Author Jung Chang sheds new light on Chinese history

AUTHOR Jung Chang talks to Alan Bett – the first winner of the Jan Fairley Award – about her biographies of two key figures in China’s history

Jung Chang. Picture: Contributed
Jung Chang. Picture: Contributed

Jung Chang is a glamorous 62 years of age, easily surpassing stars of the silver screen on the style front – unusual for a writer, living in the world of ideas over image. Today she is urbanely attired in a chic turquoise dress, luxurious hair bunched up in parts while luxuriously flowing in others, nails perfect, face ageless. She looks a product of the decadence and elegance of 20s Shanghai society rather than the solemn homogenisation of Mao era People’s Republic, where individualism and femininity were cut as uniformly as the regulated hair length. To sit across the table from her you might believe she’d lived a life of ease and privilege.

Jung’s writing began in Sichuan province in 1968. Some years before her father lost his sanity and eventually his life as a result of political persecution. Some years before her Mother was publically ridiculed and tortured at the hands of Red Guards; forced to kneel in broken glass, her arms strung painfully behind her. Poetry was so dangerous on paper that a frantic Jung threw her fledgling scribblings in the toilet when government officials hammered upon her door. Thought was the most dangerous contraband in the fevered chaos of the Cultural Revolution, when fervent youth were encouraged to criticise the old world in order to create the new “with Mao Zedong thought as a weapon.”

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“In those days in China writing poetry was an offence,” she states so matter-of-factly as the conversation begins. “You could only write propaganda poems in praise of Mao; it’s unimaginable now.” From that day she only composed and edited internally, her mind the sole safe parchment. She would use what she calls an ‘invisible pen’ while climbing electrical poles or nursing the sick, whatever mandatory role the regime set her. “They weren’t fully formed. Some were poetry in the classic Chinese form, very short. Some were sort of more outlines, narratives... If you can put it down on paper it’s much better, but otherwise your mind… when it has space you are writing there.” It’s a tradition of creativity under persecution which Bulgakov would well recognise, manuscripts hidden beneath floorboards or in the furthest corner of the mind.

Jung travelled to the UK during Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao political relaxation, one of the first in her country to earn such a scholarship. This new found freedom allowed the realisation of those long stifled dreams of becoming a published writer. Using hours upon hours of tapes recorded with her mother, Jung constructed the harrowing personal history of her debut Wild Swans – the tale of her Grandmother, Mother and herself, three daughters of China. The book went on to smash best selling records worldwide and make Chang a literary superstar, not something either woman had envisaged. “We weren’t thinking about these things. My mother, like many I believe, bottled up all these things inside her, she was dying to talk. I mean in China it was impossible for her to talk, even to me… In 1988 it was her first trip abroad and she was able to open her heart and her mind… so in a way she was giving me the materials to enable me to become a writer.”

Her most recent work is a vast biography of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) which both complements and contrasts with her earlier work, Mao: The Untold Story, revisionist treatments of two parents of modern China. While Cixi – long presented as an incompetent despot – is rehabilitated through Chang’s words, Mao has his very dirty washing hung out to dry. “They were all condemning [Cixi] as this tyrant, this hopeless woman, this diehard conservative who dragged China behind and was the cause of all China’s troubles so to speak.” Therefore Chang polishes her image, highlighting a progressive stance on Western relations and a liberal banning of the brutal practice of feet binding – although she did murder the young Emperor the day before her own death. “It’s not just the Communist party,” Chang suggests, revealing the tangled source of Cixi’s image. “Before that the Nationalists also gave her a very bad press. I think one reason was that three years after she died China became a republic and so the Republicans, Nationalists and Communists all wanted to say they had saved China from her.” She laughs. “…and the other thing was that because she was a woman; women rulers always have a bad press.”

The day before this conversation Jung took to the main stage at Edinburgh International Book Festival, adorned in extravagant embroidered silks from Cixi’s era. She was painted across the next day’s newspapers, as it’s easy to imagine she knew she would. It’s the tangible manifestation of a personality which seems to crave individualism, perhaps a reaction to those early years when it was banished. It’s possible to sense an element of harmless vanity, certainly not a spirit prepared to be unduly curtailed or ruled. So, for her biography of the Chairman, Chang’s personal suffering under his reign make her both a priceless primary source yet less than objective witness. Just as it would seem feeble to take issue with Solzhenitsyn – a man who survived the Soviet prison camps – for his vitriolic releases in The Gulag Archipelago, it’s impossible to feel qualified when questioning the position of somebody with the unenviable justification to state “…for example the famine, I of course experienced the famine, I wrote about the famine.” But the question of bias remains. Cixi, while ruling over similarly brutal times from behind a sheet of yellow gauze – yet unconnected to the Chang family’s immediate suffering – fares far better. It’s an accusation she is happy to tackle. “I think perhaps for some of the readers and reviewers of the books, my two biographies seem to be too personal. The thing is that’s my style, I’m incapable of writing an academic, emotionless, to me bland biography. I have to be involved, to know the character.”

While her interpretation may help to mould Western perceptions of Mao, China itself has never conducted a true and critical evaluation of his rule. The sun had hardly set on Stalin before Krushchev initiated his denunciation. Yet Mao’s spectre looms large in China to this day. Is this due partially to the shame of complicity for many who lived through the era? Chang herself was briefly a Red Guard, taking the popular pilgrimage to Tiananmen Square for a strained distant glimpse of Mao, the totem she was later to hollow. She may grudgingly accept an element of this claim but the full blame is clearly placed in a statement which makes Scotland’s recent sibling rivalry feel trivial. “Of course the main thing is the regime. It’s not as though there is a referendum about what we should examine now. It’s the leaders who made the decision. So we can only talk about what’s in their mind. People of course go along with it.” It’s a cult of personality long ingrained, still prevalent and highly visible. “The thing is that Mao, in China his portrait is still on Tiananmen, his corpse is still in the centre of Beijing, his face on every Chinese banknote. The current regime, this very one, is actually trying to rehabilitate him in a way that hasn’t happened since Mao’s death… It’s linked to their legitimacy.”