When you read about other places, other times, and other people's lives it is easy to “take a trip and never leave the farm.” You can become absorbed in the experiences of historical times and gain a new understanding of what life was like for people in a world totally different from your own. My most recent time-traveling trip took me back to 1909 and through to 1978 in China while reading Jung Chang's memoir Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China. My friend Cheryl picked up this book on a bargain hunting shopping spree after the title caught her eye. She has a thirst for knowledge about exotic places around the world and having lived in Japan as a child, China has always been a curiosity of hers. Since this book has been on my endless reading bucket list for years I wanted to read it too, so over the next several weeks Cheryl became my "traveling companion" as we read and discussed Wild Swans together.
In the book, Chang shares stories of her years growing up in China during The Great Leap Forward and The Chinese Cultural Revolution, as well as memories of her mother and grandmother in terrible times with The Long March and life under Japanese rule. These stories took me through unbelievable living conditions and deplorable human treatment. It took tremendous courage and strength of endurance to live during those times. I was truly amazed by the bravery and love these women had for not just their family, but their country despite the extreme hardships that were faced.
Jung Chang tells that her lifelong dream of being a writer took years to achieve, because growing up in China during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s was a time when writers were persecuted, even executed. It was not until after the death of China's dictator, Mao Zedong in 1976 that an opportunity to study in London gave her the freedom to write. Even so, the memories of her past, of her mother's and her grandmother's lives were so painful that it wasn't until years later, after spending time with her mother and sharing family stories, that Chang was inspired to compile her family's history and her own experiences in the book Wild Swans. This book has sold over thirteen million copies worldwide and hailed as one of the most accurately detailed accounts of China's history during the reign of Mao. Chang's honest portrayal of her painful upbringing and the struggles of her country consequently led to the banning of Wild Swans in China. Her criticisms of China's government both past and present have put her on their blacklist.
Cheryl and I looked for a way to actually experience Chang's story as we read, and of course neither of us wanted to relive the days of communist rule. There really wasn't much to choose from when looking for ways to physically immerse ourselves in the book. Although we did recognize the descriptions of those years could be directly paralleled to Orwell's book, 1984. This surprised me, knowing that Orwell's book was a fictional story published before the height of the communist party takeover. The Chinese communist party was organized in 1949, only one year after 1984 was published. This makes me wonder if Mao and party leaders of China at that time read Orwell's book, and considered a regime similar to Big Brother's as the perfect way to maintain absolute power forever. For instance, you could not speak out against the party without being denounced, children were brought up as spies and encouraged to tell tales on their parents, and there were ( and still are) big posters of Mao, as there was of Big Brother, everywhere. One example that really disturbed me was when Mao encouraged criticism of government and when concerns where voiced, those in opposition were killed.
Despite the hard labor, starvation as a result of China's Great Famine … self-imposed by ludicrous agricultural practices, and brainwashing of an entire country, there were interesting customs and descriptions of magnificent scenery that intrigued us and offered some ways to relate and compare our lives with Jung Chang's. Cheryl's mother had memories of visiting Hong Kong with her husband during the 60s, although as Westerners they were shielded from the extremes mentioned in Wild Swans. We of course saw the correlation between “three daughters of China” and ourselves “three daughters of the Appalachian Mountains” as merely a generational comparison, but Chang's written visual of rural China's mountains and beautiful landscapes makes us want to sometime visit the country ourselves. During the Great Leap Forward, there was a movement to gather steel and make China industrially superior to other countries. Doorknobs, tools, cooking woks, any scrap of metal to be found were melted down in backyard steel furnaces. Although this in reality can now be referred to as a “great leap backward” and was another catalyst toward the Great Famine of China. Still I was reminded of scrap metal drives on the home front during World War II. Our own country did promote Victory Gardens during war times, but under a democracy rather than a dictatorship, and life in Western Civilization at that time was considerably more advanced than China's.
During the Cultural Revolution, Madame Mao was the honorary artistic director of the Bejing Dance Academy and she enforced that all ballets perform dances that project political party values. Chang gave reference to Li Cunxin, Mao's “last dancer,” who defected to America to join the Houston Ballet and became a renowned success. Cheryl and I watched a movie about Li Cunxin's life and this of course highlighted many of the hardships we read about in Chang's book. It is another story of incredible courage and strength. One I highly recommend.
The ultimate experience surrounding our discussions about Wild Swans, took place on June 9, 2017, Cheryl's mother's eighty-ninth birthday. Her birthday happened to fall on the rise of the “strawberry moon,” and we had read about how in China a full moon was a cause of celebration, a time when special round foods were eaten. With this in mind, we planned a full moon birthday celebration for Cheryl's mom. We cooked potstickers, egg rolls, jasmine rice and Mapo, a dish meaning “pockmarked grandma,” named for the texture and look of its prime ingredient, tofu. Of course we had round melons, watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew. Coincidentally, a magazine arrived in the mail that day with a cover story featuring watermelons, entitled “Melon Mania.” This delicious meal was accompanied with hot tea, fortune cookies, and 7 Moon red wine. On uncorking this serendipitous wine, so complimentary to the state of our moon, we discovered that it had a fortune cork! “Take stock of your accomplishments, have pride in them too.” Another fortune from one of the cookies, “A clever crow always paints its feathers black,” unknown to us at the time, foreshadowed a visit from Revonda Crow, a local storyteller! Since all birthday parties need a cake and candles, we ended our meal with a round raspberry fudge brownie and a special musical lotus candle, made in China of course.
As mentioned Revonda Crow, happened to connect with us after sharing our full moon party adventure with her in casual conversation the following week. Revonda is a wonderful storyteller and as it turns out had spent time in China studying abroad during her college years. Since Cheryl and I had planned a final discussion to further debrief on our experiences related to Wild Swans, we invited Revonda to join us and share stories of her time in China. She enlightened us further with stories of modern China and brought along show-and-tell photo albums, Chinese money, and a peasant wedding dress. Adding to our hands-on education, Cheryl shared a Chinese fireman's coat, and a special bamboo hat worn by rice paddy workers. And I brought a silk embroidered Chinese jacket, found while on my own bargain hunting expedition. I wondered if Cheryl's fireman's coat was ever worn to a book burning event by a proletarian. We all agreed that China is a country we would have to plan on for a future visit.
Above all the persecution experienced by Jung Chang and her family, Cheryl noted that love for family and the indestructible capacity to survive in pursuit of happiness was a primary importance to the Chinese. I feel this to be a universal motivation for us too and reinforces the value of freedom we cherish in our country. Freedom should be a birthright to all human beings, no matter where they live, and it is so unfortunate that in some countries today this is not the case.