Jung Chang: Shining a light on the east

JUNG CHANG set the literary world alight with her electrifying debut, Wild Swans, a family memoir of three generations of Chinese women. It was released in 1991 and sold 13m copies, becoming the highest selling non-fiction paperback ever.

Chang will be at the Hay Festival Kells in Co Meath this weekend to talk about her latest book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. It tells the fascinating story of Cixi, a semi-literate concubine who ruled China behind the scenes from 1861 to 1908. As with Wild Swans, it shines a light on an aspect of Chinese history that is little-known in the West.

“She’s well-known in China, and people have an obsession with her — there are endless TV series and films about her, and they all paint her as a diehard conservative and an evil despot. For me, the book was to right the wrongs, the injustices about her,” says Chang.

Empress Dowager was ruthless (she poisoned her own stepson), but Chang came to admire her.

“Growing up in China her name was constantly brought up in books, and so on. It was always negative. The first time I was struck by a different image (of her) was more than 20 years ago, when researching Wild Swans. My grandmother had her feet bound and I had always assumed foot-binding was banned by the communists, because I’d had a communist education. But I discovered that foot-binding had actually been banned by the Empress Dowager. That was so different from her usual image and I was struck by that,” she says.

“Years went by, and then I was researching my biography of Mao. I was astonished to realise China opened its doors, and started the reforms that led to modernity, after 1861, the year that she launched the coup and made herself the real ruler of China.

“Also, I was struck by the kind of freedoms and opportunities enjoyed by the young Mao — he was born in 1893 and grew up under the Empress Dowager and her legacy. As a peasant, he was able to get scholarships easily for school and college, and to travel abroad, or around the country with his girlfriends and check into hotels as husband and wife. There was also a free press — all these freedoms and opportunities I couldn’t dream of, growing up in China when he was ruler.”

The English version of Empress Dowager Cixi is banned in China, where censorship is still routine. “Social media is under tight control and China has a vast army of censors deleting everything they don’t want people to see. The control now is tighter than, probably, since Mao’s death. My previous two books are banned,” Chang says.

In 1978, she was among the first students allowed to leave China. She studied in Britain, where she has lived since. She considers it an honour to inform Western readers about Chinese history.

“I know the society and culture really well, and feel I’m qualified to write about it. I live in the West and love my life here — I understand a little about Chinese culture and if my books play that role of bridging the culture, that’s wonderful.”

Chang’s mother is 83 and still lives in Chengdu city. “I was there last year. I am allowed to go and see her for up to two weeks a year. It is hard. I can also speak to her every day, but it’s different to being there, particularly if she is ill. Then, I get very anxious. I really wish I had the freedom to see her. She’s really a tower of strength for me, even though she’s frail. She has never been a burden in any way. She never asks me to mince my words on her account.”

How does Chang feel about China’s evolution as a globalised society? “My feelings are torn — on the one hand, great changes have taken place and the lives of so many people have become better. The numbers of people travelling abroad make me very happy, because when I was in China you felt suffocated. I also feel very frustrated that, together with that openness, in the core area, the communist party’s rule, that monopoly gets tighter precisely because there are more freedoms in other areas.”

Her book on Cixi was six years in the making, but for Chang, the process was far from laborious. “Doing research is a joy, it’s totally absorbing and you forget all your worries. I also enjoy doing the detective work.”

Wild Swans took a comparatively short two years. “The memories were fresh — 10 years after I left China, I could just sit there and write whatever pages a day. They came straight out of my mind.”

Chang’s husband, the historian Jon Halliday, with whom she wrote the biography of Mao, was born in Dublin and grew up in Dundalk, and she is no stranger to these shores. “I’ve been here many times,” Chang says. “I love Ireland — I don’t think there is a sky more beautiful than an Irish sky, and the clouds, ever-changing clouds.”

Chang’s mother has also been to Ireland. “It was in the ’90s, and we went to Galway and travelled around. My mother was mesmerised by Ireland — it was in Dublin she first realised that Wild Swans was taken to heart by people because we were giving a talk in a bookshop and she saw the queue of people in the rain, around the building, and she was ecstatic.”

- Jung Chang will read at the Hay Festival on Saturday at 3.30pm


FOLLOWING a hugely successful inaugural event last year, the Hay Festival returns to the Co Meath town of Kells this weekend. Highlights include British broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, who will discuss his latest book Great Britain’s Great War; Louis de Berniére, author of the bestseller Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Irish writers Joseph O’Connor, Donal Ryan and Gerry Stembridge discussing their work.

There will also be a Deirdre Kinahan stage adaptation of two of Mary Lavin’s short stories, ‘Happiness’ and ‘In the Middle of the Fields’. Anthony Summers, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden talks to Myles Dungan about his research into the assassination of JFK. For younger readers, Limerick-based author Darren Shan, discusses horror and fantasy writing.



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