One of my favourite and most inspiring books I have ever read is Wild Swans, the bestseller debut of Chinese-born British writer Jung Chang. It is a memoir, but a very unique memoir in that it shows the brutal reality of Mao Zedong's regime through the lives of three generations of women - Chang's grandmother, Chang's mother and Chang herself. Wild Swans refers to the names of Chang and her mother - her mother Bao Qin, was renamed 'De-hong' by her stepfather - 'de' being the generation name, and by renaming her with this name it was part of accepting her into his family, and 'hong' meaning -wild swan. Jung Chang's birth name is Er-hong, which is 'second swan'.
The first time I acquired a copy of Wild Swans was at a marketplace in Scotland, I think, or England, when I went to the UK a year or so ago. I read it eagerly, and devouring it as part of my dazzling experience of the rich and vibrant place that the UK is.
Before I read Wild Swans I knew very little about China - I had barely even heard of Mao. I was emerging from an age where I did not exactly dislike my Asian heritage, but I did not really welcome it - the Western world for me seemed much more appealing, even with it's obvious flaws, and so I drunk in the intoxicating, romantic ideals I had on Elizabethan England as to escape the boring monotony of school. What material I could find on oriental culture that was easily comprehendible was dull compared to the exciting re-enactments and dramatisations and documentaries of my passion - the Tudor court.
And so I read Wild Swans with a mixture of fascination and horror. China had domineered my life ever so subtly since I was born, and it is now an almost untameable superpower that we still unwittingly, no, even eagerly feed. And I found myself thinking 'Could people really do that? Could people really become that? Could people really go through that and come out of it, alive?' China was no longer the place where everything I owned seemed to be made, or the place where nice food was invented - it was once a dark, violent, turbulent place, and in some ways it still is.
I went to China earlier this year, actually, and obviously it has changed immeasureably from the China Jung Chang was born and bred in. But the place is thick with fear and insecurity, or so it seemed to me - as much as I dislike Australia and it's meany cultural flaws, in China I felt robbed of my freedom of speech, my right to say what I want and not be hauled to jail because of it - even though as a tourist I doubt they would have given me much trouble anyway, but still, the fear was ever present. It is a place heavily reliant on much censorship and political brainwashing - 'for the good of the people,' in true Mao fashion. Wild Swans is a book I have never tired of.
My second-hand copy I brought back with me from Britain is now in a rather sorry state, and so now I have a fresh copy. And every now and again I flip through it, to a world that I thought only existed in movies, and as I read of other people's horrors I can better appreciate my own, and put my trials into perspective with the world...