China's Inhumanity To China


By Jung Chang

Simon & Schuster -- 524pp -- $25

The Chinese schoolgirl was no traitor. So how could she possibly live with a name like Er-hong, or Second Wild Swan? It was pronounced the same way as "faded red," a less-than-desirable political description in Mao's China. She wanted something tougher, "something with a military ring to it," to keep her classmates from snickering. Her father chose Jung, an archaic word for martial arts that conjured up images of knights heading off for battle.

Such were the trials of life in China in the 1960s. Even youngsters felt their identities were governed by politics. But the hardships didn't start or end then. In Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang traces the struggles of three generations of Chinese women. She describes the crackling bones of her grandmother's feet as they were bound into "three-inch golden lilies." She tells how, during the Cultural Revolution, her mother, denounced as a "capitalist roader," had to kneel in broken glass to repent. "My grandmother," she recalls, "spent the evening picking the glass from my mother's knees with tweezers and a needle." She recounts her own passage from a child of revolutionaries to a young adult sickened by Maoism.

But Wild Swans is much more than nonfiction's answer to an Amy Tan novel. It is an epic about China's seemingly endless cycle of self-destruction. While many books by Chinese authors lose something in translation, Jung Chang writes in English, and her dispassionate narrative lures readers into a gripping saga. The victims are not limited to one sex, or to one decade. There is no shortage of oppressors: the brutal warlords (1909-33), the invading Japanese (1937-45), and Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt Kuomintang (1945-49). But the most destructive are the Communists. And the most dramatic struggle depicted is not that of a woman but of a broken man, Jung Chang's father, Chang Shou-yu.

The son of poor parents, he became politicized at age 7, when he witnessed the execution of a stoic young Communist. He spent five years in Yan'an, the remote Communist bastion where a new China, ostensibly devoid of corruption, was taking root. Shortly before the Communists took power in 1949, he married Jung Chang's resilient mother, De-hong, or Virtuous Wild Swan. But communism was his first love, and as a top provincial official, he bent his principles for no one. On a treacherous, 1,000-mile trek to his home province of Sichuan, he let his wife walk, rather than appear to show favoritism by letting her ride in a jeep that was reserved for senior officials. Later, he refused to allow her to see a specialist for a complicated birth, because such help was unavailable to the masses.

As Mao's grab for power intensified, Chang Shou-yu received one irrational order after another from Beijing. Mao kept party officials off balance with campaigns against such vague enemies as "counterrevolutionaries" and "rightists." Then, during the Cultural Revolution, he let his young Red Guards conduct a full-fledged purge of the party. True to his ideals, Chang Shou-yu spoke out against Mao's policies. As a result, he was arrested, tortured, and thrown into a distant labor camp. Jung Chang, then 18, visited him a year later. "His old blue jacket hung loose on him, and his rolled-up trouser legs revealed a pair of very thin legs with prominent sinews," she writes. "His sunbeaten face was wrinkled, and his hair was almost gray." He was 48.

Throughout the Mao years, Jung Chang tried to fit into a society divorced from logic. After Mao launched an attack against sparrows because they ate too much grain, she found herself beating on metal saucepans to "exhaust" the birds with noise. She even became a Red Guard and traveled to Beijing to pay homage to the Great Leader. But despite her new name, she hated violence. When vengeful classmates began beating her exacting philosophy teacher for being "decadent," she sneaked out of the room, repulsed.

At their worst, the Maoists conducted mindless witch-hunts, book burnings, and temple desecrations. Even in rare times of relative tranquility, the Communist Party was insidiously intrusive. In 1949, Chang's parents needed the party's permission to marry, and her mother was constantly under attack for the bourgeois crime of "putting family first." There was no need for a massive security agency such as the KGB, Chang observes. By stoking hatred, Mao "had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship."

As her parents suffered ever greater indignities, Jung Chang grew increasingly disillusioned. But not until 1974 did it sink in that Mao--not just his wife and supporters--was behind the madness. When Mao died in 1976, Chang only feigned distress. "In bringing out and nourishing the worst in people, Mao had created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred," she says.

Without preaching, Wild Swans conveys the human cost of totalitarianism through rich details and powerful anecdotes. While Jung Chang was never arrested, readers can't help but feel that this young woman spent her first 26 years in a jail called China. Her story ends in 1978, when she managed to get permission to study in Britain, where she now teaches. But back in Bejing, as the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 shows, the torturous saga continues.