Book thoughts and quote: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang


I’ve finished reading Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, the classic memoir of one family’s experiences in China through Japanese occupation, the start of the Communist revolution, the utter madness of the Cultural Revolution, and beyond. Nearly every page provokes horror and outrage and incredulity, although there are also stories of stunning courage and human kindness.

I started this book because I wanted to better understand how a nation gives into a charismatic dictator and slides into madness. I still don’t understand, no more than I understand certain events and movements of our present time.


There are so many passages that I underlined while reading this book. Passages relevant to our current time, passages depicting mass delusion and hysteria, a fevered cult of personality, zealotry, scapegoating, political cowardice, and the use of politics to grift and settle petty personal feuds.


Of the many passages I’ve underlined, I think of this one now, which occurs quite early in the book. Which shows that even at the outset of the Communist Revolution, before the full madness of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the seeds for it had been sown.


The Party’s all-around intrusion into people’s lives was the very point of the process known as “thought reform.” Mao wanted not only external discipline, but the total subjugation of all thoughts, large or small. Every week a meeting for “thought examination” was held for those “in the revolution.” Everyone had both to criticize themselves for incorrect thoughts and be subjected to the criticism of others. The meetings tended to be dominated by self-righteous and petty-minded people, who used them to vent their envy and frustration: people of peasant origin used them to attack those from “bourgeois” backgrounds. The idea was that people should be reformed to be more like peasants, because the Communist revolution was in essence a peasant revolution. This process appealed to the guilt feelings of the educated; they had been living better than the peasants, and self-criticism tapped into this.


Meetings were an important means of Communist control. They left people no free time, and eliminated the private sphere. The pettiness which dominated them was justified on the grounds that prying into personal details was a way of ensuring thorough soul-cleansing. In fact, pettiness was a fundamental characteristic of a revolution in which intrusiveness and ignorance were celebrated, and envy was incorporated into the system of control.


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