Wild Swans – Jung Chang

Contributor: Anwesa Nanda

Front Cover

Answesa’s Rating: 4/5

GoodReads Rating: 4.2/5



The book begins with the author’s grandmother Yu fang born in 1909. Spoilers ahead, tread with caution.

Some interesting observations regarding erstwhile Chinese society are : weddings were fixed by parents even before children were born, wives were elder to husbands so that they could help them grow up, girls were considered to be a liability,prevalence of “bound feet” or “three-inch golden lilies” as they were called.

She was beautiful and intelligent. At 15,her father married her off to a 48 year old police officer who kept her as a concubine. A concubine is much like a keep, with no legal rights. Yu fang begot a girl child at 21 when her “husband” paid her a visit 6 years after wedding. She was kept in a comfortable home all the time. When her husband died, he released her from bondage and she escaped from the household. The police officer’s wife wanted to take her baby away as she was the only heir. Yu fang returned home and re-married a certain Dr.Xia who was 65.He had married sons but he agreed to bestow Yu fang with the status of a wife. They were in love. Dr.Xia accidentally killed his eldest son when he objected to the wedding. Xia and Yu fang set up a different household- started poor but soon had a comfortable life,thanks to flourishing practice of Dr. Xia.

Meanwhile the author’s mother, Yu fang’s daughter, was growing up. She was named De Hong meaning “wild swan” by her step-father Dr.Xia. He loved her a lot. She grew up when Japanese had absolute control over China, similar to British occupation of India. Posters like “Daughter for sale for 10 kilos of rice” were commonplace then. De Hong was a non-conformist. She had boyfriends, strong communist idealogy and such “un-girly” interests. Such things were far ahead of her times in 1940s. At 16,she left home to stay in a school as a teacher and Communist agent. Political turmoil was at its peak then. She was actively involved in them. She was almost jailed for it. But it didn’t deter her. She was a free-spirit, much like a modern woman today. She met her future husband in course of her work,who was also a hard-core Communist. He was ranks above her and had to seek permission from the government to “talk of love”. Such was the power of Communist idealogy. They married but their happiness never lasted long. De Hong had to take an ardous long journey on foot during her first pregnancy(She never realized that she was pregnant). Her husband was strongly against nepotism and never gave her special privileges. But after she lost the baby,he promised to take care of her needs. Since De Hong kept “family first” priority,she was despised by her colleagues, most of which were jealous of her. She carried on her work,had four kids,the second being the author. De Hong once remarked to her husband that he was first-rate communist but a nasty husband. Her husband said “Yes”. The family underwent great turmoil when the Cultural Revolution began. De Hong and her husband were ostracized for being “anti-Communist and capitalist roaders”. The author’s father lost his mental balance and was kept in a sanitorium. De Hong still stood with him,exemplifying the duty of an ideal wife. The family of seven was scattered in six different places. The authors’ parents underwent rigorous punishment for being “burgeois”-they were falsely implicated. At one point of time,De Hong’s husband wrote to her, “Please accept my apologies that come a lifetime too late. It is for my guilt towards you that I am happy for any punishment. I have not been a decent husband.Please get well and give me another chance.” Meanwhile, the children had to bear a lot of hardship – due to parents absence as well as labeling them as children of “capitalist roaders”. Yu fang,the author’s grandmother died mostly due to medical negligence at this juncture.

The authors’ parents underwent great hardship due to “Cultural Revolution” in China in the 1960s. The author and her siblings had to forego education and had to work as peasants. Nevertheless,they faced the atrocities bravely. Somehow,she was able to learn English in the local university.Unlike her mother, she never had romantic interests, more because it was considered “frivolous” during the revolution. The author lost her father in 1978. He was remorseful due to “misplaced dedication” towards Mao. The author got a scholarship and eventually settled in London. Due to liberalization in 1980s, her parents were able to regain their lost respect. The last few lines of the book depict sheer irony of human life.

Comments: A true story capturing the trials and tribulations of three generations of women in China. Highly emotional.