Sunday, December 11, 2005

A grain of salt


I hadn’t had the desire to read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans until her Mao: The Unknown Story came out and caused a heated public debate. Wild Swans seemed to me yet another Cultural Revolution tear jerker which we Chinese had swallowed enough of. Recently, however, I became more and more intrigued by her book on Mao and decided to tackle the Wild Swans first.

The read has proved extremely informative and thought-provoking. For those of us who are so enamored by China’s economic miracle, the book is a somber reminder that very recently, the country was gripped by a mass frenzy called Mao worship. Unlike the other books I had read on that period, Chang’s book expertly intertwined personal tragedies with the various political upheavals in the past 100 years. I found myself stopping frequently to recover from the daze over the scale of the tragedies and ponder whether the country is now able to avoid similar ones in the future.

What made the book especially close to me was the setting of a major part of the story in Chengdu, my hometown. Chang’s parents moved to Sichuan after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and lived in Chengdu as high-level government officials. Growing up in Chengdu I knew very little about its past under the new China. My parents had only mentioned briefly the factional fighting involving machine guns in the Cultural Revolution. Everyone seemed eager to concoct a gentle veneer and ever-spicier cuisine to hide the painful past.

Reading Wild Swans thus felt like perusing a hence-unknown family history to me. I now know that the two major factions that used machine guns at each other were called 26 August and the Red Chengdu; that before the “Three-antis”, the “Anti-Rightist”, and the Cultural Revolution movements, we Chinese were in fact gentle talkers, with none of the current easy tendency to bark and quarrel in public; and that before the marble statue of Mao was erected in the People’s Square in the center of Chengdu, there used to be a beautiful ancient arch gate… Strangely, a nostalgia for a Chengdu I had never known starts to build.

At the same time, it’s easy to see a very emotional Chang behind the texts which could very well made her writing heavy handed and one-sided, drawbacks that the critics accused her new book of. For example, she described her middle school as thus:

“My new school, the Number Four Middle School, was the leading key school for the whole province and took students with the highest marks in the all-Sichuan entrance exams. … In the two exam papers, I got 100 percent for math and un unusual 100 percent “plus” for Chinese. … My clearest memory is of my teachers. They were the best in their field; many were grade one, or special grade. …”

Number Four Middle School being the best in Sichuan? That simply could not and cannot be true. Number Seven Middle School, my alma mater, was undisputedly and agreed by all Chengdu residents (except for alums of Number Four) to be the best high school in Chengdu. Even we had the modesty to agree that a couple of other middle schools in the province cultivated students with higher test scores.

Perhaps Chang’s memory was faulty. Perhaps she exaggerated. Perhaps my alma mater surpassed Number Four after the Cultural Revolution. In any case, I know when I read Mao: The Unknown Story, I need to take Chang’s words with a grain of salt.

10 comments:

Other Lisa said...

I enjoyed Wild Swans, though it's been years since I read it. I think you are right to consider the Mao biography with a grain of salt. I've heard that some of the claims they make undercut much of the good work they did in that book.

Michael W. said...

I never understood the success of Wild Swans in the UK and worlwide - it was a good book, but not that good. I always suspected she embroidered her personal story somewhat, and now you have confirmed it.

Beijing Loafer said...

Sorry guys - I wrote the last bit on whether Number Four is the best middle school in Sichuan with my tongue in my cheek. I still do consider most in Chengdu regard Number Seven as superior. But it's not my intention to discredit her book with that trivia. Darn, how does one have a little fun without using a smiley? :)

Regarding the book's popularity, I guess it's mainly due to the West's lack of information otherwise about China at the time of the book's publication. I just watched last night an old Oscar-winning documentary, From Mao to Mozart, about Issac Stern's 1979 visit to China. That film was very moving, but if made today, it would no way win the Oscar.

shapinba said...

Though I am not a resident of Chengdu, I would second chinafool's assertion that No. 7 was and still is one of the best, maybe the best in the province, now that Chongqing is not part of the province:-).

Beijing Loafer said...

On second thought, now I've finished the book, finally, I'd like to retract the tongue in my cheek when I made the prior comment. The last 250 pages were not that enjoyable, with most sentences starting with "I" and full of superlatives. I know memoirs are supposed to be about individual experiences and all, but to have 250 pages about me good, they bad was tiring.

Anonymous said...

I began reading Wild Swans 2 months ago for exactly the same reason: to prepare myself for "the Mao", and I am still only 1/3 through it. It was beyond me how this book became a runaway success. It was way too much self-hyping, biased and exaggerated. And it wasn't even good writing. Seems to me ever bestseller in the West about China has to be Mao/communist bashing... I have yet to finish the book, but I don't think I am going to move on to her "Mao" anymore. There are simply too many good books out there.

Beijing Loafer said...

Oh no!!! I ordered Mao already and it's on its way to Beijing via a kind friend from the US. Someone has to read it and keep me company in case I'd like to trash it. :-o

Anonymous said...

i am taking my "grain of salt" right now before i read "wild Swans". i especially do not want to get to concerned over who's middle school was the better when looking at over 100 years of history in her story.

Beijing Loafer said...

Oh my, have you heard something called Tongue in Cheek?

guido_fawkes said...

I agree with your opinion that Jung Chang was a bit subjective in her story. Of course, I do not blame her, considering all that she suffered through. And like all people, Mao was not perfect, nor absolutely evil, as Jung portrays in her book on Mao. I like your analogy of reading Jung Chang's novel "with a grain of salt." Kudos for having the open mind to read yet another book that criticizes the Chinese Civil Warm Mao, and his policies.