The Hard Truths of Wild Swans

wild swansThere are few memoirs as lauded as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans- and for good reason. Honest, eye-opening and bold, it tells the stories of three generations of Chinese women, through tyranny and oppression. I admired so many aspects of this book and learnt a great deal from it.

From the start, Chang reveals the culture of fear and insane propaganda, that captured a nation. While it does give a glimpse into the culture and circumstances before communism, I personally took a lot from how the narrative exposes the true horror of communism. What is incredible and unusual about this book is how we get to see both sides of the Cultural Revolution. We get an inside look at the Red Guards and the indoctrination behind their actions- and ultimately see those that fall victim to it.

The constant horror is such that I grew numb to it- but I will try to articulate it as clearly as possible. Books like this make it so we cannot fail to understand the reality of communism. My experience of reading Solzhenitsyn, for instance, already made it clear that starvation is always a by-product of these regimes. This, despite noble goals: “He did not tell anyone until years later when he was ruminating over how differently things had turned out from the dreams of his youth, the main one of which had been putting an end to hunger”. And, like with the Soviet Union (and despite being an entirely different culture), there are the same monstrous results:

“it was widely known that baby killing did go on at the time”

Naturally, communism destroys the most productive people- regardless of class. The people it purports to help are often its first victims. I’ve often contended that communists do not understand the poor- and here there is evidence of that again and again. Sometimes in the mimicry of poverty:

“I put patches on my trousers to look “proletarian””

Other times in the sheer contempt with which the ruling communist class reacts to peasants:

“Peasants have dirty hands and cowshit-sodden feet, but they are much cleaner than intellectuals”

Mostly though, it is in the failure to understand the basic humanity of working-class people and the similarities that exist across social classes- preferring to emphasise difference. There is a ridiculous idea in the Communist Manifesto that working-class people don’t have families- an idea that allows people to view caring about your family under communism to be a “bourgeois habit”. Thus, throughout Wild Swans, family ties are tested to their limit. This is obviously utter hogwash- I shouldn’t have to point this out but here goes: poor people have families too. Now, obviously there are advantages from a communist perspective to disavow the importance of family- because how can you be entirely loyal to a totalitarian regime if you have other (more human) connections? Yet clearly this is also a greater issue of false empathy, a failure to understand the human condition and an inability to see that people of all backgrounds are capable of achieving greatness. But, of course, that is not the goal of communism.

“We want illiterate working people, not educated spiritual aristocrats”

Thus, the greatest irony of all is that the education offered to working class people under communism is “designed to stupefy rather than enlighten”. And thus, arises the idea (which is gaining traction in modern culture) that one must “combat privilege” and atone for one’s education:

“This process appealed to the guilt feelings of the educated; they had been living better than the peasants, and self-criticism tapped into this”

The idea being that education is the enemy. Communism designs a system that keeps poor people down- as much as everyone else. It smashes, but it does not create:

“It was only in persecuting people and in destruction that Mme Mao and the other luminaries of the Cultural Revolution had a chance to “shine”. In construction they had no place.”

Fundamentally, I hold with the Peterson view that a person’s intent is seen in the outcome of their actions. And the outcome of communism is always catastrophe.

Yet it is not just the brutality of the book that I found so significant. There were so many little oddities that made my head spin:

“Think of the starving children in the capitalist world!”

“A famous restaurant called “The Fragrance of Sweet Wind” had its plaque broken to bits. It was renamed “Whiff of Gunpowder””

“In those days, beauty was so despised that my family was sent to this lovely house as a punishment.”

The entire book is packed with such anecdotes: laws that meant people got only twelve days of marriage leave a year, exams made void at random and any number of small, dehumanising humiliations. Worst of all, children were encouraged to betray their parents, such that:

“I can see the thrill some children must have felt at demonstrating their power over adults”

All the natural order is backwards. Reading it is as reading a sci fi about an absurd, alternate reality. And here’s the thing- I have read that book: it’s called 1984. Once again, I am astounded to find how attuned Orwell was- Jung Chang herself “marvelling constantly at how aptly Orwell’s description fitted Mao’s China”. I found this most notable in her description of her father’s interrogation- it reminding me of how they broke Winston’s mind, using the trick of telling someone that they’ve already been betrayed. It is all designed to break the human spirit.

And unfortunately, it is effective in the short term. All these absurdities and evils have a human cost. We can only hope that there will be others to reveal the hard truths of these regimes- as Chang has done.

Rating: 5/5 bananas

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So, have you read this book? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

19 thoughts on “The Hard Truths of Wild Swans

  1. Considering how we agree on communism, I don’t have much to say. I’m going to be starting the Gulag Archipelago sometime this year but am planning on really spacing the 3 volumes out so I don’t overwhelm myself. I don’t want to get discouraged or numbed, you know?

    I am glad that books like this exist, to show the reality…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this review! This is on my TBR list but it seems heavy and I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

    And I agree with you on communism! I’ve got a friend who’s a really ardent communist and it’s a point of friendly debate/contention between us – I look at the reality of self-proclaimed communist countries and what happened to them and disapprove while he looks at the theoretical ideals of communism and approves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I completely get that- it’s taken me years to get to for the same reason, but I’m glad I’ve finally read it.

      Yeah I understand that- I have friends like that too. I think that there are idealistic people who like to believe that a utopian future is possible- but even if I agreed that was a possibility (which I don’t), communism could never be the answer- not when there’s so much evidence that every time it’s implemented it causes death and destruction. I know that people like to say that “it’s never really been tried before”, but communist China, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela etc all directly implemented the communist manifesto- so I completely disagree with that assessment. Personally, I question how many more people have to die before people recognise that experimenting with communism is a bad idea.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope there won’t be any deaths or revolutions but I do see more and more people advocating for a communist/socialist state (apparently some people are on tiktok trying to spread the message – says an article I read) so I’m a bit worried about that.

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    1. Thank you. Yeah I really thought that was a very powerful element to the book- because it really got inside the regime in a way other memoirs and historical texts do not. I thought it had so much more weight because of that. Very much agree!

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  3. This book spun my mind too. I was open to everything I read and loved reading about a place I’d rarely though of and it’s history. It was so different to other Asian narratives – almost Dickensian in its bleakness so I understand why it reads almost dystopian or sci if.

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    1. Yeah it really is a powerful book. And absolutely agree with you- I especially thought it gave insight into a time that is less well documented (the Cultural Revolution) so it was really eye-opening in that way. And yeah I definitely felt like it was Kafkaesque at times.

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  4. Wonderful review! This communism is virus deadlier than coronavirus. Few days ago some people in WhatsApp group started this rant to support our community and this community is like this and that.. believe in spreading their religion…and all shit. They are educated living in other country and no longer has anything to do with India except family and relatives live here. I was thinking what if they face same discrimination where they reside! I made my point and told they are narrow minded. Funny thing is they accept they’re narrow minded and that 99% people of the group have same thinking, I’m 1% so I should shut up. 😂 I guess no matter their class or education or where they live, they find comfort in their own Community and everything else is threat for them. I fear what kind of example they are setting for their kids! it’s people and their mind set that they don’t want to change and cannot accept change.

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  5. I read this a long time ago when I was at uni. I remember crying a few times at the beginning of the book, but by the end being so absolutely numb to all the horrific things that Jung writes about. It is one of the few books I have never reread or revisited in any way. It made a massive impression on me.
    Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I completely understand what you mean- I thought I was going to be more emotional by the end, but I just got really numb. Yeah I don’t imagine wanting to revisit it, but I feel like I learnt a lot and it was a very powerful read that I won’t forget. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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