Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Tough Talk About Life in China


'I THINK few people, if any, are ready to compare Mao to Hitler or Stalin," But, says author Jung Chang, "Mao created no less death nor suffering."The biggest misconception in the West" among some academics and Sinologists is that Mao can be compared to leaders like Gorbachev, she adds. "I hope my book will maybe make some of those people think again." Such forceful words seem incongruous coming from this petite, smartly dressed woman whose long wisps of black hair delicately cascade around her shoulders. But frail and demure she is not. A former steelworker, electrician, "barefoot doctor," and English teacher in China, in 1978 Chang was granted the opportunity to study in England. In 1982 she obtained a PhD in linguistics from York University, becoming the first person from the People's Republic of China to obtain a doctorate from a British university. Today she is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, and a commentator for the BBC. "I grew up under the intense personality cult of Mao.... Mao was my God," she said in a recent interview here while promoting her new book "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China." But Chang soon became appalled at the violence committed by Mao's Red Guards cruelty was not only sanctioned and encouraged, but also made into a virtue," she explains. "Under Mao there was no real equivalent to the KGB in China.... He got the Chinese population to do the dirty work ... so in a way he left behind a China of moral wasteland and a land of hatred." Her parents - both devout communists - were subjected to torture, public humiliation, and imprisonment. Chang learned about many of these atrocities for the first time when her mother visited her in England in 1988. The stories prompted her to write a highly personal account of 67 years of Chinese history - through the lives of grandmother, mother, and daughter (see review below). "I felt, I felt I had to ummmm," she says, struggling to mask her sadness as a tear forms, "in a way make these things known. I felt I wanted to sort of tell the world, tell the West what the Chinese have been through." The West regards the Chinese as inscrutable or mysterious, she adds. "I wanted my readers to see that the Chinese are individuals themselves like the Americans, and they have the same feelings, the same reactions.... The thing is, individual thoughts can never be killed. No matter how we were told - the population - to obey Mao, there were individual thoughts all the time," she says. Chang returned to China repeatedly to gather details and to interview relatives and friends. Her mother also provided many stories: "My mother has a wonderful memory, and she was also detained and interrogated many times in her life.... These things burned into her memory," she says. Although the book focuses on the Cultural Revolution, Chang also discusses her parents' involvement in the Communist Revolution of 1949, and her grandmother's struggles as a woman in pre-communist China. Reaching into a bag, she pulls out a tiny shoe not much longer than a pear that was once worn by her grandmother. According to a 10th-century Chinese custom, she explains, "a woman teetering on bound feet was supposed to make men feel protective." By binding the feet - crushing the bones and stunting the growth - a daughter was considered more marriageable. Foot binding and the keeping of concubines were banned by the Communist Party, she says,and for a period of time, Chang's mother worked as an officia l to enforce the ban.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.