"At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general ..." is the first line of this book about three generations of remarkable women. The grandmother had bound feet and was born before the last emperor was toppled. Shortly after her daughter, the narrator's mother, is born she realises that the warlord is dying; this means that the warlord's wife will have sole possession of her and she might be sold into a brothel. So she engineers her escape, fleeing on horseback with her baby. Back in her home town she meets an old Chinese medicine doctor who falls in love with her and determines to marry her even though his three sons and their wives demand that he should not (the eldest even commits suicide). They marry and move town becoming poor and living by a sewer. But slowly his practice improves and they get richer and move into a nice house. The narrator's mother is growing up a remarkably determined and intelligent young lady, showing all the spirit of her warlord father and her concubine mother and all the compassion and humanity of her step-father.
Now the Japanese invade. Things become chaotic but the family manages to carry on, often hiding wounded soldiers. Once the Japanese go, the Kuomintang take over (and are very corrupt) and the civil war between them and the Communists erupts. This family, showing compassion and concern for the weak and the unwell, manage to have friends on both sides of the war but the narrator's mother starts to work secretly for the Communists, using a besotted Kuomintang soldier to help her. At last the Communists take over at which point she meets her husband to be, who is a high-ranking Communist having joined Mao in his enclave at the end of the Long March.
She and her new husband make a long journey to his province of Sichuan where he becomes a very high-ranking official and she a moderately high-ranking official. One of her complaints about her husband is that he is very puritanical and refuses whenever possible to do anything to help his family on the grounds that the new Communist order has no time for nepotism. So the kids are more or less neglected while the parents work all hours to create their new utopian society. They struggle with some of the edicts coming from Peking such as the requirement to find amongst their colleagues a certain percentage of traitors and 'class enemies'. They also struggle against the famine caused by Mao's Great leap Forward.
Then the Cultural Revolution begins and, having led privileged lives as high-ranking officials, they are denounced as 'capitalist roaders'. Ten years of Mao-inspired chaos ensues. The narrator is growing up; at the start she is besotted by her love for Mao but slowly she begins to realise that it is him, rather than corrupt officials, who has caused her family's miseries. She herself progresses from peasant to barefoot doctor to electrician to university student.
This book is 676 pages long but the action hardly ever flags. There is so much to tell and the style is simple and sparse, allowing the action to tell the story. Where there is description it is usually to extol the beauties of China's countryside and the elegance of her old way of life; these delicate and fragrant details are perfect counterpoints to the brutality and mindlessness of the mob.
But the main message is contained in the balance between two men. Jung Chang's father is a dedicated and inspired Communist official who is instrumental in creating what is successful in Sichuan immediately following the Communist takeover. But his idealism blinds him to everyday humanity: he is sharp with no blurred edges. When he is denounced he goes mad. He is cured after treatment in a mental hospital but he is a broken man and he realises how badly he has treated his wife and family. On the other hand, Jung Chang's step-grandfather, the doctor, is a model of enlightened humanity who marries the love of his life, an ex-concubine with a warlord's child, and protects many people at great risk to himself.
Idealism must be balanced with humanity.
This is a fantastic book about a remarkable family living through unbelievably turbulent times. It is a warning against dogmatism and an inspiring tribute to the human spirit.
April 2015; 676 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57