1. Main Thesis
In Wild Swans, Jung Chang describes the life of three generations of woman in her family. Beginning in the year 1909 and ending in present time, it gives an insight into almost eighty years of the cultural history of China. Jung Chang has said in a interview that her intention in writing Wild Swans was to show how the Chinese people, and in particular the women in her family, “fought tenaciously and courageously against impossible odds.” The book is a testimony to the strength and determination of her grandmother, her mother, and herself and their resourcefulness in recreating themselves during suffering, humiliation and disillusionment.
She interweaves personal and historical stories fluently and the stories of these women and their families act as a lens through which you gain insight into the turbulent history of twentieth century China. The most important themes in this book are: love of family, loyalty and self-sacrifice
2. Chapter Summaries
The book starts by relating the biography of Chang’s grandmother, Yu-fang.
After the birth of Chang’s mother, De-hong, the book moves to her story. After the birth of the Jung Chang, the focus of the book now shifts again to cover Jung’s own autobiography.
The father of Yu-fang, was Yang Ru-shan, born in 1894 as the only son. It was his duty to produce heirs to continue the family name. One a year after he married he got a daughter, Yu-fang. Political unrest caused problems for many in China over the next years. He arranges that a powerful warlord general, Xue Zhi-heng takes Yu-Fang as his concubine at age fifteen.
The general stays only a few days after the traditional marriage and then leaves, not returning for six years. During his next brief visit, Yu-Fang becomes pregnant. The general’s household is run by his legal wife and the head concubines. The wife immediately lays claim to Yu-Fang’s daughter, who the general named Bao Qin. Yu-Fang kidnaps her daughter and escapes from the household. She lies, saying that the child died during their trip. When the general dies, Yu-Fang discovers that one of his final actions was to release her from her duties as his concubine.
Soon after, Dr. Xia, a matured doctor of Manchurian ancestry, falls in love with Jung’s grandmother and the feelings could be felt the same from Jung Chang’s grandmother as well. The doctor proposes and grandmother says yes. Although not thrilled with the marriage, Jung Chang’s grandmother’s father agrees to the marriage and sends her daughter off with a traditional wedding. When Dr. Xia’s three sons, their wives, and grandchildren hear about the marriage, they’re extremely angry. The grandmother receives quite a bit of harassment from the family and the eldest son even commits suicide, nevertheless the wedding still continues. He accepts Yu-Fang’s daughter, who he renames “De-hong”, meaning “virtue” and “wild swan”.
China is living under Japanese rule. After moving to a new province of Manchuria, Jung Chang’s grandmother, now living with Dr. Xia, begins to realize how terrible life is under the Japanese. The Japanese rulers are very cruel. The people are only allowed to eat acorn meal and sorghum, as the Second World War drags on, fewer rations and supplies are given to the people in Manchuria as Japan is losing the war. Finally, an American B-52 bomber flies overhead and she realizes that Japan had indeed lost the war. As Japan’s last officers commit suicide or run away, the town is in chaos just like the rest of Manchuria.
The Japanese are replaced by Soviets who were almost as bad. They pillaged and raped, taking what they wanted and dismantling entire factories. However, they soon leave and the Kuomintang arrives in shining uniforms and rifles. The Kuomintang turns out to be oppressive and ineffective at keeping justice and peace. The remaining Japanese are systematically murdered by the Russians and the Kuomintang. After a while the country is in a civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists. De-hong sees communism becoming increasingly important to many people but has yet to make up her own mind about the situation. She continues to watch those in power, including those over the teaching school where she now resides. When she learns that a favorite teacher and then her best friend, Cousin Hu, had been Communists and had been either chased from the city or executed for their political beliefs, she makes up her mind that she, too, will become a Communist.
De-hong asks to be a part of the communist movement but she’s found too young. A short time later, she begins distributing Communist literature. The economic situation is so bad that the family has no savings and Dr. Xia, now nearly eighty, is worried about what will happen when he dies. Extortion is rampant, food is scarce, and the money that does exist has almost no value. De-hong becomes friendly with a Kuomintang general. Using his military freedom, they travel outside the walled city occasionally and De-hong leaves messages for her Communist counterparts.. The Communists then start regular bombardment of the city, including one dud shell that crashes into the home of De-hong’s family.
De-Hong helps clean up the carnage cause by all the civil war. When the communists take over the town, they do not pillage, rape, or extort as all the other groups of people had done before them. Many are courteous and kind and seem to be the fit kind of soldiers who destroyed the Kuomintang. When De-Hong reports to receive her first assignment for the communists, she instantly falls in love with a dreamy man, named Wang Yu, who was a high ranking communist official. He had been on many dangerous missions with the communists and rose through the ranks by being extremely loyal to the party and its ideals of sever equality. The two and several other teachers and students travel by train to another communist held town for fear that the town may be retaken by the Kuomintang and there, the two fall in love. Wang Yu eventually submits a request to “talk about marriage” to the party leaders and the two are engaged and finally married.
Chang’s parents join a group of people traveling south. The trip is dangerous as civil war is still raging. The walk is long and hard, walking forty days to reach their destination, Nanjing. Her mother is forced to walk but her father is allowed to ride in a jeep, a privilege he accepts. De-hong is soon pregnant though she doesn’t realize it until she’s in the process of miscarrying because of the ordeal. She’s very heartbroken and angry at her husband. After the miscarriage, her parents are separated because of his transfer to Yibin. It takes her four months to recover and then make the trip to him. During that time, her anger has cooled and they are happy to see each other.
When Chang’s parents arrive in Yibin, her father is appointed leader and returns to a form of his former name, Chang Shou-yu. He and her mother live together in a mansion confiscated by the Communists. Chang’s grandmother, Fang-Yu, despite her bound feet and difficulty walking, makes the long trek from Jinzhou to Yibin to see De-hong. De-hong gives birth to her first daughter, Xiao-hong.
This chapter tells of her mom’s life as being in the Public Affairs Department in Yibin. She tells of living with a denouncing of her grandmother, the birth of herself and the strictness of her father. Being part of the Communist was hard and had many of its hardships. Having a husband was harder for her mother than anything else.
Chang’s mother goes under suspicion during the course of this chapter. Being that she had some relations with Kuomintang participants she went under suspicion. But, after all that she had to go through, she was able to be free of any charges.
During this chapter, Mao decides to purge the Communist party again. This time devises that most people are “rightists” and need to leave the party, which ruin their lives forever. However, he got help this time and made all of his officials get rid of 5 % of their total participants. In the end, Chang’s mother was able to get to this quota after many different approaches of convicting people of being a “rightist.”
A famine strikes the land of China during this chapter. Many people die and starve from this famine all because Mao decides to make this situation look like their wasn’t a famine at all. Mao wanted to produce steel which led to a drop in production of food which leads to the famine. But, the famine gets cleared after Mao lets others to take charge of the situation.
Chang describes life in a compound during this chapter. Moving into a compound was for Chang and her siblings to go to a very nice and prestigious school. Living in a compound was very contained with its many entertainment locations. There was no need to go outside the compound for any reason. She also tells of how nice her life was as a child, living in a home where she was a good kid and her family noticed that.
This chapter describes the event that occurred with the cult of Mao. Many youths were forced into living like Lei Fang, a man who had a huge fondness for “Chairman Mao” and living his entire life revolving around him. Education included studying the words of Lei Fang and viewing the beatings of “class-enemies.”
After hearing about the collapse of Stalin’s Russia, Mao realized that he represented a Stalin figure waiting to be overthrown by his own people. In order to stop this from happening, Mao endorse’s books called “The Quotations of Chairman Mao”. This book contained his quotes and would be used to strengthen his popularity with the Chinese. In short, Mao’s control over China tightened throughout this chapter.
Not until, chapter 16 did Mao’s rule become apparent. Mao issued the use of Red Guard’s who he said protected and fought for Mao (in other words his own police force). Most of these Red Guards came from the families of high officials and came as teenagers. These Red Guards reinforced Mao’s word and rule and when someone was “betraying” Mao, he or she would be beaten, raided, tortured, or executed.
Jung Chang’s father starts to question Mao’s actions and asks whether if the actions of the Chinese are justified. Eventually Jung Chang’s father writes a letter to Mao explaining the wrongs of Mao’s actions (which in the words of Mao, was considered “against Mao” and could face charges such as death). He soon serves time in detention. Also he starts to oppose Mao’s thoughts and expresses them out loud which can lead to very harsh outcomes.
To summarize this chapter, Jung Chang and her friends make a pilgrimage to Peking. The goal of this pilgrimage: to see the Great Chairman Mao. Chapter 19: The control of Mao switches into high gear. Because her parent’s become branded as “capitalist-roaders” they suffer from many brutal denunciation meetings, beatings, harassment, and embarrassment. They are hurt for their crime of being “capitalist roaders” and bitterness starts to arise because they were only ever loyal to Mao.
Jung Chang’s father soon serves time in detention (due to sending another letter to Mao) and his wife makes a trip to Peking in order to speak to Premier Zhou Enlai, who she believes could help in their situation. On her way to Peking she meets two lovers Yan and Yong who join her. Finally with the help of Premier Zhou Enlai, Jung Chang’s father no longer served in detention. However, this does not end well. While in detention the guard watching over Jung Chan’s father plays mind games with him and convinces him that his wife created a conspiracy against him. Things got out of hand causing them to sleep in seperate areas and forces Jung Chang’s father’s mental and physical health to deteriorate (which later, his health imporved). Next more denunciation meetings hold misery for the parents.
Chapter 21 discusses some of the events that occured within her family. (her siblings) For example, Xiao-hei’s becomes a member of a gang and Jin-ming’s “black market” book experience. Along with these events being told, she tells of people drawing lines between their enemies and friends, sometimes causing friends to betray each other. Luckily her friends did not tell on Jung Chang which relates back to the title of the chapter, “Giving Charcoal in the Snow”, that refers to helping out others when needed. Also in this chapter, Jung Chang experiences her first time in a university.
Within this chapter, Mao institutes the idea of “thought reform through labor”. The intentions of this quote made Communists all around China to go to the countryside and work alongside the peasants (Jung Chang was sent to Ningnan). Mao said that it would make the Communists closer to China. Sadly, at the end of the chapter, the friend’s of Jung Chang pronounced her grandmother dead.
To summarize this chapter, Jung Chang pursues her career as a “barefoot doctor”. Mao defined barefoot doctor’s as doctors that could be turned out en masse. However, before she became a barefoot doctor she was relocated to another peasant village, Deyang, where she learns of what happened to China before the Cultural Revolution.
With her entire family on the mission of completing “thought reform through labor”, Jung Chang decides to visit her parents who can be found in separate locations. Her mother in Buffalo Boy Flatland and her father in a labor camp. While visiting her father, she tries to cheer him up by keeping him company. Eventually other family members come visit which allowed her father to not suffer from suicidal thoughts and whatnot. In the end, Jung Chang’s father apologizes to Jin-ming, her brother, about their current situation and past events.
In this chapter, Jung Chang takes her career in being an electrician. In her factory, she meets Day and eventually they both fall in love. However, it becomes shortlived because of their different social status’. In the end, Jung Chang’s father dies and she enrolls into an english university.
Education in China becomes less stressed, however those who had connections with officials became legible to enter universities, through the process which later became known as using the ”back door”. Teachings elements became based on Mao as well as military tactics and defending the country.
This chapter gives rise to the death of Jung Chang’s father. Her father died due to a heart attack which a doctor refused to see immediately. In his honor, an elaborate funeral was held for Jung Chang’s father. After the funeral, Jung Chang’s school decides to go on a field trip to the Chinese port, Zhanjiang, where the students could practice their English with the incoming and outgoing sailors. At the end of the chapter, Jung Chang’s Party secretary announces the death of Chairman Mao.
After the death of Mao, the Chinese become a bit confused on what they should do. The idea of studying in the West became very prominent, as the government handed out scholarships for those wanting to go to the West. The story ends as Jung Chang traveled to the West in search of broadening her horizons and experiencing more freedom.