Jung Chang on becoming an author

For the first 26 years of her life, Chinese-born author Jung Chang faced an insurmountable number of obstacles to fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer.

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Published in The Myanmar Times on 11 February 2013

Jung Chang at the Irrawaddy Literature Festival. 1 February 2013
Jung Chang at the Irrawaddy Literature Festival. 1 February 2013

For the first 26 years of her life, Chinese-born author Jung Chang faced an insurmountable number of obstacles to fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. Despite possessing the two things Virginia Woolf famously declared necessary for a woman to write – money and a room of her own – Jung Chang was living under Mao’s rule, a megalomaniac who “owned thousands of books but prevented a billion Chinese people from reading,” she said.

During her talk the Irrawaddy Literature Festival about how she became a writer, Chang said: “While growing up, I realised that being a writer was an impossible dream because all the writers of the 1950s, 1960s and parts of the 1970s were persecuted. They were denounced, sent to a gulag, committed suicide or executed.”

Even writing for one’s self was dangerous. In 1968, at the age of 16, Chang wrote her first poem. But she immediately ripped it up and flushed it down the toilet because the Red Guards stormed her home.

Chang’s parents were Communist officials so she had grown up in an elite environment, with a chauffer, cooks and a gardener. However after her father openly criticised Mao’s policies, her parents became targets for imprisonment and torture. Her father was exiled to a camp and eventually driven insane. He died prematurely “in terrible circumstances,” she said.

Chang said that along with books, libraries were burned or turned into torture chambers. Her mother was imprisoned in a cinema.

Chang was exiled to the Himalayas and worked as what was known as a “barefoot doctor,” a part-time, peasant doctor. She worked off a single manual, which listed symptoms on one side and prescriptions on the other.

No training was provided because Mao believed that “books made people stupid.”

In Mao: the Unknown Story, Chang and her co-author, her husband Jon Halliday, wrote: “… in June 1944, a Chonqing correspondent observed an eerie uniformity: ‘if you ask the same question of 20 or 30 people, from intellectuals to workers [on any topic] their replies are always more or less the same… Even on questions about love, there seems to be a point of view that has been decided by meetings.’ And, not surprisingly, ‘they unanimously and firmly deny the Party had any control over their thoughts.’”

Chang said that while sitting through “endless indoctrination sessions, I was writing in my head with an invisible pen.”

Chang described Mao’s China as “totally isolated – the West was considered a terrifying place, full of terrifying people. At nursery school we were told to eat everything on our plate – they said, ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world.’”

She and her friends grew up believing that “hello” was a swear word because the “baddies in films always drank Coca-Cola and said hello.”

In 1971, five years before Mao’s death, Chang was able to return to her home province of Sichuan, where she became a steel worker and electrician.

She suffered five electric shocks in a month due to a lack of training.

When universities began to reopen in 1973, Chang enrolled at Sichuan University to study English.

“But we were persecuted if we were seen working too hard at it. Our textbooks were written by teachers who had never met a foreigner.”

Mao’s rule ended when he died in 1976, and two years later, scholarships began to be awarded on academic merit.

Chang was among the first group of 14 people to study in Britain and in 1982 she became the first person from China to receive a Ph.D. from a British university.

However for the next 10 years, Chang’s “desire to write disappeared because my life was so exciting. Writing meant looking back to the past, to the tragedy of the deaths of my family members. I didn’t want to think about it. I used to say I was South Korean so that people wouldn’t ask me about China.”

However in 1988, Chang’s mother visited her in London, and for the first time told her daughter stories about Chang’s grandmother, herself and her relationship with my father.

Chang’s grandmother had lived in excruciating pain because at the age of two, her feet had been crushed with stones and then bound to prevent the broken bones from mending.

Chang held up what appeared to be a toddler’s slipper, explaining that this was the size of her grandmother’s feet as an adult.

“This practice went on for 1000 years,” she said.

At the age of 16, her grandmother was given to a warlord general to be one of his many concubines.

“After six days, he left her for six years. She was a virtual prisoner in his house, with the servants ordered to spy on her.”

Chang’s mother refused to bow to the tremendous pressure to denounce her husband. She was subjected to 100 “ghastly interrogations” which often involved being humiliated and tortured in front of hysterical crowds.

“My mother was forced to walk on broken glass and she was paraded around while children spat on her,” she said.

After spending six months in London, Chang’s mother returned to China, leaving behind 60 hours of tape recordings and notes from their many conversations.

“Then I realised how much I wanted to be a writer. My mother had been trying to help me fulfil my dream.”

Chang spent the next two years writing Wild Swans, which is the biography of her grandmother, mother and her own autobiography – a period spanning 100 years.

Just after Chang finished the book – which was accepted by a publisher with an initial print run of 3000 copies, she received a short letter from her mother.

“She said that people may not pay attention to my book, but not to worry about that. My mother’s words wiped away the anxiety before it was published.”

Chang described her book as a success – something of an understatement considering it has sold 10 million copies and has been translated into 40 languages.

Chang said she was then keen to write another book, and Mao “seemed an obvious choice because he had dominated my life and turned the lives of a quarter of the world’s population upside down. Yet people knew very little about him, both outside and inside China. [Mao’s] face appears on every Chinese banknote, his body is on display to worship and his portrait hangs in Tiananmen Square.”

Mao: the Unknown Story was published in 2005 – a project that took 12 years to complete and has been described as “the most thoroughly researched and richly documented piece of synthetic scholarship.”

However during the literature festival, Chang lamented the lack of creative freedom in China, where her books are banned, and told the BBC that the situation for writers in Myanmar, by contrast, is encouraging. When the moderator asked Chang whether she believes Mao’s portrait will still be hanging in Tiananmen Square in five years time, she replied, “Definitely.”

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