Jung Chang is the most well-known Chinese writer in the world. But all of her three books are banned in China. Her family memoir Wild Swans was the book of the ’90s, which is to say, everybody read it.
This big green book was published just two years after the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The average reader was relatively ignorant about China but keenly interested. And here was an account of three generations of Chinese women: Chang’s grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother, a revolutionary; and Chang herself, a former Red Guard who eventually moved to England.
It was translated into 37 languages and sold more than 13 million copies. Hillary Clinton called it "an inspiring tale of women who survived every deprivation and political upheaval with their humanity intact." Martin Amis said it made him feel like a five-year-old, adding, it "has the breadth of the most enduring social history."
In 2005, Chang, along with her Irish historian husband John Halliday, wrote Mao: The Unknown Story, which showed Mao Zedong as one of the most monstrous tyrants of the 20th century.
Her most recent book is a biography of Empress Dowager Cixi who controlled China from 1861 to 1908 and is generally considered a cruel despot. The Cixi in Empress Dowager Cixi is a feminist, a visionary and "the greatest woman in Chinese history".
The book, Chang says, began after she found out that Cixi had banned the barbaric custom of feet-binding. That’s the practice of crushing the four smaller toes of a woman’s foot under a stone and then binding them to the bones, so they looked small and dainty.
At 62, Chang is very, very glamorous. You cannot picture her as a peasant, an electrician or a barefoot (untrained) doctor living in China. Or walking around the streets of London in a Mao suit, as she did in the ’70s when she moved to study in the UK. We caught up with her at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Excerpts: How did you start writing?
I started writing Wild Swans in 1988 after my mother had come to stay with me in London. She would tell me stories of her life and of my grandmother. I felt that she really wanted me to understand her. And that gave me the impetus to write the book. I also felt that my mother seemed to know that I had this dream of becoming a writer.
Was it painful to write such a personal narrative?
The most painful part was my father’s insanity. The other was my grandmother’s death.
[My] experiences are painful because my family members suffered and I did not. I didn’t go through that trauma.
Moving from China to the UK in 1978 must have been a culture shock.
In those days, it was like another planet. Everything was different!
Did you have to deal with racism?
Well, we were still wearing Mao suits. We were quite a sight on the streets! The English I had learnt in China was a direct translation of Chinese into English. So I was going around asking people, “Have you eaten?” – it is a Chinese street greeting. But it was an exciting time, living without restrictions...
Your books are banned in China...
But the regime is doing far worse to other writers, you know, sending them to prison.
You are allowed to visit your sister and mother on condition that you meet no one else...
There is a direct flight from London to Changdu where my mother lives. When she is ill, I wish I could jump into a plane and fly to her. But I can’t, because there is tight control. I can go only once a year and only for two weeks.
In your latest biography, you’ve heaped praise upon Empress Dowager Cixi, who is considered a tyrant...
Women rulers always have bad press.
You learnt English late. But that is the language you write in.
I was 21 when I learnt English. And it shows in my writing. It’s not a book by a person whose mother tongue was English. But the most important thing in writing is to form the book in your head. And that has to be done in one language. And so I form my thoughts in English.
Are you never tempted to write fiction?
In the Chinese world, truth is often stranger than fiction.
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From HT Brunch, February 8
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