Review: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Chang Jung

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The story of three generations in twentieth-century China that blends the intimacy of memoir and the panoramic sweep of eyewitness history—a bestselling classic in thirty languages with more than ten million copies sold around the world, now with a new introduction from the author.

An engrossing record of Mao’s impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love, Jung Chang describes the extraordinary lives and experiences of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist; and her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution. Chang was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a “barefoot doctor,” a steelworker, and an electrician. As the story of each generation unfolds, Chang captures in gripping, moving—and ultimately uplifting—detail the cycles of violent drama visited on her own family and millions of others caught in the whirlwind of history.

My impressions:

Wild Swans presents the story of three generations in the author’s family, which covers most of the 20th century, as well as the sudden social, political and economic changes occurring in China. Yes, China – a unique country with fantastic culture which citizens had had to suffer a lot just because they had the very bad luck of being reigned by tyrants. I mean here not only communist tyrants of course. Respectively the lives of grandmother and mother of the author weren’t easy. These women had to experience the worst: humiliation, deaths, hunger, pain and prejudice. It’s really hard not to be moved by such a story especially as it firmly belongs to non-fiction. Still be warned:  it might be pretty depressive. One such a scene got stuck in my memory: the great grandmother of the author, a pious Buddhist, after a very difficult life full of pain and a really unhappy marriage kept praying every day so the good Buddha never made her a woman in the next reincarnation. She used to say: ‘I can be a dog or a cat but please, good Buddha, not a woman again’. Those words sent shivers down my spine.

Jung Chang focuses on the treatment of women and let’s face it, it wasn’t easy to be a Chinese woman, no matter what regime or system gained power. Under the emperors they were forced to break and bind feet of their daughters if they wanted to ensure them a better future. Which usually meant nothing more glamorous than being a man’s plaything. Under the communists they were officially made ‘equal’ with men which meant nothing more than the equal amount of hard labour and wearing horrible clothes straight from your worst fashion nightmare (or prison).

My biggest complain concerns the writing style; however, as I read this book translated into Polish, I really cannot say anything binding about the language of the original. Let me just notice that the narration sometimes felt rather stiff and in my opinion there was too much political information and too few ordinary-life scenes, far more interesting from my point of view. As a result I admit I skipped some pages to get to the better bits faster. Still overall I felt the impact of the story so it can’t be called completely bad.

Final verdict:

A great novel about 20th century China told from a woman’s perspective. If only the narrative voice was less wooden from time to time I would give it my ‘brilliant book’ badge without hesitating. As it is, it remains recommendable, especially if you are interested in the Chinese culture.

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10 Responses to Review: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Chang Jung

  1. blodeuedd says:

    The destroying of temples and books got me :/

  2. Carole Rae says:

    Ah
    A tough time in China. Too bad it was a little stiff….I am having the same issue with one of my books that I am reading.

  3. heidenkind says:

    Have you read The Joy Luck Club?

  4. Melfka says:

    I’ve heard good things about the book, but it feels too heavy for me at the moment, and I’ve recently read some articles on the topic of China as well, so I’m oversaturated. But good to know it’s worth a read when I finally get around to it.

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