14 MARCH 1992, Page 38

Through China's furnace

Colin Thubron


HarperCollins, £17.50, pp.524

0 f all the personal histories to have emerged out of China's 20th-century night- mare, Wild Swans is the most deeply thoughtful and the most heartrending that I've read. It moves, in part, like a ghastly oriental fairytale, but the authority and the reticent passion with which Jung Chang speaks her memories — and those of others — is unmistakable. Her book is not only the story of three generations of Chinese women — grandmother, mother, herself against the chaotic backdrop of a changing China, but a splendid (and very Chinese) act of piety and vindication for

her dead father, her anguished mother, and all the unjustly persecuted millions. .

'Let me become a cat or a dog, but not a woman,' prayed one of her ancient Buddhist relatives — and well she might. In 1924 Jung Chang's grandmother, the daughter of a low-paid official in a provin- cial Manchurian city, became concubine to a powerful warlord who was entranced by her tiny, bound feet. After an elaborate 'wedding' they were closetted together for a week. Then he left, for six years.

Shortly before his death in 1933, the con- cubine gathered up her daughter, the author's mother, and fled the household, anticipating the cruelty of the warlord's wife. Years later she married a gentle older doctor, but such was the shame at the old man's union that his eldest son shot him- self, and the suicide shadowed their marriage to the end.

Against a background of Japanese invasion and civil war, the author's young mother became an ardent Communist, worked as a saboteur against the Kuomintang during the critical siege of Jinzhou, and soon afterwards married the author's father, a young and high- principled Red guerrilla leader. Almost at once the pattern of all her later troubles emerged. During the couple's trek to Sichuan province 1,000 miles to the south, with the civil war still raging, her husband, whose status allowed him to travel by jeep,

refused her all sympathy or help for fear of showing 'bourgeois favouritism'. Footsore and exhausted, she suffered a miscarriage and nearly died.

During their years in Sichuan, the author's father worked as a high official with puritanical honesty, while his wife, a lesser official, negotiated the vertiginous tightrope between humanity and ideologi- cal correctness. Through all the political crusades of the Fifties — the campaigns against Rightists and Counter-revolution- aires, the crazed self-destruction of the Great Leap Forward which claimed (Jung Chang estimates) 30 million dead of famine — the once-idealistic couple grew slowly more guilty and wretched. At this time of false statistics and self-induced euphoria, Jung Chang writes, `people had learnt to defy reason and to live with act- ing'.

Then, in 1966, came the Cultural Revolution. In its mass nightmare, during which China devoured her best children, Jung Chang's parents were persecuted for a miasma of imagined sins. Her father was one of the dignified few who refused to confess to crimes he hadn't committed, so he was again and again paraded before the masses, publicly criticised and routinely beaten. He went temporarily insane. His wife was forced to kneel on broken glass, then spent most of two years in detention where she was tortured by a psychopathic guard. She developed a haemorrhage, and bled intermittently for six years.

Meanwhile, in the family, no word was ever breathed against the creator of this hell, Mao Zedong. Jung Chang herself had grown into an intelligent, attractive and rather solitary girl, but she joined the Red Guards out of love for Chairman Mao. Yet she recoiled from brutality, and there is nothing here of the schizophrenic shame at a politically disgraced parent which provides some of the most harrowing pages in Liang Heng's Son of the Revolution. On the contrary, the devotion of all her broth- ers and sisters to their parents, she writes,

was increased by our empathy for their suffering, our admiration for their integrity and courage, and our loathing for their tormentors.

Yet her adulation of Mao was relin- quished only piecemeal, painfully. She could not discuss her early misgivings with anyone: Instead, I tried to suppress them and acquire the correct way of thinking. I lived in a state of constant self-accusation.

This was the peculiar and atrocious hall- mark of this time: the corruption of con- sciousness. The battle for people's psyches took place in a terrible theatre of condem- nation and penitence, whose reality was elusive even to its participants.

But the greatest tragedy was the death of idealism in those like Jung Chang's par- ents. As she herself retreated into inner doubt, her mother came bitterly to regret the time she'd devoted to the political struggle instead of to her children. Hdr father died in disillusion, pathetically, beg- ging their forgiveness, and feeling that he had sacrificed their happinness for the chimera of a fair society. 'There was no place for him in Mao's China,' Jung says bitterly, 'because he had tried to be an hon- est man.' Her grandmother, the hardy ex- concubine, was already dead, 'killed by the accumulation of anguish'.

Jung Chang, like all her family, was ordered to the countryside in 1969 to labour in the fields. She became a barefoot doctor, then an electrician. Finally she worked her way into language college and won a scholarship to the West.

Wild Swans is, I think, the most complete record of its kind that we have, interwoven as it is with a mass of tragic vignettes and sub-plots, in which death accosts friends and family with casual brutality. The book ranges wider, and perhaps deeper, than either Liang Heng's Son of the Revolution or Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai, and is irradiated by a sympathy which has been proof against all catastro- phe.