A fascinating description of one family's experiences of China's political upheavals during the 20th century. Although Jung Chang's family are fairly privileged much of the time, they still experience great hardships: being an official and Party member was no guarantee of immunity from persecution and even torture.
HARD TO CATEGORISE - BUT DON'T BE DAUNTED
It's part biography/autobiography and part a historical/political/psychological exposition of how Communist China came into being and to how it maintained its hold on its citizens.
This book can seem daunting because of its size, subject matter and fame, but it's actually a riveting read and although some of the content is harrowing, the writing style is very easy going. It is a complex story, but it is never confusing.
I also think some people may be put off because it's subtitled "Three daughters of China" and so wrongly assume it's primarily about and for women. In fact one of the most powerfully drawn characters is Jung Chang's father: born poor, largely self-educated, who loved literature, was a passionate and principled Communist (putting Party before family), rising to power as an official, but who couldn't cope when he saw his beliefs being violated in the name of the Party.
CONTRADICTIONS INHERENT IN THE SYSTEM
Although I have read many books about China, this one gets to the heart of the contradictions of The Party and how to brainwash a vast nation far better than many others. When Jung Chang subsequently wrote an autobiography of Mao, she'd already done much of the groundwork in Wild Swans.
Brutality and hypocrisy of various kinds are described, but it's some of the subtler hardships that were especially vivid. I find it extraordinary that strong family ties could coexist with couples not allowed to live together and an apparent casualness/resignation of children left to live with wet nurses, relatives or in boarding nurseries for years. During the Cultural Revolution, ignorance was glorified (even in universities) and beautiful artefacts destroyed; the family were expelled from the official compound and sent to live in rooms in an old mansion: "beauty was so despised that my family was sent to this lovely house as a punishment".
There is humour too: sending those studying English to a southern port to practise by talking to foreign sailors; not being able to rename a street whose sign was too high, and traffic chaos when it was decided that red was a positive colour so oughtn't to mean "stop"! The extraordinary degree of organisation in some aspects of life and none in others also throws up lighthearted contradictions, such as being sent to "learn" from the peasants, with no guidance as to what was to be learnt and when the peasants didn’t want them (being extra mouths was worse than being extra, not very useful hands).
The main problems with it are minor, but nonetheless irritating.
Because it's biographical, main characters are referred to as "my mother", "my father's mother in law" etc, which can get confusing when characters talk about their relatives in similar terms.
Some passages sound clichéd; that is partly because I have read many other books on similar subjects, but it is also because at times the writing style actually is somewhat banal and clichéd.
Although the political history is explained very well, because it is also biographical, important events that didn't affect the family (e.g the Long March) are barely mentioned and this is where its confused identity between autobiography and political text book are a weakness.
Nevertheless, this is an insightful, accessible and enjoyable book.
China's people are still far from free, but having read this book and travelled round China in '92 and '08, the transformation is remarkable - and ongoing.