The significance and integrity of this first-hand account of the lives of three women in twentieth-century China—the author, her mother and grandmother—so vividly written and ambitious in scope, are beyond question.footnote The author, someone of my own age and background, was born in 1952 to a Communist family, and like myself became a Red Guard and was sent to the countryside for some years to work. I confess that I was on occasions moved to tears by the book—either out of feelings of empathy or as a result of unspeakably sad thoughts and emotions. And yet at times the author’s attitude jars, in a sense that strongly brought home to me the way in which each of us produces a determinate social meaning out of our own experience.

Jung Chang—or ‘Zhang Rong’ in the standard pinyin used by the author for many of her characters—offers a very moving and compelling family story. The affective power of the narrative derives from its close relation to the Chinese Revolution and its aftermath—or, rather, from the author’s skilful location of her story within the larger historical context of an emergent modern China. Her judgment on that momentous period of social upheaval and dislocation is thus informed essentially by the experiences of three generations of her family. Firstly, she evokes the pre-revolutionary world as her grandmother lived it: that of a backward and repressive traditional society under the rule of contending warlords. The grandmother was made a concubine to a warlord general and then cruelly neglected—though spared the harshness and the confusion that afflicted so many rural Chinese in the 1910s and 1920s. The author sketches in some detail the entirely justified and momentous, though nevertheless—in terms of its sacrifice of individuality—destructive, revolution led by the Communist Party, which was combined with the war of resistance against Japan, in which her parents were eager participants. She then recounts a confused post-revolutionary period, during which the family enjoyed considerable privileges (due to the father’s rank in the new hierarchy) and yet at once suffered suspicion (the mother was briefly detained) and even punishment (a friend was executed and a number of relatives were arrested for their Guomindang background). She grew up as the child of high officials, living in the special quarters set aside for the leading cadres in Sichuan Province where her father was deputy director of the Propaganda Department. She attended elite schools and was well provided for wherever she went. Later she suffered the ordeal of the Cultural Revolution, in which her parents were condemned as ‘capitalist roaders’: they were publicly criticized, beaten, and finally sent to quasi-labour camps, and the entire family pronounced guilty. The author herself was sent for some time to a mountain village where life was hard. Finally we read of the deliverance represented by the Deng era: not only reforms that brought prosperity and a degree of liberalization, but also the return of privileges. Nevertheless, Jung Chang remains bitterly disappointed, because for her, despite the privileges, the country had become so ugly under Mao that even the ‘liberator’ Deng was unable, for all his power, to put it right. Thus China became ‘a brutalized nation’, ‘a moral wasteland and a land of hatred’ (p. 496). She was therefore happy to escape.

The author’s ability to convey the lived reality of these experiences is certainly impressive, and there is no doubt that through her story we grasp something essential about the fate of China. The saga of her family, as it unfolds in a wealth of narrative detail, is not untypical. Indeed, despite having strong objections to certain of her interpretations of the period after the Cultural Revolution, and to some of the conclusions drawn, I am convinced that this family account, despite its obvious specificity, is representative of something shared, to some degree, by the Chinese people as a whole; and this has significant implications. We are indeed fortunate to have someone like Jung Chang, with the determination to write a family story that so strikingly illuminates our history. Notwithstanding these considerable qualities, however, there are, in my view, serious limitations to such an approach. She is, for instance, drawn to making generalizations on the basis of a somewhat restricted range of experience. Although her background has provided a privileged vantage point from which to survey the broad sweep of China’s history, it nevertheless at times places her at too great a remove from the perceptions and experience of China’s long-suffering but resilient and resourceful people, especially those in the countryside. She does not properly comprehend the popular hatred of corruption; or, rather, she too readily explains it away as mere envy. Similarly, she is generally uneasy about the disposition of the majority of her fellow citizens. She sees them as prone to manipulation by the Communist Party but attributes this too exclusively to fear.

For a time there existed a close relationship—‘fish and water’ as the old saying goes—between the Communists and the population at large. This was certainly the case during the three or four decades of bitterly fought struggles for class and national liberation, but also, to a great extent, during the first post-1949 decade of economic reconstruction. The Communist Party of China contained a large number of workers (one of whom was Jung’s father) and progressive intellectuals (like her mother), and even larger numbers of peasants. Indeed, the Party was originally part—indeed an advanced and worthy part—of the working people; only some considerable time subsequent to its seizure of power did it cut itself off from its natural constituency. The gradual degeneration of the revolution took the form of the ‘mechanizing’ or ‘instrumentalizing’ of Communists—transforming them into mere cogs within a great bureaucratic state machine. The new power insulated itself from any notion of popular control, and its voluntaristic attempts to reshape society exacted a grim toll. The growth of bureaucratic privilege could not be checked by the efforts of incorruptible individuals, such as Jung Chang’s father, to minimize their own material benefits, even though there were not a few Party officials who strived in vain throughout their lives to uphold the best revolutionary tradition of egalitarianism. In truth, there was virtually no organized resistance to that process of mechanization and bureaucratization. On the surface, however, the 1950s saw the Communists continuing to share joys and sorrows with the masses. In part this was because the scale of the purges unleashed in those unremitting political campaigns was so great that they affected a large proportion of all sectors, whether in or out of the Party; and yet it was also because the Party was still seen, not without reason, as the only force that could further lift China from poverty and backwardness, especially in the hostile international environment of the Cold War and, later, the Sino–Soviet split.

It was not until the early 1960s, as a consequence of Mao’s fatal decision to oppose the policy of ‘de-Stalinization’ led by Khrushchev—which was the real cause of the ‘anti-rightist’ turn of 1957 and the disastrous mistakes of the Great Leap Forward—that political and ideological control at home became severe and relentless. I remember in a campaign called ‘Self-Revolution’ in 1965 the absurdly detailed injunctions about how intently I and my fellow middle-school students were to scrutinize the whole of our lives—we were thirteen or fourteen years old—in order to discover how ignorant and culpable we were by ‘proletarian standards’. The ccp’s ‘anti-revisionist’ initiative, accompanied by the policy of upholding class struggle as the ‘key constituent’, further encouraged a profound social division, not so much between the Party and the people, as between the leaderships at all levels and the grass roots, the privileged and those discriminated against. There were ‘activists’ who had been willing, whether out of conviction or fear, to carry out the purging of others, Party members and non-members alike. The Cultural Revolution represented the explosion of these latent conflicts. It began with violent clashes between the powerful and the powerless, yet ended with consensus and solidarity, because the cost ultimately was too high—its victims ranging from heads of state and the army to all manner of ordinary people. Persecuted Communist cadres once again found themselves in common cause with a sympathetic populace.