Never thought Mao’s biography would be an expose: Writer

New Delhi : Her book ripped the veil off Mao Zedong’s regime and was described as a “bombshell of a devastating work” by the British media. But the biography of China’s most well known personality is not the only one that has made writer Jung Chang famous.

London-based Chang is the co-author of “Mao: The Unknown Story” and also the generational saga, “Wild Swans: The Three Daughters of China”.

“When I started the biography, I did not know it was going to be an expose,” 59-year-old Chang, who was in India last week to address a literary discourse, told IANS in a chat.

She discovered free expression with the biography of Mao Zedong – a book she co-authored with her British historian husband Jon Halliday after a 12-year research. The book was published in Britain in 2005.

The author remembered seeing Mao briefly when she was 14.

“It was in 1966. I did not see him clearly and I was quite heartbroken. He had that will, singlemindedness and the ardour to succeed. But he was so awful,” Chang said.

She visited India with her husband over a decade ago to talk to former aides of first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru for Mao Zedong’s biography.

But it is her generational family epic that she loves to recount with passion. In a way Chang’s life represents the journey of the country and its women in the last 100 years.

“The Chinese woman has travelled a long way in the last century,” she said.

“Wild Swans…”, published in 1991, tells the story of her grandmother, a former concubine, her mother, a Communist party member, and her own life as one of the first lot of Chinese women to be educated in the West.

“The concubines of the past have been replaced by mistresses. The rich and the powerful in China have ‘kept women’,” Chang said.

She believes the condition of women in China is better today than it was 100 years ago.

“For 1,000 years, half of the Chinese women were subjected to cruel treatment and mutilation. Their feet were crushed, bound and stopped from growing. From the age of two, my grandmother lived in excruciating pain when her mother bound her feet,” she said.

Foot-binding was banned in the beginning of the 20th century, “but old habits die hard”, Chang said.

“My grandmother was the last generation of women whose feet were bound…This was why my mother became a Communist at 15,” Chang said.

“My grandfather, a war lord general, took my grandmother as a concubine…But she escaped and went back to her old home when she was 24 with a daughter. Her parents did not want her back,” she said.

“My grandmother soon fell in love with a Manchu doctor and married him,” the writer said.

Chang’s mother met her father, a fellow Communist, during the civil war in China. “They fell in love and married. But my father (persecuted by the Red Guards) died in the cultural revolution in 1975,” Chang said.

Born in Sichuan province, Chang was a Red Guard briefly at 14 and then a peasant, a barefoot doctor and an electrician before becoming a student of English language.

In 1978, she left China.

“I was one of the first group of 14 women to go to England to study. When I got my doctorate, I became the first Chinese woman to get a doctorate in English (in linguistics) from a British university,” she said.

“Although I did want to be a writer as a child – it was only after 10 years of my doctorate that I decided to write. My mother came to stay with me for six months,” said Chang.

The writer said her mother left behind hours of tape with stories about the family.
“And I started writing ‘Wild Swans…’,” she said.

The biographer is researching a new life: that of Dowager Empress Cixi, a 19th century concubine-queen, who ruled China for nearly 50 years.

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