Category Archives: China

Jung Chang on becoming an author

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.”

TRAVEL: A glimpse of life on the Inner Mongolian steppes

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 18 November 2011

A long and winding ride along the steppes

To the discerning traveller, Inner Mongolia doesn’t rate highly as a destination.  In “The Inner Mongolia Story“, Neil Smith describes its grasslands as “a farce, a tourist trap the size of Nebraska.”  A blogger called Emmi writes, “… Inner Mongolia is as boring as watching a cow starve.” Or perhaps she meant “as tragic”?

The reason behind the general lack of enthusiasm lies within its name. Contrary to what it implies, “Inner” Mongolia has been an (expanding) Chinese province since 1947.  China often refers to the neighbouring country of Mongolia as “Outer Mongolia.”  If you’re still confused, think Tibet or Taiwan.  Over the years, attempts to restore Inner Mongolia’s independence were unsuccessful, and last May the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre described the situation in many parts of Inner Mongolia as martial law.  Since the eighteenth century, Han Chinese settlers began illegally moving to the Inner Mongolian steppe – a policy encouraged by subsequent governments. By the time Inner Mongolia was established in 1947, Han Chinese comprised 83.6% of the population, while the Mongols were less than 15 percent.  Genghis Khan must be rolling furiously in his grave…

Agile dancers

To my discredit, I opted for Inner Mongolia over Mongolia because I’m afraid of the cold.  While pondering my next move in Beijing, I met a steady stream of travellers who had passed through Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  They spoke of a freakishly premature winter that had hit the nation long before electricity – and consequently heating – was scheduled to be switched on by the government.  After whimpering about a lack of warm clothing, a couple of travellers threw me their now-redundant sweaters, socks and trousers.  I kept the sweater, but went to Inner Mongolia for a diluted taste of life on the steppes.

An overnight train from Beijing brought to me to the capital, Hohot, which boasts a museum containing over 44,000 items and a jaw-dropping dinosaur collection.  One of the museum’s plaques states, “Since the founding of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region 50 years ago, a great change has happened on the grassland, which is both a great victory of the minority policy and the result of the splendid leadership of the Communist Party of China.  The people of all nationalities on the grassland will never forget the kind-hearted concerns of the revolutionary leaders of both the old and new generations.”  I exhaled a long “hmmmm,” before snapping a picture of the plaque and moving on to the next exhibit.

I ate my first evening meal in a bustling restaurant with friendly patrons.  A group of nine men waved me over to their table from my solitary one, and though we couldn’t understand a single word each other said, we had a fine time consuming delicious hotpots and outrageously frequent shots of the local liquor.  I was then invited to the wives’ tables, where I switched to green tea.

Returning back from a dusty desert race

I headed off on a two day tour of the grasslands the following morning.  There were about six tourists on the minibus, but I felt lousy and cheerless because I’d slept poorly and knew that the next 48 hours would be crammed full of activities that don’t involve dreaming.  I dislike tours, but joining one gave me the only chance to spend the night in a traditional yurt, which looks like a circular tent.

As I dragged my feet off the bus around lunchtime, a beautiful woman decked in a red satin dress and pointed hat presented us each with a glass of clear liquor.  She said it was tradition.  Though still feeling rather seedy, consuming the liquid tradition got me chatting to others quicker than a nap would have done.

Despite the many criticisms of Inner Mongolia’s lack of authenticity, I can’t deny that every effort was made by the Chinese tour company to keep us entertained.  We watched not-quite traditional wrestling, horse racing and dancing in the evening, and were taken out on a long horseback ride with regular yak milk pit stops and a Mongolian cowboy that strangely reminded me of Patrick Swayze.  Sure, the animals were tired ponies and not Genghis warrior type horses, and the scenery was comprised of muted greens and grey, but I wasn’t overly disappointed.  That is, not until breakfast the next morning, when we were served sheep stomach stew and assorted tendons.



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TRAVEL: My Beijing Kittens

The hard-drive with the picture of the ginger kittens has broken, so in its place is this photo of a cat in Pingyao, Southern China

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 11.11.11

I woke up on my last day in Beijing with a killer headache and a problem.  My bloodshot eyes rolled at sight of two ginger kittens asleep on my bed.  What had I done?  A brown mess, clearly deposited hours earlier, lay stiff on the blanket above my feet.  Though five years have passed, I still feel awful about hastily stuffing it under the hotel’s television cabinet.

My train was leaving for Inner Mongolia in six hours time, so I had to find homes for the kittens before then.  Trains to the capital city of Hohot were infrequent and I was itching to move on, but I couldn’t abandon the kittens 12 hours after buying them.  I groaned and lit up a Chinese cigarette.  It tasted like sawdust but its politically and medically incorrect brand name, “Double Happiness” amused me.  I prayed I’d find someone who would look at the kittens and see double happiness.

After a month of travelling alone in China, which had involved days on end of not uttering a single word in English in tourist-dry towns (a valuable experience in hindsight), it was wonderful to make some great friends at the backpackers, though a violent stomach upset had forced me to move out of the dormitory.  The six of us spent 10 errant days together in Beijing, hippy-hugging park trees, fighting kung fu clumsily, trying on ridiculous wigs and hairstyles, setting fire to the local liquor with cigarette lighters and plotting an unauthorised overnight stay at the Great Wall of China (before deciding on the more conventional experience of walking 10 kilometres along its oldest part).  It was some consolation that most of our “gang” were moving on that day, albeit in different directions.  Happily, we’re all still friends and meet up whenever we happen to be in the same city.

Josiah, Bruce, Phil, Yvonne and Jess at the Great Wall of China


We’d gone out for Korean and all night disco dancing the day before we parted.  Although several dishes on the busy restaurant’s menu offered dog, we didn’t eat it.  I wouldn’t ever.  Although I’d seen many pets in China that were clearly adored – mostly pedigree cats and dogs, I felt for China’s utterly less fortunate furry friends.  A few late nights earlier, while wobbling my way home through the atmospheric traditional alleys known as hutongs (most of which were subsequently destroyed for Beijing’s pre-Olympic makeover) I recoiled at the sight of a large cooked dog on a metal try.  Two butchers were hammering out its teeth on the sidewalk.  I looked over my shoulder in disbelief and felt like retching, then nearly tripped over another motionless dog lying on the pavement.  A dark pool of blood trickled slowly into the drain.

When we left the Korean restaurant and crossed a massive intersection, I saw a man in a drab suit standing next to a pair of kittens in a fish tank.  They were tiny, covered in excrement and with terrified eyes, clawed desperately at the glass walls.  I thought back to the times when I saw something distressing but was powerless to act.    Using mostly sign language, I asked the man how much he wanted for the two kittens.  My friends were in hysterics.


Naturally, I misunderstood the figure quoted.  I handed over double (around US$30) but he laughed and handed back the yuan.  I carried the terrified kittens back to the guesthouse in a shoebox and released them in the authentically Chinese courtyard (replete with a squirrel in a cage).  Within a couple of minutes, the kittens were eating salami and other treats retrieved from the backpacks of random travellers.  I later snuck the pair into my hotel by wrapping a jacket around the shoebox and talking loudly enough to my friend Phil to drown out any meowing.

Phil assured us he was just "philling" around...


My heart melted as the kittens licked themselves clean within minutes. When the fluffy pair started frolicking on the floor, I fell in love then and there and decided to spend the rest of my last night in.  But my travel buddies came to the hotel to convince me I was mad, so I drew the curtains and left the ginger angels to their own devices.


But now was the time to face the music by making good on my irresponsible purchase the night before.

My attempts to find homes for the kittens resembled a very serious game of charades.  After inquiries at my former backpackers resulted in the negative, I moved onto the friendly shop owner opposite.  She knew a handful of English words, but they were mostly the items she sold.  I’d studied Mandarin during my first two years of high school, but I couldn’t remember any of it, let alone the phrase for, “Would you like to adopt two kittens?”


So I meowed and held up two fingers, then pointed at the shopkeeper and gestured towards my hotel.  In China, holding up the pinkie finger means you want to go to the toilet, so I wasn’t certain how she would interpret two fingers.  Yet somehow, she seemed to understand.  The young woman beamed and nodded, then called a friend to come and mind the shop.  On the way to my hotel we stopped at the laundromat where her mother (or so I assumed) worked, (presumably) to ask for adoption permission.  The shopkeeper seemed even more excited when we left – I couldn’t believe my luck.

I didn’t bother hiding the kittens from the hotel owners because I figured they were about to leave.  I brought them into the courtyard to present them to their new owner.  But I saw her expression was one of mild horror.  She took a few steps backwards and almost bumped into the hotel owner as he came around the corner.  To my surprise and delight, it was now he who wore the smile.  As the woman left the premises with an apologetic wave, he opened his arms and I handed him the kittens.

Having been freed from the shackles of pet ownership, I was ready to board the train for Inner Mongolia.  I packed up my gear and left my large backpack at the hotel before heading out to eat my last Beijing meal and call home.  By the time I’d checked out, the kittens were lapping up milk from porcelain saucers as the hotel owner’s daughter gently stroked them.

Here's another cute Chinese kitten - in Pingyao

I told my parents how close I’d come to a kitten fiasco. My mother laughed and said, “Typical you.”  She often used the expression – both for me and others, “A leopard can’t change it spots.”  And you know what?  She’s right.  It took a lot longer than usual to write this piece, as I was interrupted a thousand times by the two puppies temporarily lodging in my study.  I’ve been looking for homes for two weeks.