The Books That Have Made Me
Certain books have the capacity to ask questions, others aim at providing answers. And then there are books that just open themselves whimsically to us, delivering their content in ways we are not used to.
Wild Swans is one of those books.
Written by a Chinese woman, Jung Chang, the book traces the history of that Asian nation in the twentieth century through the eyes of three generations of Chinese women: Jung’s grandmother, mother and Jung herself.
From the time when concubines were still a commodity down to Mao’s last years, Wild Swans is not just a memoir, but also a literary documentary with even a photographic feel to it. Jung Chang’s descriptions of the Chinese countryside lend the book a sense of infinity and vastness. The sheer size of the land serves as a background for all the political and economic battles that roll out in the fifty-odd years the memoir covers.
As the empire is overthrown in 1911, there follows a succession of events culminating in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This is a watershed in Chinese history, one in which the people had very little say and direct influence, yet bore the brunt of the fallout.
Needless to say it is the section that covers Mao’s years where my attention focused the most. The reasons stemmed from a desire to know more about an event whose significance was hardly ever discussed in Cuba when I was younger.
Wild Swans was a reminder of a bigger truth. When it comes to people’s oppression, it doesn’t matter if we’re dealing with a socialist, fascist or theocratic state. One of the most telling moments in the book is when Jung Chang, still a firm believer in Mao Zedong’s policies, wonders how it is possible to whip up the frenzy that most of her compatriots seem to suffer from and that leads them to carry out violent acts. What is it that turns normal, law-abiding citizens into beasts whose thirst for blood overcomes even the minutest sense of respect for fellow human beings?
My answer might be deemed cynical, but alas, it’s the only one at hand. We already have those traits and provided the puppeteer is capable enough, they’ll be able to trigger off a series of emotions and feelings that will act as a catalyst for us to carry out these hideous deeds. That will irremediably lead to chaos and destruction. Recent events support my theory. Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Rwanda are three good examples. The situation is probably all the more despondent if the main colluding element is the state, the one body in charge of protecting us.
According to Jung Chang, Mao Zedong did not have a secret police, Stasi-, or KBG-style. He did not need to. His own people acted as both aggressor and defender at the same time. This fact reminded me of a comment made by Milan Kundera in his novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. On referring to the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, when Soviet tanks rolled into the Prague to quell an uprising, the author says:
‘Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they executed many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.’
There is no doubt that Mao was a murderer. Whether he knew what was happening in China or not (the excuse that some apologists and revisionists like to hang on to) under his mandate, the truth is that many innocent people died as a result of his narrow-minded and totalitarian attitude. But what about those who helped him? Let’s go back to Kundera:
‘Whether they knew or not is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?’
And now let’s read Jung Chang’s comment on Mao’s ‘success’ as a leader:
‘He was, it seemed to me, a really restless fight promoter by nature, and good at it. He understood ugly human instincts such as envy and resentment, and knew how to mobilise them for his ends. He ruled by getting people to hate each other. In doing so, he got ordinary Chinese to carry out any of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by professional elites. Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship.’
From which my conclusion is, in the making of a dictator we all collude. Some, more passively than others, but we are all in it together. And no, this is not a pleasant thought.
Wild Swans brought to mind what happens when we all become bricks of the same wall. Our solid surface provides the façade against which everyone crashes. And those who crash today will probably be bricks tomorrow.
The ending of Wild Swans serves as a reminder that sometimes happiness is found elsewhere, even if one is separated from one’s country of birth. Jung Chang has resided in the UK since 1978.
Emotion-arousing and tragedy-evoking, Wild Swans is that rare combination of despair and delight. An intelligent book about a dark subject.
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