"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Monday, November 08, 2010

Wild Swans

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...

1 comment:

Adelaide Dupont said...

Yes, it's important to remember that China - like just about any country you would care to name - has had a dark, turbulent past (and present). Especially now the US and Australia are talking about China being a responsible, participatory member of the international community and of the Asia-Pacific in particular.

I remember you listing this book on Books every thirteen-year-old should read and I had wanted to ask about its influence on you.

In very recent times (the Beijing Olympics) the Chinese authorities said things about disabled people in the Olympics and Paralympics. And then there was the opening ceremony where the little girl was replaced. No worse, one might think, than what Western nations might do in competitions.

Maxine Hong wrote an incredible book called The Warrior Woman, and Jade Snow Wong wrote Fifth Chinese Daughter. Both these books are mentioned in Masterpieces of Women's Literature.

I really liked this quote:

"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?'"

Yes, yes, and yes. The question, then, is how and why, and what it says about human nature and nurture as well as the particular political, social and economic characteristics. And philosophical ones too (I found myself reflecting on a book about China written in the 1960s).

An important thing about Communism in particular is how it tried to transfer power from religion to revolutionary ideology.

And of course "swan" is the bird of Western Australia. So you were carrying a piece of Australia with you in a way.

Another great book is probably "Shouting to China" by Helene Chung, the ABC foreign correspondent for China and Hong Kong.

Women's history is often especially suited to memoir.