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Jung Chang is one of the most prominent and best-selling female authors about Communist China. Her splendidly readable book Wild Swans, first published in 1991, spans a tempestuous era from 1924 to 1978 and chronicles the lives of three female generations. Although the book covers the events that occurred in pre-Communist China, its main focus is on Mao’s Communist regime. Chang depicts China at the zenith of Mao’s power and captures the zeitgeist of that time very well indeed. At the time Wild Swans was published, the Westerners did not know much about the enormities of the Communist Party of China, hereinafter referred to as the CPP. Chang’s autobiographical book is a blistering diatribe against both Mao and the CPC. The author severely animadverts upon the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Cult of Mao, arguing that they brought the country nothing but harm. By shedding light on the callous policies of the Chinese Communists, Chang offers the reader an accurate insight into the real life in China under the CPC. The book is permeated with highly personal accounts, but it is richly researched and erudite at the same time. Such styles are so flattering that they instantly become classics. The bottom line of Wild Swans is that Communism in itself is not an inherently bad thing, but Mao’s version of Communism is reprihensile.
Wild Swans intertwines the story of Jung’s family with that of Communist China, starting with the peasant revolution against the Kuomintang regime, up through the Cult of Mao and finishing with the Chinese economic reform of Deng Xiaoping. Chang speaks in glowing terms of the original Communist ideology upon which the nascent People’s Republic of China, or simply the PRC, was based. Indeed, the second generation of the Chang family, i.e. Jung’s parents, was fascinated by the founding principles of the PRC. However, as it transpired shortly thereafter, Chairman Mao was just another reprobate ready to prostrate himself before the juggernaut of personal triumph. Thus, the original set of Communist convictions that resonated with the broad masses of Chinese population in general and Jung’s parents in particular was sacrificed at the altar of Mao’s lust for personal power. Mao had no compunction about transforming the underpinnings of Communism to suit his own needs. As a result, the hitherto egalitarian character of China’s Communist ideology metamorphosed into unflinching support, loyalty and devotion to Chairman Mao. Thus, it is Mao’s reversal of the original Communist objectives rather than the Communist ideology per se that jars Chang’s faith in the Communist system of government.
At the outset, Jung Chang praises both the peasant revolution and the Communist ideology. “The Communist stance about fighting the Japanese and about creating a just society fired” the imagination of Chang’s father and many other like-minded persons (Chang 118). Later on, the Communists started inveighing against the Kuomintang and accused it of supporting niggardly landowners. Eventually, their impassionate rhetoric about equal rights and freedoms for all peasants found an echo with wide swaths of Chinese people. At first, the Communists translated their promises into actions. They expropriated land from the greedy Japanese and Chinese landowners and dished it out to the hitherto landless peasants, as well as distributed grain in equal portions, and otherwise upheld the rights of regular people (Chang 121). In juxtaposition to the Kuomintang members, who ran roughshod over the populace, the Communists were driven by the unswerving commitment to the common good (Chang 160). However, the Communists would only give the Chinese peasants a brief respite. For Jung Chang, the rule of the CPC would be remembered for its brutalities rather than those halcyon, yet brief, days of equality and prosperity. By and large, from Chang’s perspective, Communism in China was a good thing as long as Mao did not add his own twist to it.
Once the CPC had gained the support of the general public, it settled into the policy of reorganizing the tenets of Communism (Chang 134). Haranguing the multitudes that thronged around them, the architects of Chinese Communism exhorted people to obey the edicts of the CPC even if they did not understand or accept them. Communist ideologists grafted onto people the idea that “everything personal was political” (Chang 134), thereby blurring the line between the two constructs. The CPC brainwashed people into conformity and subservience to the accompaniment of promises to restore justice and morality, lance the boil of corruption, and bring about other positive social changes. Jung describes his father as being affected by Communism. He was wedded to the ideals of the Party, because he believed that it served the interests of people. Wang safeguarded, disseminated and otherwise promoted the founding principles of the CPC. However, he became so obsessed with the Communist ideology that he developed a myopic attitude to it and started justifying the suppression of the first murmurs of discontent on the part of dissenters. Meanwhile, “Mao was sowing the seeds for his own deification” (Chang 214). Simultaneously, he harassed and persecuted all those who refused to worship him. Terror soon became a commonplace on the territory of China.
Jung Chang argues that the imprudent food policy was yet another failing of the CPC. Initially, when the battle for the power only began, the Communists scored something of a coup by stabilizing the situation on the food market. According to Chang,
The most immediate problem was food. The new government urged the peasants to come and sell food in the city and encouraged them to do so by setting prices at twice what they were in the countryside. The price of sorghum fell rapidly, from 100 million Kuomintang dollars for a pound to 2,200 dollars. An ordinary worker could soon buy four pounds of sorghum with what he could earn in a day. Fear of starvation abated (87).
In addition to that all, the CPC distributed relief foodstuffs to the poor, a move of unparalleled benevolence for Chinese peasants (Chang 87). However, when Mao introduced a program of economic and social reforms called the Great Leap Forward in 1958, hundreds of thousands of Chinese people starved to death. What is more important, the widespread famine in China killed not only spates of people, but also their Communist ardor. The program was an unmitigated disaster and had people scurrying to condemn it. Yet, most were so afraid of the possibility of arousing Mao’s ire and being labeled “capitalist roaders” that they did not dare to voice opposition against the obnoxious forms of Communism. In case of Jung’s father, it was not until the Cultural Revolution that his unwavering faith in the Communist ideology gave way to strong condemnation of the Communists’ actions.
Chang remonstrates against the CPC, because it marshaled every fiber and resource at its disposal to disseminate propaganda and subdue people into obedience in lieu of improving the quality of life an/or enlightening people about the founding principles of Communism and the ideals of the revolution. By the same token, the Communists obliterated myriads of rites and cultural traditions accumulated by the Chinese over millennia. People were completely indoctrinated and “incapable of rational thinking” (Chang 304). Chang further argues that it would have been an inconceivably folly for a person to stray from the path blazed my Chairman Mao (304). The young generations were stepped in the atmosphere of Maoism and stood in awe of the great leader. Eventually, Communism metamorphosed into Maoism, an ideology with strong theological elements. As Chang puts it, “Mao the Emperor always overrode Mao the Communist” (276). Mao’s increasing preoccupation with his own idolization signified an abdication of Communist principles in China. In other words, Communism failed in China long before the demise of Mao.
The present paper has shown that Jung Chang is critical of Chairman Mao’s version of communism. From Chang’s vantage point, Chinese Communism was initially a good thing. The Communist fought poverty and corruption, distributed food and sought to reinstate justice. However, Mao Zedong’s unquenchable lust for power distorted the original Communist principles beyond the point of recognition. Upon his ascension to the power, Mao Zedong chose rather to be temerarious than timorous. Indeed, he was temerarious enough to extirpate hundreds of thousands of his nationals, either directly through mass killings or indirectly through injudicious policies that begot famine. Mao’s people diffused mendacious propaganda and lashed out at dissent. Ultimately, Chinese Communism mutated into Maoism, a completely different ideology. Even such incandescent supporters of Communism as Jung’s father eventually became disenchanted with Mao’s policies. Yet, they did not give vent to their dissatisfaction and never publicly spoke out against Mao for fear of being exterminated. Overall, Chang’s major argument is that the Chinese people had little to celebrate since Mao brought himself to power.
Chang, Jung. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.