“I could understand ignorance, but I could not accept its glorification, still less its right to rule.” - Jung Chang, Wild Swans
I often write about experiencing paradigm shifts - or ‘lightbulb moments’. Discoveries that alter the way I look at the world and encourage me to keep asking questions. Wild Swans inspired many of these moments.
The best books are those that make you realise how much you don’t yet know. The ones that open your mind up to how others have lived, and are living, at this very moment. The books that challenge you to stand in someone else’s shoes and acknowledge the different paths we all walk in life. Wild Swans is one of these books. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The full title of this book is Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. Writer Jung Chang tells the story of her grandmother, her mother, and finally, herself, using the real experiences of her family to navigate China’s turbulent 20th century. This is my favourite way to read history; intensely personal tales told within the context of major events. Does history ever happen in any other way? Too often history books are dotted with dates and facts and yet lack the realism that only personal stories can add.
Both Chang’s grandmother and mother have extraordinary tales to tell. Wild Swans begins in China circa 1925. Chang’s grandmother, Yu-fang, is sold to a powerful warlord by her father. She is to become General Xue Zhi-heng’s concubine - a life of lonely submission. Extremely beautiful, she was considered a ‘great prize’ - conventional beauty in China at this time came at a very large price.
“She was petite, about five feet three inches, with a slender figure and sloping shoulders, which were considered the ideal. But her greatest assets were her bound feet, called in Chinese ‘three-inch golden lilies’ (san-tsun-gin-lian). This meant she walked ‘like a tender young willow shoot in a spring breeze’, as Chinese connoisseurs of women traditionally put it. The sight of a woman teetering on bound feet was supposed to have an erotic effect on men, partly because her vulnerability induced a feeling of protectiveness in the onlooker.”
This gives you but a glimpse of the trials Chang’s grandmothers faced as a young, pretty woman in warlord China.
“My grandmother’s feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother, who herself had bound feet, first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long round her feet, bending all the toes except the big toe inward and under the sole. Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony and begged her to stop. My mother had to stick a cloth into her mouth to gag her. My grandmother passed out repeatedly from the pain. The process lasted several years. Even after the bones had been broken, the feet had to be bound day and night in thick cloth because the moment they were released they would try to recover. For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life, and that she was doing it for her own future happiness.”
It is in this context that Wild Swans begins. I believe the tragic tale of Chang’s grandmother’s bound feet sets the tone for the rest of the book. Above all, this is a story of how ordinary people - particularly women - were impacted by the social norms and politics of a particular time. Read in this context, Wild Swans is a universal story and will resonate with any reader who has ever questioned what it means to be free, not just in China, but in the world over.
Chang’s grandmother eventually escapes General Xue’s grip, and goes on to raise a fiercely courageous and independent daughter - Chang’s mother, De-hong. Having grown up under suppressive Japanese occupation, De-hong sees the Communist Party as an opportunity to build a better China. She leaves the life she knows to join the communists and marries a prominent party member (Chang’s father), going on to become a political force herself. By the time Chang is born, China is being completely transformed under Chairman Mao. Chang writes about what it was like to grow up in this context, and interweaves stories from her grandmother and mother along the way.
Wild Swans is a hugely informative, impressive book, that paints a very detailed picture of what life was like for certain groups under Mao’s rule. It’s no wonder more than ten million copies have been sold around the world. Chang, now living in Britain, was only able to publish this work once she had left her home country. To this date, Wild Swans is still banned in China.
This book taught me so much, but above all else it reminded me of my own ignorance. It shone a light on how little I really know about this world, which sometimes feels so small, but in reality is vast, complicated and shrouded in mystery. How much do you really know about all of the people we share this planet with?
China is constantly in the news, but how much do you really know about this country? To what extent do you understand its recent history, and the impact of its social, economic and cultural policies on its people?
I’m not ashamed to admit I knew next to nothing about China when I picked up this book. Other than superficial knowledge (population, political leaning), I was relatively in the dark about Chinese culture and heritage. Just as I am in the dark about nearly every other culture we share this planet with.
Syria is in the news every, single day. But what do I know about this country and its people? That same could be said of nearly every other nation - even ‘familiar’ countries such as Canada, Australia, the United States… my understanding of these places is limited to three-minute news reports about fleeting moments in time. To dig a little deeper, I must conduct my own research - it's not until reading history books or watching documentaries that a clearer picture of a nation and its people begins to emerge.
So in short - it’s no wonder I didn’t know much about China. We can only learn so much at once. This book was the ultimate reminder to keep proactively seeking knowledge; to keep learning.
I often ponder about society’s approach to education, and how learning is so neatly packaged into the school curriculum. After we finish school, and maybe specialise and go to university, how many of us actively continue to seek knowledge about the world at large? Learning doesn’t stop when we graduate. History, maths, science - these subjects continue to evolve, but are we keeping up?
This is why I passionately advocate soaking up as much information as you possibly can - be it through picking up a book, watching a film, reading a newspaper, talking to your neighbours. We have so much content at our fingertips that can help us better understand the people we share this planet with.
Wild Swans reignited my passion for reading and learning, partly because it is so wonderfully written and informative, but also through Chang’s own relationship with books. For much of her life, she could not access any reading material other than Chinese propaganda or information about Chairman Mao. Can you imagine a world in which books do not exist?
“I longed for something to read. But apart from the four volumes of The Selected Works of Mao Zedong, all I discovered in the house was a dictionary. Everything else had been burned. I occupied myself with studying the 15,000 characters in it, learning the ones I did not know by heart.”
When Chang does eventually get her hands on some books - many of them English classics, as these survived the great book burnings of Mao’s regime - the moment is extraordinarily beautiful.
“My joy at the sensation of my mind opening up and expanding was beyond description. Being alone in the library was heaven for me. My heart would leap as I approached it, usually at dusk, anticipating the pleasure of solitude with my books, the outside world ceasing to exist.”
When cruelness reigns, one of the first things to go is books. Why? Because they open up our minds to the rest of the world. They foster compassion, understanding and intelligence. They diminish ignorance. Books are a window to the world, and the freedom to read what we want should be fiercely treasured.
If I can encourage you to do anything today, it’s to pick up a book. Read a few pages. A few pages a day is better than nothing. It doesn’t have to be Wild Swans - it can be anything. But for Jung Chang and her mother and grandmother, treasure the freedom we have to read and utilise this opportunity to gain greater knowledge about our world.