I finished reading Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang this week and found that I could not put it down once I had started. Intriguing for a non-fiction book – as I tend to go in and out of focus while reading non-fiction. The only other notable exception I can think of is Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.
Wild Swans looks at the lives of Chang’s maternal grandmother, her mother and herself. The shift between the women is unbelievably compelling. Chang’s grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general at the insistence of her father. Her grandmother also experienced the practice of bound feet, saw her own mother be treated terribly by her father, among other hardships. She gave birth to Chang’s mother while still the concubine of the general, but then was released by his death and returned home to her parents. Later she marries Dr. Xia – whose family greatly opposed the match. So much so that his eldest son actually shot himself in front of his father in protest.
Chang’s mother comes into her own more with the rise of Communism and Maoist China. She reaches higher ranks, but is constantly faced with her own kinds of hardship. Her husband, while a good man, is ultimately always going to put the Party above her in terms of priorities. Ultimately you can see how even the most devoted party members were destroyed by the very party they supported. It’s a very harsh look at the inner workings of Maoist China.
Chang’s own story largely revolves around her reactions to her parents hardships and how she dreamed of being able to learn. She also provides insight into the difficulty of being able to think rationally and critically towards the system when one is within this type of all pervasive system. The moment at which she first is able to question Mao is huge. The indoctrination of the cult of Mao was all encompassing as she was growing up.
Stories like this are important – largely because it does give one a look into the way the mind can work. It’s self-preservation in those situations and you accept what is in front of you without question because what else can you do? I think the West has largely been ignorant in regards to what has occurred in the West and Maoist China is a good example of this. How much do any of us really know about what happened then? Granted – a lot is still unknown given the secrecy that surrounds it. However, the former Soviet Union has slowly opened up to us and we have more of an idea of the horrors that lie within. It seems to me though that perhaps Maoist China was even worse – given the harsh descriptions of policing by neighbours, family and friends alike. I have always been a believer in looking at History through the eyes of those who experienced it – it gives a very different perspective when you look from the ground up. It gives a clearer picture of what actually happened in my opinion.
So what do you think? What do you think of non-fiction? And what do you think of first person accounts of things that just seem so unbelievable to our “delicate sensibilities?” Do the words of an individual who experienced it make it that much more real to you?