Twenty-five years after coming to studynot far away at York University and publishing her bestseller, the Wild Swan was back again, standing in the pulpit of Beverley Minster to promote the same book in the Beverley Literature Festival. A quarter of a century has passed and Jung Chang is still living her history.
She spoke clearly but gently, without an accent, her eyes sweeping over a large attentive audience. Here, in a provincial English market town, her story still resonates. The theme was ‘love’, and she retold the same story she wrote in her 1992 book of three wild swans – swan is part of her surname. It could be seen as a feminist story of three women who haunt her still. Her grandmother was a concubine of a warlord. Her mother, in tears, bound her feet, saying she would never find a man to marry if she didn’t. Tiny, childlike feet were said to be so attractive to men of consequence, whose wives do not have to work. Her female servants with unbound feet would supply everything she needed. She would only have to look beautiful and comply. Children were important, but she could not look after them. Then her mother, whose feet were unbound because times had changed and, anyway, the custom was made illegal by a law passed early in the twentieth century. Instead her parents, passionate communists, were caught up in the Maoist Cultural Revolution, convinced that they could transform China to benefit everyone. Through them she could observe Chairman Mao. Jung Chang was reliving for us a totally alien world, and all the more fascinating for that.
I remember reading the thick volume soon after it was published. It inspired me to visit China soon afterwards. We were only allowed to travel in a group organised by the Government’s official agency with their chosen guides. One travelled with us throughout, using local guides to help out. Any other contact with Chinese people was not permitted. Only once did we break away when we were allowed on shore during a boat journey down the Yangzi River. It was not a large boat. There was one other group from America on board, as zealously guarded as ours. We saw the building of a huge dam. On both sides of the river narrow, perilous paths had been cut in the sheer cliffs for the men who used to pull the boats up river before steam engines were used. We stopped at a small town and, at last, were allowed to explore on our own. Some of our group went to look at a school and were invited inside to observe what seemed to be learning by rote. Others went to the market and swore they saw dog meat for sale. Two of us wandered around to look at buildings and tried to speak to the local people. They tended to turn away and avoid having any conversation. Language was a barrier, though I tried simple sentences in all the languages I know.
Only once did our guide break away from the official information she was primed to give us. I asked her about her experiences of the Cultural Revolution. She choked back tears, saying she had been taken to see her mother and can never forget her coming towards her over the snow, chained, leaving patches of blood behind her. It’s an image I have never forgotten. Her mother’s crime? It was to have a sister who had fled to work in Indonesia and was sending money back.
Times have changed, Jung Chang told us, but she didn’t say how or whether they for the better. She was allowed back to see her mother, but her books cannot be published and sold in the Chinese People’s Republic.
Can Jung Chang ever escape the round of living and reliving her history? Or does she not want to?