Au­thor Jung Chang tells Alexan­dra Chaves about con­fronting her tragic fam­ily his­tory and why writ­ing hon­estly is ‘the most dan­ger­ous pro­fes­sion’

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Chi­nese au­thor Jung Chang; and five pieces of lux­ury tech

“Only when you’re des­per­ate to write can you re­ally be­come a writer,” says Jung Chang. The au­thor speaks from ex­pe­ri­ence. Her books, which il­lus­trate China’s his­tory through the lives of sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures, have been writ­ten de­spite per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. To write her 1991 mem­oir Wild Swans – which went on to win sev­eral awards and sell mil­lions of copies world­wide – Chang had to con­front her own tragic fam­ily his­tory. Her suc­ceed­ing work, Mao, which was pub­lished in 2005, in­sti­gated a fall­out with the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment.

On many oc­ca­sions, the au­thor has re­ferred to writ­ing as “the most dan­ger­ous pro­fes­sion”, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, Mao Ze­dong’s trans­for­ma­tional push to­wards his own brand of Marx­ist-Lenin­ist views. Books were burnt. Places of wor­ship were closed down or de­stroyed. When Chang was a teenager, she hur­riedly dis­posed of her first poem by flush­ing it down the toi­let dur­ing a raid by Maoist paramil­i­taries known as the Red Guard. If she had been caught, the con­se­quences would have been dire. She didn’t write again un­til a er she moved to Eng­land to study in 1978.

Wild Swans, which re­mains one of her strong­est works, traces three gen­er­a­tions of women in her fam­ily – from the life of her grand­mother to Chang’s own ex­pe­ri­ences – while weav­ing in China’s his­tory over a cen­tury. Born in 1952, Chang grew up with com­mu­nist ideals, as the move­ment gained a foothold a er the Sec­ond World War. Her par­ents were party of­fi­cials, but were even­tu­ally stripped of their ranks and jailed. The au­thor was ban­ished to the Hi­malayas, where she toiled as a peas­ant be­fore en­ter­ing Sichuan Uni­ver­sity in 1973, and then win­ning a schol­ar­ship to study in Bri­tain five years later.

Chang stayed in the UK, but did not write for an en­tire decade, partly be­cause, she says, she wanted to “ab­sorb this new world.” It was only when her mother came to visit in 1988 that the be­gin­nings of Wild Swans took root. “She told me sto­ries of my grand­mother and her re­la­tion­ship with my fa­ther. She talked every day,” the au­thor re­calls. Even when Chang was out work­ing, her mother would leave tape record­ings for her, which to­talled 60 hours’ worth of tes­ti­mony.

Within two years, Chang wrote her mem­oir. Com­pared with her other works, in­clud­ing Mao, which was a 12-year-long un­der­tak­ing, and her lat­est work, Big Sis­ter, Lit­tle Sis­ter, Red Sis­ter, which took five years, Wild Swans had a rel­a­tively fast turn­around, and the au­thor knows why. “I had writ­ten a lot [of it] when I was in China … When I was spread­ing ma­nure in the paddy fields, when I was work­ing as an elec­tri­cian, I was writ­ing in my mind with an imag­i­nary pen,” Chang ex­plains.

Still, hear­ing about her fam­ily’s trauma was har­row­ing, and those two years were emo­tion­ally tur­bu­lent. “It was very painful to write a lot of things in the book – my grand­mother’s death, my fa­ther go­ing out of his mind and his death. Now I can talk about them with­out much pain, but when I was go­ing through the process of record­ing and writ­ing them, there were many painful mo­ments,” she re­calls. “But my mother was a source of strength for me. She in­spired me to write the book, and with a lit­tle bit of faith … I per­se­vered.”

A er Wild Swans’ pub­li­ca­tion, Chang shi ed her fo­cus to more his­tor­i­cal, less per­sonal books, but still with fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ters at their core. “I like per­sonal sto­ries with his­tor­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions, to see how his­tory in­ter­twines with per­sonal lives,” she says.

That’s what makes her writ­ing so com­pelling. She chron­i­cles the drama of daily life with­out for­get­ting the larger nar­ra­tive of sweep­ing so­ci­etal changes. When she and her hus­band Jon Hal­l­i­day wrote about

Mao, they drew from in­ter­views with hun­dreds of peo­ple who knew him and dug through ar­chives for re­search ma­te­rial. The re­sult was a por­trayal that has been con­tro­ver­sial in some cir­cles, es­pe­cially in China. Though the book re­ceived much praise, it also at­tracted crit­i­cism from schol­ars who deemed the use of some ev­i­dence as se­lec­tive and spec­u­la­tive.

“I don’t use things di­gested by oth­ers. I do my own di­ges­tion,” she re­sponds. “You just fol­low the sources, and they will lead to asking the right ques­tions and writ­ing the book,” she says.

Chang in­sists that her goal has not been to sim­ply defy of­fi­cial Party lines, but to go where the re­search leads her. Her third book, for ex­am­ple, tells the story of Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi, known to be “wicked and a die-hard con­ser­va­tive”. She came across the fig­ure when re­search­ing Wild Swans and dis­cov­ered that Cixi was re­spon­si­ble for end­ing the cruel practice of foot bind­ing, which af­fected women’s mo­bil­ity and health. It struck a chord with the au­thor, whose grand­mother suf­fered be­cause of the cus­tom.

“I saw my grand­mother’s mu­ti­lated feet when I was a child, and it le an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion. Grow­ing up in a com­mu­nist coun­try, I some­how thought the practice was banned by the com­mu­nists … I dis­cov­ered that they were first banned by Em­press Dowa­ger,” she says.

Big Sis­ter, Lit­tle Sis­ter, Red Sis­ter con­tin­ues this re­vi­sion­ist streak, de­tail­ing the lives of the Soong sis­ters from Shang­hai, who mar­ried po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in 20th cen­tury China. It shows that the Soongs did not merely marry rich and stand on the side­lines, but helped wield power and in­flu­ence.

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