I sometimes like to pair books. Sometimes the link is loose, and it’s more like I’m following rabbit trails. Other times the pairing is more deliberate and thematic.
This time it was China that linked my books: Oracle Bones and Wild Swans. I read Oracle Bones first, having had the impression that it would cover the history of modern China and give me a structure on which to pin the memoir. It turns out I should probably have read them in the opposite order, Oracle Bones dealing with very, very modern China for the most part. At first, the rather random, floating structure of Oracle Bones frustrated me. But as Hessler wrote about the Chinese people he encountered, about how their sense of self seemed to come as a series of short stories rather than a long narrative, about how they felt like things just happened to them and there weren’t necessarily reasons for the events or for their reactions, the structure of the storytelling became clear. By mimicking that feeling of ‘things just happen’, Hessler gives us a sense of experiencing a life narrative that way.
What an extraordinary trio of lives these three women lived. The grandmother: concubine to a warlord, one of the last women with bound feet. The mother: a Communist from the beginning of the movement, swept into a world where her ideals had little to do with the bureaucracy. The daughter: a teen during the Cultural Revolution, torn by the irrationality and instability of her world.
I’m very glad I read this; I am left wishing I enjoyed reading it more. I often couldn’t put it down once I’d picked it up, but then also had a hard time picking it up again.
Perhaps it’s my baggage with the concept of memoir that tripped me up a bit; expectations do have a profound effect on my reading experiences. I went into this expecting more of a story, a narrative. Instead I felt awash in a storm of names. The details about what a day was like, what someone felt, or how things pieced together were missing. Wild Swans often seemed to be a recounting of facts lacking connecting threads of emotion and meaning. A sort of listing of events rather than a narrative. I believe that with history so prone to editing and re-editing under the Communist, Chang likely felt that it was important to be as specific as possible, as real and true as possible. There is a sense that this is a document produced for others to use.
That said, I learned a lot reading this book. It can be summed up as follows: China was a land full of craziness, cruelty, hardheartedness, and hunger. It is telling that I best understand people’s actions during the Grandmother’s time of the chaos and warfare under the warlords. At least during this point in the history, actions were fairly clearly related to greed and power-seeking.
After this period, the actions of the Japanese, the Chinese, the Communists…all devolve into crazy, crazy, crazy. I was stunned by the lack of rationality and compassion in China’s history again and again. I kept looking up from the book, saying to my husband, “This is crazy.”
The most valuable understanding it brought me was a sense of what indoctrination by such a system does to the heart and mind – the way the mind learns to deal with contradiction, the way questioning ends, the way that playacting on the outside can creep inside. Jung Chang’s journey to question the system is so revealing. Her breakthroughs are such tiny pieces of logic; their smallness reveals how thoroughly her mind had been saturated with a stew of indoctrination and how compartmentalizing experiences and ideas can stunt thought.
A few quotes:
“As I child I had always shied away from collective activity. Now, at fourteen, I felt even more averse to it. I suppressed this dread because of the constant sense of guilt I had come to feel, through my education, when I was out of step with Mao. I kept telling myself that I must train my thoughts according to the new revolutionary theories and practices. If there was anything I did not understand, I must reform myself and adapt.”
“I realized then that when people are happy they become kind.”