The Wild Swans:Three Daughters of China is the fourth book I’ve completed for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. This memoir won the British Book Awards “Book of the Year” in 1994. Wild Swans tells the story of three generations of women in Jung Chang’s family: her grandmother, her mother, and herself. It spans the years from 1909, when her grandmother was born, to 1978, the year Jung Chang left China to study in Great Britain.
Wild Swans encompasses the personal history of Chang’s family, as well as the tumultuous history of China. At the age of 15 Yu-fang, the author’s grandmother, became the concubine of a warlord. Jung Chang’s mother, De-hong, was born 7 years later. After the war lord’s death in 1933, Yu-fang married Dr. Xia. De-hong was raised in his household, as one of his children. Jung Chang was born in 1952, the second of 5 children born to De-hong and her husband, Shou-yu.
This book details the family’s struggles, as China itself struggles. Some events that impact the family include: World War II; the rise of Mao Tse Tung and the Communist party,;the founding of the People’ Republic of China; the Great Leap Forward; the Cultural Revolution; and China’s eventual opening up to the West.
Chang’s parents are loyal Communists, yet they suffer denunciation, re-education and imprisonment. The entire family is subject to the daily indignities of life in a totalitarian society. As children, Chang and her siblings rarely see their parents. Fortunately, Yu-fang is able to care for them.
Wild Swans is a very long and complex book. The appendices include a brief chronology of modern China juxtaposed with Chang’s family’s milestones. There is also a very helpful family tee and a map of China. I referred to these often. This memoir is quite thorough. I learned a tremendous amount about modern China.
Unfortunately, it did get a bit repetitious. We read numerous times that De-hong was upset that her husband put his very strict Communist principles before his family’s well-being. And the family’s constant struggles with other Communist Party officials, while important, are also tedious after a while. Some of the language seems a bit stilted. Chang did not learn English until her early 20’s, and the awkwardness shows. Overall, this memoir was quite good. It took me a very long time to read it, and I think it would be improved greatly by skillful editing.
Published in hardcover- Simon & Schuster-1993
Softcover edition-Touchstone 2003