Wild Swans [Jung Chang]

So Wild Swans got a reprieve.  After failing to get passed page 416 last time, I discovered my mum had actually been reading it on her kindle, which I believe she actually loves more than anyone else in the family at the moment.

“I know you said you were going to read it on my kindle, but if you borrow it I can’t use it”

So mum bought be Wild Swans in paperback.
As I was already in the middle of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star I slotted Wild Swans into my bed time reading slot, and kept Theroux for the tube, it seemed apt.

So I carried on from where I left off, just as the horror of the cultural revolution was starting to sink in.  I can’t conceive that if this book had not been real, that someone could have made it up.

At first I thought Mao was loony, but slowly I realised he was actually quite clever, a Diabolical Genius in fact.  He controlled millions of people by constantly changing the rules and put himself above them in an almost God like status.  hmm, maybe not clever, Manipulative.  He as ably assisted my Mme Mao, who seemed to share his controlling vindictiveness, sharpened with the cunning and pettyness of an insecure woman.
As I read more the estimation fell further, he was driven, but remarkably short sighted.  Issueing orders and decrees that would either be mis-interpreted or taken to extremes that he would then have to ignore, as much as he could, the consequenses of.
His Machiavellian approach of removing anyone whose power could potentially threaten his own not only asserted his vice like grip on the country, but also kept the population constantly unbalanced, turning people from good revolutionaries one week, to capitalist roaders the next.

He also ordered the extermination of grass, which killed off my genius theory.  He was just diabolical.

“The more books you read, the more stupid you become” (Mao, June 26th 1965)

Mao’s fear and mistrust of what he didn’t know or hadn’t had was dangerous in the hands of someone with absolute power.  He tried to create a nation of peasants that would do his bidding, attacking each other as they bid to please him, while never challenging his authority.  Had he succeeded fully, it is difficult to see what his long term aim was, unless he somehow believed he would live forever, it’s hard to see what he wanted or thought would happen after his death.  In the end it was Mme Mao and the gang of four who goaded the masses into a leaving Mao’s era behind.

But to be fair concentrating on Mao would be missing the point of the book.  Jung Chang’s family are remarkable.  Her Grandmother seems to be around for hundreds of years, but barely makes it to her sixties.  Her mothers indomitable spirit is matched by her fathers rigid principles and Jung’s own realisations about how she feels about Mao, a constant in her life, despite coming slowly, offer bits of drifwood to cling to as you read, awash on a sea of incomprehension and horror.

It is while you are adrift on the waves of vindictiveness, denounciations, relentless suicides and indoctrination that kindess shown to Jung and her family are beacons of hope.  That while others will use any situation as a means to their own ends, the are still those who will retain their humanity and will stubbornly hold onto it, no matter the cost.

It is Jung’s father who perhaps travels the most in his life.  A firm believer in Mao and the party, his rigid principles push up a barrier between him and his entire family, that he himself eventually tears down as he is worn down by the Cultural Revolution, although, even though it caused him great pain, and perhaps to the credit of his character, he never fully relinquished his principles.  If her father travels the most it is Jung’s mother who is the home, the nest.  Virtually unsupported by her husband, it is her resourcefullness and Herculean strength that help the family when his principles threaten the well being or future of the children.

It is portrayed as a rarity in the book, but it is through the strong family bond that they survive as well as they do, and it was touching to read that it was Jung’s mother desire to talk about her life, that enabled Jung to write what is an incredible memoir on a closed world.

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