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
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
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.
The long-standing contradictions within society quietly accumulated and intensified as the reform process gathered pace, leading in 1989 to the bloody crushing of protests against widespread corruption and the rotting system—what social scientists term the growth of ‘bureaucratic
Jung Chang’s chapters on the pre-revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary period, bearing pointed titles such as ‘Daughter for Sale for 10 Kilos of Rice: In Battle for a New China’ concerning the Guomindang period, and ‘Capable Women Can Make a Meal without Food: Famine’ referring to the ‘Great Leap Forward’, are well-written and convincing. But she has difficulty in comprehending the changes in her own day. As I have said, her story is essentially that of a privileged stratum of ‘high officials’ and their families. Her consequent failure to perceive the virtues of ordinary Chinese people leads her to an attitude of condescension towards the vast majority of her compatriots. She disparages, in turn, her Chinese education, despite the fact that it has led to a profession as a university teacher. But it is to Jung Chang’s credit that the reader can also glean from her vivid narrative a more positive view. A case in point is when she tells us of a discussion among the members of her work team on who should be chosen to pursue further education—in a touching gesture a younger candidate allows Jung Chang to go ahead of her (p. 455).