Reading Jung Chang's
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Wild Swans (1991) is a memoir that traces the transformations of twentieth century Chinese history through the lives of three generations of Chinese women. A portrait of traditional China is glimpsed through the life of the author’s grandmother, born in 1909. The binding of her feet, her experience as a concubine of General Xue, and her later marriage to Dr. Xia depict the social views and roles of women prior to the Communist Revolution. In contrast, the life of the author’s mother, born in 1931, reveals new avenues of mobility available to women of her generation: she is an ardent supporter of the new regime, a civil servant and the wife of a Communist official. Such a privileged position allows the author to grow up and receive an education during the 1960s in the midst of much social upheaval. Yet her fortune turns when her parents are convicted of being "enemies of the people," and she is sent, like many other urban youths of her generation, to the countryside to receive "re-education."

This novel is quite long and the selections below have been chosen to explore several of the important political movements and resulting social reorganization during the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution.

Discussion Questions

Racing Toward Socialism: 1956-1958

  1. The author describes policy measures, passed in 1955, to nationalize industry and commerce. How did this policy affect the ownership of business? What, for example, happened to Doctor Xia’s medicine shop?
  2. The nationalization program was part of the government’s attempt to create a centralized socialist economy. How did different people in the story react to this new policy? Why did the mother view the grandmother’s jewelry as part of an outdated past? Do you think Grandmother viewed these possessions as the "fruit of ‘the exploitation of the people’"? Why not?
  3. How did labeling individuals as "counterrevolutionaries" affect families?
  4. Was being labeled a "capitalist," that is an owner of private property, considered good or bad? Why?

The Great Leap Forward and Famine: 1958-1962

  1. By the late 1950s, Mao sought to launch China on a path of rapid industrialization — the Great Leap Forward. Mao thought this would allow China to surpass the United States and Great Britain in industrial output within 15 years and, in one swift leap, hurl China toward the desired goal of communism and to the forefront of industrialized nations. Imagine you are a youth growing up during this period. Describe your activities and emotions.
  2. Why is the author critical of the economic policies of this period?
  3. Why does she characterize the nation as having "slid into doublespeak"? Did the Chinese newspapers, radio, and the media speak out against these exaggerations? Why not?
  4. Maoist policy supposedly attempted to create a more equitable society. Based on the author’s account, were all individuals on equal ground? Did the author’s family receive special treatment? Why?
  5. Were there differences in the way people in the rural areas were treated compared with the way people in the urban areas, the cities, were treated? Give an example.
  6. How did the economic policies of the late 1950s contribute to the devastating famine that cost China thirty million deaths? Does the author believe the famine was caused primarily by human error or by natural disaster?
    When the Chinese people weigh Mao as a leader, how do you think they judge the Great Leap Forward?

General

  1. In contrast to the traditional practice of arranged marriage, how were marriage negotiations conducted after the Communist victory? Were young people free to seek their own partners? Who authorized permission to marry, and how did this differ from in the past? Were individual or political considerations more important in choosing a mate?
  2. The Communist Party sought to elevate the status of women and provide opportunities for them to engage in productive work outside of the household. How did this affect parenting? Who was in charge of child rearing?
  3. Given that parents were deeply involved in working to build Socialism, how was family life consequently affected? Did this change over time?
  4. Consider these readings and discuss whether the position, mobility, and educational opportunities of women have changed over the course of contemporary Chinese history.

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