Bestselling author Jung Chang has earned a name for herself as a leading voice on Chinese history. With several internationally lauded books under her belt, the 65-year-old author of Wild Swans and Mao: The Unknown Story shows no sign of slowing down. This month she will be visiting Hong Kong to research her latest project, a book investigating the lives and legacies of revolutionary figure Sun Yat-sen and the powerful Soong sisters.
Their stories are woven into the fabric of the Fragrant Harbour. Sun is a particularly meaningful character for Hongkongers, having received his primary and secondary education here. The city served as a cradle for his revolutionary thoughts and dissenting ideas, which dramatically altered China’s history. The Soong sisters married into power and are hugely significant influential characters in the course of China’s history.
The three sisters were born into a rich Shanghainese family and were educated at Wesleyan College in the United States. Their three brothers were high ranking officials in the Republic of China. The eldest sister, Ai-ling, married H.H. Kung, a banker and economist who played an influential role in determining China’s economic policy in the 1930s and 40s, operating within the Kuomintang-led nationalist government.
The two other sisters joined their names to even more prominent figures. Middle sister Ching-ling married Sun Yat-sen in 1915. The tumultuous years of Chinese politics saw her break with her own family and the Kuomintang to join the Communist Party, ascending to political heights that saw her serve as vice president after 1949, when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. Her little sister, Mei-ling, married Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, and played an instrumental role as the First Lady of modern China, later fleeing to Taiwan with her husband after the KMT defeat in 1949.
Sun, whose family was wealthy and influential, was devoted to overthrowing the Qing dynasty, while propagating democratic ideals that included enabling social mobility though education for all. He believed in establishing a free trade economy while espousing political theory that offered a nationalistic blueprint for how China might be run without the bloody chaos wrought by warlords and unfettered by the grips of the crumbling Qing dynasty. Chiang was at one point anointed Sun’s successor, however the mercurial and bloody unfolding of history eventually forced Chiang to flee the version of modern China he and Sun had once so fervently envisioned.
Sun is considered a hero throughout China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a student in Changsha, Mao was inspired by Sun’s revolutionary sentiment and calls for republicanism, reading articles in Sun’s newspaper The People’s Independence (Min Li Bao), that sparked his lifelong political zeal.
Sun’s story has become a thing of legend – but it is a story that was rendered problematic by the course of Chinese history. When Sun died in 1925, the Guangzhou-based KMT passed into the hands of Chiang. Meanwhile, the Communist Party was founded in Shanghai in 1921, and Mao established a Changsha branch soon after, gradually rising through the ranks. Both parties joined forces in the 1920s in an effort to bring about a “nationalist revolution,” but this union soon splintered and dissolved into a bloody civil war.
In the midst of civil war, Japan invaded China, and chaos reigned for decades amid peasant uprisings, endless power grabs, and an increasingly militant anti-bourgeois rhetoric propagated by Mao, which foreshadowing the role he would later play in overturning centuries of Chinese culture, and destroying the lives of millions of people branded “counter-revolutionary”.
Chang argues in her works that a huge ingredient in Mao’s rise was his conniving streak and monumental egoism. She argues that he was an instinctively vindictive and hypocritical figure in Mao, an 832-page book that is a gripping read despite its length. Chang worked on the book for 12 years alongside her husband, Irish historian Jon Halliday, mining through newly released archives in China and Russia while interviewing over one hundred sources who had known or had had encounters with Zedong.
Published in 2005, the book was lauded by newspapers in America and Europe, but there were criticisms raised by sinologists who questioned the veracity of Chang and Halliday’s sources and conclusions. Some say the book plays too eagerly into the West’s narrative of Chinese communism being inherently bad and brutal, and they accuse Chang of demonising a controversial figure to outlandish proportions, which weakens the genuine queries she raises about his legacy. They argue that the text is too speculative, dramatic and dubiously sourced. Others argue that the text, though trenchant, offers a fair, well researched and extremely moving analysis of a ruinous individual.
Chang is quick to counter the perception that the work is too speculative. “We combed through hundreds of archives. There was no imagination involved in this project,” she says. “All my works consist of the same aim – I want to restore historical truth. I use archive documents from interviews and I construct my own picture of the subject. My findings are often very different from received wisdom, but nothing is imagined. A historian must always stick to the facts.”
After Mao, Chang next work was met with equal degrees of contention and acclaim. Empress Dowager Cixi reframes the received narrative around the controversial woman who led China between 1861 and 1908. Where Cixi is often “conceived of as either tyrannical and vicious, or hopelessly incompetent — or both,” writes Chang, she thinks that picture is too reductive. She paints the empress in a far more generous light, as pragmatic and ambitious, but with also vindictive and committed to self preservation. “I feel I brought justice to this woman,” says Chang.
While Chang might be a provocative historian, as an interviewee she is rather charming, if somewhat coy about her latest project. Admittedly, she says that’s because she prefers to maintain an open mind as she works on her books, trying to avoid coming to conclusions too soon. “I don’t know how my book will turn out,” she says. “I never do.”
Chang rose to fame after writing Wild Swans, a memoir binding together the experiences of Chang’s own early life in China with that of her mother and grandmother. Published in 1991, it ignited in many readers a lifelong fascination with the complex and deeply chequered country. For many, Chang’s beautiful prose helped bring clarity to murky, confusing and seemingly distant moments of history.
The enduring lyricism of Wild Swans, combined with its harrowing, incisive accounts of the lives of three women that span the last century of Chinese history, has helped it sell more than 10 million copies. Chang’s significance is such that it is rare to come across any well read, internationally engaged person outside China who has not heard of her. Her works are banned within mainland China, but that does not mean that they haven’t had their impact among certain circles.
For Chang, putting her and her family’s story to paper was as painful as it was cathartic. Chang lived through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, which took place between 1966 and 1976, later leaving China to study in Britain on a government scholarship, where she has remained ever since. “I was writing that book in my head while I was still in China,” she says. When she finally started working on it in the UK, it dug up many traumatic memories. “My father’s death was very painful [to write about],” she says.
As Wild Swans recounts, Chang chose to become a Red Guard at 14, adopting the ideology with a fervour shared by many of her peers. She explains these feelings in a way that offer true insight into how propaganda plays on young minds desperate to belong to something meaningful.
When Chang’s parents were denounced after her father criticised Mao publicly for the failures of the Great Leap Forward, Chang was forced to realise that the ideology she had fallen in love with would be used to destroy her family. Her parents were publicly humiliated, imprisoned, and their careers destroyed. Chang’s father never recovered, dying as a result of the mental and physical suffering he endured.
But Chang is also quick to note that in writing down her story, she found a way move past the pain and come to a place of acceptance. This is a feeling shared by many memoirists who grapple with difficult personal stories: writing about painful events can make living with them easier than for those who suppress and who do not have the opportunities or emotional space to tell their story. “There are many people who suppress their memories, and then when it comes up they get agitated. And they can’t talk about [their anguish],” she says.
Work is very much her life, but that does not mean Chang does not make time for life’s simpler pleasure. In her home in London, where she enjoys spending time with her husband and occasionally has friends over for dinner, she is particularly fond of the lemons she has grown on her balcony – a horticultural feat of which she is rather proud.
Chang is now looking forward to sinking her teeth into the new discoveries that will come with visiting Sun Yat-sen’s Hong Kong. The visit will be a rare one – she is only allowed to visit the mainland for a few weeks a year to see her ailing mother. It’s a situation that is not ideal, though Chang is glad that she at least has that time with her. Of China’s future she remains uncertain, but she says that it’s important to never lose hope.
Jung Chang will speak at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on November 8 and 9, 2017. The sessions are sold out but a waitlist is available. Click here for more information.