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