How easy it is to fall under the spell of a tyrant. How hard it is to reverse the course of history. For equality between the sexes and classes, the Chinese embraced communism under Mao, but classes of another kind emerged and gains on all early fronts lost. Yet, Wild Swans is story of survival of a family with the resilience to endure history.
“At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general…” so the story begins. The girl had no say in the arrangements made in order for her father to advance his own career. We don’t learn her name; she’s always referred to as “my great-grandmother.” And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. She is the first of a quartet of strong women, resilient and independent within the cultural constraints of the various “times.”
Under Mao, China was closed; the Great Wall might just as well have ringed the entire country. Citizens’ travel was forbidden and foreign travellers barred. The brainwashed people closed their minds to everything but Mao’s initial promises, and slowly the terror rained down upon them. Through Chang’s evocative details and harrowing family experiences, we slip into her time and place.
Wild Swans is really two stories: one personal; the other political. In one of the early personal descriptions, Chang writes:
My grandmother was a beauty. She had an oval face, with rosy cheeks and lustrous skin. Her long, shiny black hair was woven into a thick plait reaching down to her waist. She could be demure when the occasion demanded…but underneath her composed exterior she was bursting with suppressed energy.
These women are actors as much as they are acted upon—despite the stifling times in which they lived.
About the political, Chang tells us:
In reality, Mao turned China back to the days of the Middle Kingdom and, with the help of the United States, to isolation from the world. He enabled the Chinese to feel great and superior again, by blinding them to the world outside.…The near total lack of access to information and the systemic feeding of disinformation meant that most Chinese had no way to discriminate between Mao’s successes and his failures, or to identify the relative role of Mao….
The U.S. reference is with respect to its support of the Kuomintang, Mao and communism’s first enemy. Chang’s family embraced communism and the equality it promised, both across class and for women. But they became disillusioned. At the end of Mao’s reign, Chang sums up his impact on China: “…Mao destroyed much of the country’s cultural heritage. He left behind not only a brutalized nation, but also an ugly land with little of its past glory remaining or appreciated.” Wild Swans is a story of survival through desperate struggles, including starvation and unimaginable cruelty. It is also a cautionary tale about the slippery slope leading to loss of morality and the horrendous impact on individual lives.
Readers might also want to look at two other reviews for more about China. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan readers are taken into a woman’s 19th century world. The Headmaster’s Wager takes us into the expat experience of Chinese in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and glimpses into the life of a son who is sent back to the homeland during Mao’s rule.
I have the Anchor edition (1993). More recent editions are available. Find Wild Swans at your local bookstore or online: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China