Wild Swans, the novel published in 1991, traverses an incredibly wide array of detail in the telling of the lives for four generations of women in China. Written by Jung Chang, it is a narrative recording of her family's history on her mother's side and gives detailed credence to the cultural underpinnings of the time belonging to each woman.
Chang begins with her great-grandmother, who came from a family of tanners and who was married, at the age of twenty to a boy six years younger. She was named, "Number Two Girl," which was a normal type of name for millions of Chinese girls at the time.
Young females from non-wealthy nor intellectual families were simply not given names. Number Two Girl was expected to raise her husband who was an only son and the family's treasure. His was a family of felt-makers, whose women sacrificed their eyes and overall health by taking in extra sewing for local tailors and dressmakers, working late into the night they would turn their oil lamps down to the minimum.
But, he did go to a good school and passed examinations to become a Mandarin, which was a type of government official. For, "Without power or money, no Chinese could feel safe from the depredations of officialdom or random violence. There had never been a proper legal system. Justice was arbitrary and cruelty was both institutionalized and capricious. An official with power was the law. Becoming a mandarin was the only way a child of a non-noble family could escape this cycle of injustice and fear."
His first child came when he was 15 years old, as Chang's grandmother was born, "on the fifth day of the fifth moon, in early summer 1909." The baby was given a step up in the world as she "was actually given a name," which was Yu-Fang. Yu was the generational name throughout China and it means, jade. Fang was the independent part of her name and it means, fragrant flowers.
Yu-Fang was a child in a precarious world, without centralized government and encroaching Japanese powers in Manchuria. She was also to become among the last of women throughout China to have her feet bound. Her older sister escaped the torment, that she suffered as her feet were broken with blocks when she was two and wrapped to form, "three-inch golden lilies," that were considered ideal for women who were to be respected in society.
Perhaps the look of a tottering lady brought a sort of allure to withhold any male watchers, but the reality was also that their broken feet would try to regrow at any chance once unwrapped and so had to remain restrained constantly in order to keep the effect. They also stank once uncovered as the toenails would grow into the sole and the unnatural morphing of the flesh would cause the foot to rot. The mother-in-law of a young bride would often lift up the edges of a dress to see the young woman's feet, and if they were more than about four inches, she would throw down the skirt in obvious scorn and leave, so that the bride would be left to face the contempt of guests and their mean spirited muttering amongst each other.
Despite the pain she suffered, Yu-Fang consistently retained a good nature throughout her life and she was a beauty. "She had an oval face, with rosy cheeks and lustrous skin. Her long, shiny black hair was woven into a thick plait reaching down to her waist. She could be demure when the occasion demanded, which was most of the time, but underneath her composed exterior she was bursting with suppressed energy. She was petite, about five feet three inches, with a slender figure and sloping shoulders, which were considered the ideal."
Her beauty was also considered a main asset by her father, who nearly bankrupted himself orchestrating meetings between his daughter and a warlord general. But his bet paid off as the general was quite taken by the elegance of the rural girl and asked her father to have her as his concubine which included an elaborate wedding ceremony and gifts for the bride's family that would enable the father to take concubines for himself, which he had wanted for a long time.
For Yu-Fang, suicide would be the only way to say: no. The wedding was held, with great ceremony for the whole village to see. She tried to love her husband though she knew she was not his only wife. He stayed with her for a short while and she played music for him and massaged his feet. Though, he left not many weeks after their wedding, but not without telling her a tale of what happened to one of his concubines who cheated on him. She was bound and gagged, then raw alcohol was soaked into the cloth that was stuck in her mouth so that she slowly choked to death. Her lover was merely and mercifully shot.
He came back six years after he left and upon their second union Chang's mother was conceived. The world of feudal finery was soon to be lost to the stark ravages of communism after the Kuomintang lost power. Both of Chang's parents were high communist officials but this did not mean they were not to suffer incredibly under the veil of Mao, who lead the country in a truly bizarre form of mass delusion. The wide spread financial system turned from one based on agriculture and essentially tribal exchanges of wealth that trickled down throughout the classes, to a vastly implemented command economy with nonsensical outputs.
Under Mao, the entirety of China was supposed to be this miracle country all the time. Crops were planted from one field to another, to produce doubled and tripled, "miracle harvests" to show to officials so that there would not be negative repercussions for the working peasants. Though the transplanted crop would die fairly quickly as did millions of people throughout the vast nation, from starvation and over-work related illnesses. There was no clean medical system for decades and medicines were in constantly short supply.
The grandmother, Yu-Fang, had all but a few pieces of her jewelry stolen because it, according to officials, belonged to the people. And when she grew sick and her grandchildren took her to the hospital there was no method by which to diagnose her much less treat her. Her suffering was not unique.
Education was scorned and communism was a bullying system where people like Chang's mother, who were elegantly mannered and unusually well educated, were beaten down consistently for having more than other people. Instead of there being a system where every person has access to a reasonable quality of life, it was literally considered that all people were created equally and anyone with more owed everyone else.
Chang's father suffered considerably trying to protect his family under such unbelievably violent and ridiculous circumstances. Both her parents were unusually intelligent and fostered education within their children. Chang, herself after working a series of seemingly unrelated positions including being a sort of doctor (she was told to treat people after being given a single manual to read) and a peasant, eventually won a scholarship to study outside of China.
"I have made London my home. For ten years, I avoided thinking about the China I had left behind. Then in 1988, my mother came to England to visit me. For the first time, she told me the story of her life and that of my grandmother."
By Sarah Bahl
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