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.
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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