Helen's Reviews > Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Wild Swans by Jung Chang
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May 06, 10

bookshelves: non-fiction
Read from April 18 to 27, 2010

Before beginning this book I didn’t know very much at all about Chairman Mao, but I’m obviously not alone in that. As Jung Chang says in her introduction to the 2003 edition, ‘the world knows astonishingly little about him’. This book helped me understand why the Chinese people initally welcomed communism and how millions of children grew up viewing Mao as their hero and never dreaming of questioning his regime. It also explained why many people eventually became disillusioned and why the system started to break down.

One of the most horrible things in the book occurs within the first chapter when Chang describes her grandmother’s footbinding. It’s so awful to think of a little girl being forced to undergo this torture just because tiny feet (or ‘three-inch golden lilies’) were thought to be the ideal. Soon after her grandmother’s feet were bound the tradition began to disappear. However, this is just one small part of the book and the first in a long series of shocking episodes the author relates to us.

Some parts of the book made me feel so angry and frustrated, such as reading about the senseless waste of food when peasants were taken away from the fields to work on increasing steel output instead, as part of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. The descriptions of the Cultural Revolution are also horrific; it went on for years and resulted in countless deaths. One of the most frightening things about this period was that nobody was safe – people who had been high-ranking Communist officials before the revolution suddenly found themselves branded ‘capitalist-roaders’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ (sometimes by their own children) and some of them were driven to suicide.

The book is complete with a family tree, chronology, photographs and map of China – all of which were very useful as I found myself constantly referring to them and without them I would have had a lot more difficulty keeping track of what was going on.

As you can probably imagine, it was a very depressing book, as Jung and her family experienced very few moments of true happiness. She only really sounds enthusiastic when she’s describing the natural beauty of some of the places she visited – and the pleasure she got from reading books and composing poetry, both of which were condemned during the Cultural Revolution. However, it was also the most riveting non-fiction book I’ve ever read – I kept thinking "I’ll just read a few more pages" then an hour later I was still sitting there unable to put the book down.

All three of the women featured in Wild Swans – Jung Chang herself, her mother and her grandmother – were forced to endure hardships and ordeals that are unimaginable to most of us, but remained strong and courageous throughout it all. However, Wild Swans is not just the story of three women – it’s much broader in scope than that and is the story of an entire nation. So much is packed into the 650 pages of this book that I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review and if you haven’t yet read the book I hope you’ll read it for yourself – no review can really do it justice.
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Reading Progress

04/27/2010 page 720
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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Cecily Yes, it was one of the most riveting non-fiction books I've read, though I think that is partly because you can read it like a novel. However, despite the horrors (and there are many), I didn't find it depressing overall: the indomitable spirit of many of the people, coupled with the fact I know Jung Chang is now happy and successful, gave an air of hope.


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