84. ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang

This is an extraordinary book, one that really is hard to put down, and certainly hard to forget. I remember reading it back in the early 90’s when it was first published, and being deeply moved by it. The shocking TV coverage of the Tienanmen Square massacre of 1989 brought the Chinese regime to our attention, but I don’t think I would be alone in saying that I knew hardly anything about China, her politics, and the turmoil the country had endured during the 20th century that had led to that horrifying scene.

Twenty years later, visiting China myself, I remember thinking that it was the most ‘foreign’ foreign country I had ever known – and reading this book again over the Christmas weekend reminded me of that feeling.

With no excessive melodrama, Jung Chang recounts the stories of three generations – her grandmother, teenage concubine to a warlord; her mother, a dedicated Communist, and herself, growing up in a world where chaos, famine and insecurity are the norm. This quote from Howard Chua-Eoan, writing for Time magazine, sums it up – it ‘makes visible, intimate and immediate the pain and horror that are cloaked in the silence of China’s recent history’.

But I should add, this is also a narrative of firm family affection and devotion; returning to my initial point, it illustrates not only the extreme differences between Western family life and that of the Chinese, but the ‘fall out’ as a Chinese family’s traditional values conflicted with the vision of Communism, an example being funerals and weddings.

I absolutely 100% recommend this book.