join in the "revolutionary actions." But I, like most pupils, was able to avoid them, because the destruction was not organized, and no one made sure we took part. I could see that many pupils hated the whole thing, but nobody tried to stop it. Like myself, many boys and girls may well have been telling themselves that they were wrong to feel sorry about the destruction and needed to reform. But subconsciously we all knew we would have been crushed instantly had we raised any objection.

--Jung Chang



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