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Literature of the Wounded

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

by Jung Chang
Simon and Schuster, 524 pp., $25.00

Voices from the Whirlwind: An Oral History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

edited by Feng Jicai, foreword by Robert Coles
Pantheon, 252 pp., $22.00

In Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic, Bette Bao Lord’s memoir of her three years in Peking as the American ambassador’s wife, she recalled that “all Chinese were in pain, and taking their pulse, reading their temperature, charting every change and finding the cure took all the effort they could muster.” I believe this illness was largely fear, so intense that it frightened some Chinese out of their wits; others simply stopped thinking. Long before the Cultural Revolution, Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans writes, “Many people had been reduced to a state where they did not dare even to think, in case their thoughts came out involuntarily.”

One of the informants in Voices From the Whirlwind, a chilling anthology of Cultural Revolution memoirs, remembers how in August 1966 she waited in a completely dark room with her father and mother for the Red Guards to return and continue tormenting them: they had already had their heads shaved and been badly beaten with belts. “Suddenly we had somehow become enemies of our country. Just cringing there. No idea of what our monstrous crimes might be.” So the narrator, a young woman doctor, decided that she would kill her parents and then herself by puncturing their carotid arteries with a penknife. In a scene that is almost unbearable to read, the three sat in the dark holding hands. “My mother said how lucky they were to have a doctor daughter to help them die.”

She managed to kill her father, but the Red Guards burst in, and she and her mother leaped from a window. The mother died and the young doctor, crippled for life, was jailed for twelve and a half years for “committing the crime of murder in opposition to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.”

This story is terrible enough, but perhaps more terrible still is the victim’s confusion twenty years later when she tries to think about it. Feng Jicai, the eminent Chinese writer who compiled these accounts, observes at the end of the doctor’s story, “In dehumanizing times, the highest expression of human nature is destroying oneself.” But the victim of those dehumanizing times says, “Who in their right mind could stab their own father to death?… And what about my mother? How can I make up for that? If I hadn’t done what I did, my parents would perhaps be enjoying life today. If I’m not to blame, then who is…. It must be my fault alone…. I can’t say any more. Please don’t ask me to go on.”

In his introduction to Voices from the Whirlwind Robert Coles says:

The “Cultural Revolution” was at heart a crazed, wanton assault on one part of a country’s people by another part—an effort of some to frighten and intimidate others, to drive them into a land of fear and trembling, to use accusation in hopes that endless self-accusation would follow.

Over the last ten years the many painful accounts of the Cultural Revolution—the doctor’s story is one of the worst—have been called “the literature of the wounded.” What is disturbing about many of them is that no one seems to blame for the pain and death except the people who were directly responsible: Red Guards, brutal cadres, frightening officials, colleagues, or, of course, Lin Biao and the Gang of Four. Mao and the Party are rarely mentioned, although in its 1981 judgment on the Cultural Revolution the Party placed most of the blame on the “tragedy” of Mao’s last years, and even accepted some of the blame itself; but it hastened to emphasize Mao’s primary role as a great revolutionary and the Party’s unique ability to correct its own errors. In some way these admissions made it difficult for victims to mention Mao and the Party when discussing “the ten terrible years.”

The inability to blame Mao and the Party and other fundamental elements in Chinese society, along with fear, led to widespread guilt and paralysis. I have already discussed in these pages such paralysis in the case of Liu Binyan, China’s best-known journalist, now resident in the US, who joined the Party before it came to power—when he saw almost at once its brutality and hypocrisy—and suffered for more than thirty years at its hands. At one point, after years of persecution, Liu admits, “I began to convince myself: between Mao and myself, there could be one wrong, and since he was beyond wrong, it could only be me. Thus I accepted my fate.”1

Much “wounded literature” fills us with horror and rage, or admiration for the pluck and endurance of the survivors, but usually these memoirs leave us, like so many of the survivors themselves, empty, helpless, baffled, or—worse—paralyzed. How could that have happened, we ask ourselves, and on such a scale? The post-Mao leaders have referred to many millions of victims. And how many persecutors? What was it in Chinese society itself that made it possible for Mao and his supporters so easily to manipulate various groups, driving others “into a land of fear and trembling”? Lucian W. Pye of MIT has asked, “Why was it that the Chinese, in their frustration over sacrificing themselves to gain so little,…could explode with hatred towards forms of authority while idealizing the pristine virtues they thought they saw in Mao Zedong?”2

For many Chinese the worst possible nightmare is the possibility of a return to the Cultural Revolution, which the Party has been careful to portray as a kind of “tragic” parenthesis during the first essentially progressive decades after liberation. But for years Mao and his disciples had been arousing the darkest forces within the population.

Jung Chang, writing in English, of which she has wonderful command, is one of the few Chinese to get to the bottom of this provocation and response. Wild Swans is one of the most intimate studies of persecution, suffering, and fear in Mao’s time, before and after his triumph in 1949, and one of the finest. Born in 1952, the daughter of high-ranking Party officials, Jung Chang participated and suffered in the Cultural Revolution before coming to Britain in 1978. She took her doctorate in linguistics at York University, and now teaches in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is Jung Chang’s history of her grandmother, her mother, and herself, beginning in 1909, when the empire still existed and her grandmother was born, and moving through the Nationalist and Communist years to 1978, two years after Mao’s death, when Jung Chang left China, although she didn’t know it, forever.

In 1924, when her grandmother was fifteen, she became one of the concubines of General Xue Zhi-heng, chief of police of the shaky government in Peking. He was aroused by her tiny bound feet as she knelt before the Buddha in a Manchurian temple where she had been carefully positioned by her ambitious father to attract the general’s attention.

After an opulent “wedding” ceremony (he already had a wife and other concubines) the general spent three days with his new acquisition before leaving—for six years. His teen-age concubine had already been told by her father that “in Peking they say, ‘When General Xue stamps his foot, the whole city shakes,’ ” but as the general was leaving her he gave her a little pep talk about fidelity. Another one of his concubines, he said, had betrayed him with a male servant. So he dripped raw alcohol into a gag stuffed in her mouth.

Of course I could not give her the pleasure of dying speedily. For a woman to betray her husband is the vilest thing possible,” he said…. “All I did with the lover was to have him shot,” he added casually. My grandmother never knew whether or not all this had really happened, but at the age of fifteen she was suitably petrified.

When she was twenty-four, she fled on horseback in the dead of night from the general’s house, which she was visiting while he was dying, and, with the infant who would become Jung Chang’s mother, took shelter in the house of Dr. Xia, a kindly, sixty-three-year-old Manchu. Three years later she had a nervous breakdown and the doctor “was the first man she had ever met to whom she could say what she really felt, and she poured out her grief and hopes to him.” They fell in love and married, over objections by his children so violent that one of them shot himself dead. They were a devoted couple, but had no children. “Years later,” Jung Chang says, “my grandmother told my mother, somewhat mysteriously, that through qigong [a traditional quasi-medical practice involving pressure by the hands] Dr. Xia developed a technique which enabled him to have an orgasm without ejaculating.”

Dr. Xia’s envious children did not dare to openly insult his young wife, but her little girl was made to suffer. She sought comfort from Dr. Xia’s coachman, who taught her to skate and told her stories about his past life as a hunter in the forests of northern Manchuria. Bears were fierce “and one should avoid them at all costs. If you did happen to meet one, you must stand still until it lowered its head. This was because the bear has a lock of hair on his forehead which falls over his eyes and blinds him when he drops his head.”

After the defeat of Japan in 1945 Manchuria became a battleground in the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, and Jung Chang’s fourteen-year-old mother De-hong (de means virtue, hong means wild swan), a bold, idealistic, and intensely patriotic school girl disgusted by the corruption of Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, became increasingly involved with the Communist underground in Jinzhou, a key city in the struggle. Her first task was distributing Mao Zedong’s On Coalition Government, which had to be hidden inside grain stalks and green peppers. De-hong was risking her liberty and even her life—at one point she was arrested by the Nationalists, and before she was released was shown prisoners being horribly tortured. She was placed before a firing squad which executed the man next to De-hong but spared her. Her willingness to sacrifice herself for the Party is bitterly ironic when one considers how savagely she and her family were to suffer at its hands.

Here lies the central tragedy of Wild Swans, a story of dashed idealism, and of suffering, endurance, and courage. The tragedy lies in the Chang family’s dogged faith in Mao and the Party despite considerable early evidence of their true nature. Or indeed because the Changs, like many others, half perceived that nature and it terrified them. What we see in Wild Swans is that much of the Party’s support depended on simple dread.

This can be understood from Jung Chang’s father’s early years in the Party and the first months of his marriage. In 1948, when she was seventeen, De-hong, who by now was well known to the Party as a daring and reliable supporter, met Chang Shouyu, an already important regional Communist official, ten years older than herself. He was from Yibin, in Sichuan province 1,200 miles away, the son of a well-off textile manufacturer bankrupted during the worldwide Great Depression. After a poor and wandering childhood, during which he acquired the love of books he would pass on to his daughter, he joined the Party when he was seventeen. By 1940 he had made his way to Yanan, Mao’s guerrilla headquarters.

  1. 1

    See The New York Review, April 26, 1990, pp. 23–26.

  2. 2

    Reassessing the Cultural Revolution,” in The China Quarterly, December 1986, p. 602.

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