Wild Swans, the book

Wild Swans

By Jung Chang

Read July-August 2009

This book was immediately engaging. It alternated between descriptions of beauty and human striving, and family relationships on the one hand, and the deadening, unhappy and terrifying aspects of socialist life under Mao on the other. It is a warning to any who cares to hear. Current slogans about achieving a government-designed utopia should sound familiar to readers. I say there are two warnings:

  1. Utopian plans harm people. Socialism promises utopia.
  2. The U.S. Constitution, with its brakes on government power, is a sterling bulwark against the tyranny of zealous government. Our central government is meant to be weak, only strong enough accomplish its limited purposes. We erode these limitations at a grave peril.

I relate to the author. She is one year older than me. The tides of injustice, poverty, fear, and death, (60 million deaths), that she witnessed occurred while I was starring in high school musicals, going to youth camps, working in restaurants, studying religion, dating, serving a mission in England, and enjoying the security and love of family life.

When Glenn Beck said on the radio yesterday that tyranny cannot happen here, because Americans have individual liberty deep in our marrow, I don’t believe him. I think that human behavior is identical from society to society, and that government, unleashed, could introduce all the atrocities the Chinese, Russians, Cambodians or Vietnamese did. All in the name of benevolence, of course.

I enjoyed seeing how the brainwashing happened and how the author gradually lifted its pall from her mind. Mao was bad, she finally learned. Even her father, the loyal Communist official, finally learned that the party was evil, after he suffered for years at its hands and witnessed the suffering his idealism caused his family. These transformations were carefully illustrated by Jung.

What a horrible price they paid for their experiment! The starvation, the executions, the imprisonment, the families torn asunder, the crude denunciations, the personal vendettas, the starvation of the inquiring, expressing human spirit, the famine of artistic expression, the demolishing of cultural artifacts, (“temples smashed, statues toppled, and old towns wrecked. Little evidence remained of China’s ancient civilization.”), the lack of books, the deadening of human relationships, the fear to talk, to think; what incalculable oppression!

I highly recommend the book. It is so much more accessible than, for example, The Black Book of Communism. Jung reaches an audience that is not only male. Men are more likely to delve into matters expressed as political, governing matters. Because Jung begins with her grandmother’s foot-binding and her travails as a concubine, women are led into the book. Then they learn, through the eyes of three generations of women, how socialism kills.

The book has sold 10 million copies. I only hope that readers do not put down the book saying, “How awful! I’m sure glad that could never happen here.” They need to see the doctrinal lineage of socialism to present calls for more government control. China’s awful past could happen here.

Some of the most poignant memories of the book:

People eating their own children and having to live with their anguish forever more.

People expiring for lack of nutrition, falling down dead.

People committing suicide as the only exit from the intolerable choices between family member safety and their own skin. Then family members of those who committed suicide were put down and considered suspect, demoted, or had their rations cut. “One day one of my friends told us that her parents, both distinguished actors, had just committed suicide, unable to stand the denunciations.”

Food rations. One half pound of meat per week. 3.2 ounces of oil per month. “Six months passed without a single bar of soap.”

Feigning madness was not even a way to avoid the authorities.

Her father’s dedication to principle of non-favoritism, non-corruption. He slighted his family for these exalted ideals, something he rued later. In the end it was for naught, anyway. He was denounced, and imprisoned, the life spirit was wrung from him. He experienced “intolerable mental and physical pressure, with years of brutal beatings followed by hard physical labor under atrocious conditions.” He said, “It was for a fair society that I joined the Communists. I’ve tried my best through the years. But what good has it done for the people? Don’t believe in the Communist party anymore.”

Her thirst for books. How few books there were. No light to read by, even when she smuggled books. People had to read the propaganda newspaper and read Mao’s Little Red Book. For many, there was nothing else. Schools used them as the only curriculum. Mao said, “The more books you read, the more stupid you become.”

The camp her mother was sent to had “no machines, no electricity, not even any work animals. All they had to eat was rice and boiled cabbage.”

Fearing to think a subversive, critical thought, for fear that it might come out in a statement.

Her time in labor and re-education with the peasants.

The nationalization of her grandfather’s medicine shop.

Her worship of Mao. The trip she took to see him.

Tens of millions of married couples only entitled to twelve days a year together.

“In almost every family, one or members had died as a result of the Cultural Revolution.”

Personal files and background checks, checks to see if there were any undesirable capitalists, or landowners in your family tree, or if any family members had ever expressed anything but full devotion to the government

When she got a copy, she memorized the Declaration of Independence.

She had to report her thoughts to the college supervisor regularly.

They had to recite, “We will stand forever by the side of the oppressed and exploited masses in the third world in their struggle against the American imperialists and the Soviet revisionists.” (Current justifications for racial quotas, poverty programs, living wage legislation, and national health care are based on Marxist language of overcoming oppression of certain classes. Always watch for class grievances, class struggle, and oppression in the political discourse.)

“I had always been told, and had believed, that I was living in a paradise on earth, socialist China, whereas the capitalist world was hell.” Later on, the state staged a

“Our Socialist Motherland Is Paradise” mini-campaign. Jung asked herself, “If this is paradise, what then is hell?”

I examine my soul for traces of desire to exercise compulsion. I can see such traces. Read D&C 121. I held something like Maoist ideals in younger years. Plant squash, not flowers. Be practical, not frivolous (bourgeois.) Wealth-holders are bad. Excesses of wealth are bad. Wealth and style and conspicuous consumption are bad. Why do people need to make millions? “If I were rich, I would give away money by bucketfuls.” These sentiments are treated by Isabel Paterson in her essay, The Humanitarian and the Guillotine. People will exercise dominion over others given the chance. Good laws and constitutions restrain these impulses.

Get this book. Read it. I plan on sending copies to friends and family.

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