With a title like “Wild Swans” and a thickness rivaling some Harry Potter novels, Jung Chang’s memoir might seem like a daunting chick-flick at 800 + pages. But I do not exaggerate when I say this is a MUST READ for anyone going to China.

If you have been there or even know a little bit about the psychology of China, you know that there are topics you might be curious about as an outsider/Westerner that are simply taboo to talk about. Politics isn’t polite for conversation with acquaintances no matter where in the world you are, but in China, even recent history is a bit sensitive and is likely to make your Chinese friends and guides uncomfortable if you ask careless questions.

Bound feet

japanese army in manchuria Japanese army in Manchuria 1933

Young Red Guards reading Mao quotations, Cultural Revolution 1967

In Wild Swans, Chang unfolds the experiences of three generations of women in her family, beginning with her bound-foot concubine grandmother and covering every year in detail down to her own expatriation to England in the late 70s. With unflinching honesty and detail, she shares the evolution of China through the vessel of these women. Much of what they (and the nation as a whole) went through was painful and brutal, and often shocking or heart breaking to read. There’s her grandmother’s precarious position as a concubine to a War Lord, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the Communist overthrow of the Kuomingtang government, her parents’ heroic commitment and sacrifice to the party, the rise of Mao and his personality cult… Probably most touchy of all is her coverage of the Cultural Revolution, and the description of her own psychological change as she begins to question the deified Mao and the absolute authority and morality he represents. Also touchy/taboo is much of the historical information she shares, especially in terms of powerful officials’ behavior and the catastrophic results of some of their decisions (i.e. the early attempts at communism that took over production from farming peasants and the widespread famine and starvation that ensued… later blamed on climate).

I think this book is such an important read because by understanding the trauma and social shifts undergone by people in the last few generations, one can better understand the psychology of people today. Like any society, each generation has a different attitude or vibe that can be attributed to them, and it is often related to what they lived through. It’s why your grandparents are racist and your parents are conservatives. Wild Swans answers a lot of these questions about why people are the way they are and explains some of the unique qualities of Chinese culture.

Jung Chang

Chang’s tone remains rather neutral throughout her work until the end when she begins to detail her own experiences of oppression and hardship, where some animosity towards her motherland becomes evident (her book has been said to describe “the brain death of a nation”). While I understand her feelings considering what she lived through, I myself try to hold no judgment about China’s history or politics. It’s hypocrisy to be critical when under the same circumstances, these things could have happened anywhere… and even did considering Nazi Germany and Stalin’s rule. I think it’s important to recognize the events and circumstances that lead a nation to its present state, but only as a method to understand where the society is coming from and to foster intelligent and sensitive interaction with it. In every country’s history we find points we are not so proud of (hello slavery, Jim Crow, McCarthy, Vietnam, Georgie W…), but rather than dwell on anger or shame, it’s more important to let these things inform how we deal with the present and improve the future. As corny as this sounds, when reading Jung Chang’s book you will definitely feel sadness, outrage, and pity, but you will also be left feeling hopeful and elated at the end, confident in the strength of humanity and our potential to reform our mistakes and grow.