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