Grandmother’s Footsteps

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
    HarperCollins, 524 pp, £17.50, March 1992, ISBN 0 00 215357 2

Jung Chang’s grandmother, Yu Fang, walked ‘like a tender young willow in a spring breeze’, meaning that she could only totter because her feet had been bound and the arches crushed with a stone. If this was not done, a girl would be exposed to the contempt of her husband’s family and she would blame her mother for weakness. Fifty years later, Jung Chang herself was 14 when the Red Guards were organised in her school. ‘It went without saying that I should join, and I immediately submitted my application to the Red Guard leader in my form.’

Those in authority could take for granted the habit of obedience and the habit of fear. Jung Chang points out that China never had any need of an equivalent to the KGB. People could always be induced to destroy each other. In an epilogue to her book she comments on the demonstrations of 1989, not only in Peking but in Sichuan. ‘It struck me that fear had been forgotten to such an extent that few of the millions of demonstrators perceived danger. Most seemed to be taken by surprise when the army opened fire.’ It was this that in fact most impressed Jung Chang. In a country which has no tradition of political opposition except raising a rebel army, the old fear seemed to her to have lost its hold. ‘Yet Mao’s face still stares down on Tiananmen Square.’

This is a quite exceptional book, whose origins are pity and indignation. In 1988 Jung Chang, living in England, first learned the whole truth about her family, and realised it was necessary to write Wild Swans. It is a woman’s story, told in confidence by one generation to another, by mothers and daughters who acquired the patience and strength to out-wit history. It is also, of course, the story of China over the last hundred years, since the country emerged from humiliation by foreign powers anxious to help themselves to territory, to face the Japanese invasion and the civil war. The People’s Republic was created out of poverty and weakness, on the world’s most disastrous model, and worked out in a long series of crazy experiments. The withdrawal of Soviet experts in 1960 meant, as it had to, the Smile Policy towards the West, ‘winning friends from all over the world’, and the Middle Kingdom, after two thousand self-regarding years, unsteadily began to look for foreign friends. In 1978 even the Class War was abandoned, but by then Mao (two years dead) had created a moral wasteland. Loyalty and compassion, where they survived, shone by contrast like the pearls which were formerly put in the mouths of corpses.

Yu Fang, Jung Chang’s grandmother, was the daughter of an ambitious small-town policeman, who sold her as a concubine to a warlord, General Hue. (He arranged that the General should have a glimpse, as she knelt in the temple, of her bound feet.) When Hue died, Yu Fang bribed two horsemen to help her escape with her baby daughter: otherwise she would have been at the mercy of his widow, who might have sold her into a brothel. Later she became the wife of the kindly, elderly Dr Xia, and lived with him in Manchuria under the shadow of the Japanese occupation. The daughter, Jung Chang’s mother, Bao Quin, grew up under the Kuomintang. She became a Communist agent, smuggling out messages hidden in green peppers, for the sufficient reason that the Communists were the only party who promised to put an end to injustices against women. She married a high-minded, incorruptible civil servant called Wang, and after the Communist victory she was appointed herself (without any consultation) to the Public Affairs Department. Both of Jung Chang’s parents, then, had joined the ‘high official’ class which, more than any other, suffered from the incomprehensible campaigns, purges, rehabilitations and persecutions of the People’s Republic.

Bao Quin worked ceaselessly, although in forty years she never qualified for a ‘soft seat’ on the railway – these could be bought only by officials of Grade 14 and above. In the ‘January Storm’ of 1966, when Mao decided to disrupt the party structure, she was denounced and made to kneel on broken glass. Three years later she was arrested and imprisoned in the local cinema, where she could hear her children’s voices in the street but never see them. Meanwhile Wang, after years of irreproachable service to the Party, had come to the conclusion that the Chairman could not know what was happening. He carefully composed and wrote a letter to Mao. As a result he was taken into custody, and came back to his family insane. These two were only cleared of guilt at the end of the Seventies, when the old incriminating records were taken out and burned. ‘In every organisation across China, bonfires were lit to consume these flimsy pieces of paper that had ruined countless lives.’

Jung Chang, born ‘a high official’s child’, writes of herself with an irony which she never uses about her parents. As small children, she remembers, called upon to do good deeds like the hero Lei Feng, ‘we went down to the railway station to try and help old ladies with their luggage as Lei Feng had done. We sometimes had to grab their bundles from them forcibly, because some countrywomen thought we were thieves.’ In 1968, sent with the fifty million ‘down-to-the-country’ contingent to learn from peasants, she found talking to them, after a hard day in the rice-fields, ‘almost unbearable’. She was taken on as a barefoot doctor, or rather as a barefoot receptionist in a clinic in Deyang, without any training whatsoever, and worked as an electrician although she had never even changed a fuse. When the universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution, she was entitled to enter as a former peasant and worker, to study English. She can look at these discrepancies with a certain dryness. But she never sees her country’s history in the 20th century as anything less than a tragedy.

Wild Swans is a book of a thousand stories about men and women, some of them unimaginably powerful, some of them so unimportant that they are commemorated here and nowhere else. In 1941, when the Japanese had reserved the rice supplies for themselves and their collaborators, Dr Xia was treating a railway coolie for emaciation and stomach pains.

  Most of the local population had to subsist on a diet of acorn meal and sorghum, which was difficult to digest. Dr Xia gave the man some medicine free of charge and asked my grandmother to give him a small bag of rice which she had bought illegally on the black market.

  Not long afterward, Dr Xia heard that the man had died in a forced labour camp. After leaving the surgery he had eaten the rice, gone back to work, and then vomited at the railway yard. A Japanese guard had spotted rice in his vomit and he had been arrested as an ‘economic criminal’ and hauled off to camp. In his weakened state he survived only a few days. When his wife heard what had happened to him, she drowned herself with her baby.

  The incident plunged Dr Xia and my grandmother into deep grief.

Even this one passage shows the calm and rational style of Wild Swans, and the absence of ‘speak-bitterness’. Jung Chang is the classic storyteller, describing in measured tones the almost unbelievable. As a historian explaining the political and economic background, she uses the same voice.

Although she had been disillusioned with the regime ever since her days as a Red Guard, Jung Chang never felt, or permitted herself to feel, critical of the Chairman himself until the autumn of 1974, when she read her first foreign magazine (a copy of Newsweek) and experienced ‘the thrill of challenging Mao openly in my mind’. This book is not a record of heroic dissidence, but of endurance and the gradual opening of the eyes. She might even, in one sense, consider herself fortunate, but she is not calling for sympathy, or even for attention, on her own behalf. Her book is dedicated to the grandmother and the father who did not live to see it, while the mother’s undemanding presence is felt on every page. She came, in 1978, to see her daughter off at Chengdu airport, perhaps for ever, ‘almost casually’, Jung Cheng writes, ‘with no trace of tears, as though my going half a globe away was just one more episode in our eventful lives.’