CHINA ESSAY - The stories of three female generations of...

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The stories of three female generations of the same Chinese family are woven into a rich tapestry that is in effect the history of 20th century China, the most populated and frequently the most turbulent nation on the planet. A detailed family tree, an outline chronology and a simple map all assist greatly in following the huge sweep of personal tragedy and social upheaval. It is particularly refreshing to see history from a female perspective. First, there is the author’s grandmother Yu-fang who suffered the pain and indignity of having her feet bound before she became the concubine of a warlord. Then there were her parents, the father Shou-yu, who joined the veterans of the Long March in Yan’an before becoming a very senior, and unusually honourable, Communist Party official in the province of Sichuan, and her mother De-hong (‘hong’ means ‘wild swan’) who faced the Japanese and then the Kuomintang in Manchuria before becoming a middle-ranking Communist official with her husband in Sichuan. Both of them suffered frequent investigation, denunciation, and exile over a period when the author herself, originally called Er-hong (which means ‘second wild swan’), was briefly a Red Guard, then a peasant and ‘barefoot doctor’, next a steelworker and electrician, before finally becoming an English-language student which led her to leave China in 1978. The writing style of the book – a formidable achievement for someone who only learned English in her 20s – changes subtly as the work unfolds. The first 300 pages – the author is not born until page 235 – is straightforward narrative, but then gradually there is more analysis and then more criticism of the system. It is striking that, even as Jung Chang becomes ever more distrustful and disbelieving, it is so difficult for her to doubt the God-like figure of Mao Zedong (as she styles him) himself. She writes of Mao’s “almost metaphysical disregard for reality, which might have been interesting in a poet, but in a political leader with absolute power was quite another matter” . She notes that one of the main components of this attitude was
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CHINA ESSAY - The stories of three female generations of...

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