Wild Swans: Still Flying

By Isabella Crane

The Remarkable Human Story of 20th Century China

With so many new book titles available every week, it’s becoming increasingly uncommon to find a book that can withstand the test of time. Wild Swans, the critically acclaimed novel by Jung Chang is a story that truly transcends time, and race.

Published 21 years ago, Wild Swans relates the captivating personal accounts of three generations of Chinese women, and the many hardships that they face along the way. Chang weaves some of China’s most shocking history into her family’s own memoir in a way that is both intimate and objective. Consequently, Wild Swans has sold over 10 million copies around the world since its launch, and has been translated into 30 different languages. Despite its success, however, Chang’s books are still banned in the People’s Republic of China as a result of the more liberal viewpoints that she expresses.

I was fortunate enough to get tickets to listen to Chang speak at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and was eager to hear what this incredible novelist and human being would have to say. Chang quickly proved to be as gifted an orator as she is a writer – launching immediately into a heated discussion of the infamous Chairman Mao, about whom the book is largely centred. She described his policies as “brutalising” and the Cultural Revolution as “his great purge”; as he attempted to strip China of its culture by burning books, and removing films, archives, and museums.

By challenging actions taken by Mao over a decade before the book was even written, Chang was choosing to question the very roots of Chinese communism, an extremely dangerous act in a country where freedom of expression is still a heavily encroached right. Despite this, Chang betrayed no qualms over her decision, and merely shrugged over the several assassination attempts that have been aimed her way. She remained adamant that she would not support Mao’s “horrible titanium regime” by remaining silent. Mao’s face is still printed on bank notes, and that signifies to Chang that there is still much to be accomplished in China. However, she admits that political reform in unlikely at this stage, so is happy, for now, to use her pen to strike back.

Whilst Chang clearly showed herself to have an aptitude for Chinese political history, she was quick to assure us that her book is first and foremost a “human story”. By relating the stories of her Grandmother, mother, and her own life, Chang attempted to reflect a fully rounded view of 20th century China- inclusive of both the good and the bad. This was what, perhaps, set her book apart- the way that she was able to run traumatic experiences into something positive and relatable. We Brits may not be able to fully understand an Eastern communist world so different to our own, we can still empathise.  Books like this help us to get that much closer to the level of compassion and humanity that, let’s be honest, our world desperately needs more of.

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