The history we wouldn’t want to live through is generally the history we do want to read about — or as the old Chinese curse goes: ”May you live in interesting times.” In this sense, no country is more interesting in our excruciatingly interesting century than China. Beginning with its ancient empire and customs largely intact — much as if the Roman Empire or the Egyptian pharaohs had survived into our times — it experienced the fall of the last emperor, feuding feudal warlords, Japanese invasion, civil war, Communist regimentation, and the national psychosis known as the Cultural Revolution. By telling the story of three spirited women — her grandmother, her mother, and herself — in Wild Swans, Jung Chang, who was born in Sichuan Province in 1952 and has lived in England since 1978, gives us this history as it careens through everyday life.

Beneath its old ceremonial surface and new ideological one, China has run on intrigue. In a crowded and rigidly hierarchical society, position is everything, and just as concubine schemed against concubine and mandarin against mandarin, Communist schemes against Communist. Intrigue isn’t conducive to human happiness, but it makes for good stories. Chang’s grandmother, Yu-fang, became a concubine because her father, a minor police official, arranged to have a visiting warlord get a glimpse of her in a Buddhist temple. Yu-fang was 15 at the time and beautiful. The warlord spent three days and nights with her and disappeared for six years without explanation. After his next visit, she had a baby (Chang’s mother). Soon Yu- fang and baby were summoned to the warlord’s fortresslike mansion, where he lay dying, and she was subject to the sneers and schemes of his wife and the other concubines. After some scheming of her own, she and the baby made a daring midnight escape on horseback.

The book loses some of its momentum while describing the consolidation of the Maoist state in the 1950s, but the part devoted to the Cultural Revolution (1965-76) is harrowing and moving. With its abject cult of Mao, the movement turned into a religious-sadistic frenzy, but for Mao, his wife, and other instigators it was mainly a matter of settling scores and trashing those aspects of Chinese culture they didn’t understand — a matter of envy and intrigue. This was a regime that took seriously the idea that the personal is the political. Everything of value in private life — family, heirlooms, books, trust, sex, humor-was devastated.

Chang’s father was driven temporarily insane by persecution and, broken in health and spirit, died young. Her mother, who had risked her life as a teenager in the Communist underground, was sent to labor camps. Schoolmates were driven to suicide. Chang had her own ordeals (graphically described) in squalid rural communes. Yet she kept a keenly felt appreciation of nature, that traditional Chinese refuge from politics. She and millions of others bent but didn’t break; humor, loyalty, curiosity about art, science, and forbidden foreign cultures furtively survived. The book is especially moving when, learning to read English, she discovers another world through library books overlooked by politically correct thugs. Perhaps we read about the darkest episodes of history because they finally bring out what they seem devoted to destroying: individual courage, imagination, and persistence. A-

Wild Swans
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