Home > Genre, memoir > Book Review: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

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

Brown cover with three female portraits on it.

In this memoir, Jung Chang recounts the lives of herself, her mother, and her grandmother growing up in pre-communist, revolutionary, and communist China.  Mixing extensive historical facts with intensely personal remembrances, Jung Chang presents a vivid portrait of real life in China.

As an American, I was raised being told communism is bad, but not particularly taught much about it.  So when Meghan blogged about this memoir, I was immediately intrigued.  My history BA taught me to favor first-person accounts over academic ramblings, so a memoir of communist China from a woman’s perspective was frankly ideal.

It has been a very long time since I’ve learned so much from a memoir.  Chang was extremely careful to verify the facts of the historical events surrounding her family’s various issues.  Starting with her grandmother who had bound feet and was essentially sold by her family as a concubine, Change moves up through the drastic changes in China.  From her mother who was part of the communist revolution to herself who ended up an ex-patriot in Britain.

My preconceived notions of communism were frankly tromped upon by this memoir.  As a liberal person, I never quite understood what was so bad about communist China.  Chang makes it clear throughout the book that the governing body of China never actually lived up to the communist ideals of her revolutionary parents.  The passage where Chang best explains the warped version of communism enacted by Mao states:

The Cultural Revolution not only did nothing to modernize the medieval elements in China’s culture, it actually gave them political respectability.  ‘Modern’ dictatorship and ancient intolerance fed on each other.  Anyone who fell foul of the age-old conservative attitudes could now become a political victim.  (page 413)

Thus, communism in China was and is not at all what many hippie Westerners believe and/or believed it to be.

Beyond opening up understanding of communist China, this memoir also distinctly demonstrates the human spirit under pressure.  From Chang’s father who stood by his ideals at all costs to her grandmother who simply wanted everyone in her family to be comfortable and happy to neighbors with their own agendas, Chang demonstrates how an oppressive regime s bring out both the best and the worst in human nature.

This is a fascinating book both for its insider’s view of communist China as well as its female perspective on said regime.  Similarly, it offers an intriguing commentary on human nature.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of China as well as those with an interest in women’s studies or political science history.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: SwapTree (now defunct)

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  1. February 24, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    I’m very glad you enjoyed this! It really sparked off fascination with China for me that has yet to end, as I keep reading more and more books about the country.

    Communism is very interesting. It sounds so good in theory, at least it does to me, but in every case where it’s actually implemented it turns out wrong and becomes a vehicle for oppression. The same thing happened in Russia. It’s all quite fascinating for us historians! Speaking of which, it’s interesting that you learned to favor first person accounts. I learned to count my lucky stars if I ever got my hands on one of those from the Middle Ages! 😉 But then I majored in Kapelle rather than in actual history at Brandeis, and have spent all of my academic life firmly mired in the land of biased chroniclers and lying monks, so I think it’s a bit different.

    • February 24, 2011 at 8:47 pm

      I’m so glad you reviewed it, Meghan! It was such a fantastic read. 🙂

      Lol, yes, I focused predominantly on US History, which is drastically different from the Middle Ages. I took most of my classes with Prof Kamensky and Prof David Hackett Fischer. They were hyper-focused on documents and first-person accounts as key to American history. Hm, now I’m wondering how you medieval historians function without them!! 😉

  1. February 17, 2012 at 8:26 pm

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