A Chinese writer of the unspeakable will take on Mao

November 01, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING — Jung Chang sees herself as the fabled child who voices the unspeakable truth that the emperor has no clothes.

Ms. Chang, who left China in 1978 and now lives in London,

believes that was one effect of her first book. And she says she'll play that role again with her next work.

Her first book -- the widely acclaimed "Wild Swans," published in 1991 and recently released in paperback -- introduced many Western readers to the horrific details of China's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution by matter-of-factly recounting her own family's sad history.

"Most people in China have had similar experiences -- they know the facts-- but they still can't speak out," Ms. Chang says.

"In China, you still need someone to spell things out. Since I live abroad, I am in a privileged position and able to act like the child. I'm able to say that the emperor has no clothes."

Then what better topic for her next book than Mao Tse-tung?

In his last decade of life, Communist China's founding father became a modern-day emperor as he set in motion the disastrous, ultra-leftist political campaigns of the Cultural Revolution.

"China is so much more open today, but there's still a fear of Mao deeply embedded in the Chinese psyche," Ms. Chang says.

"His picture still hangs in Tiananmen Square. If you denounce Mao, you're still denouncing the whole system. The Communist Party knows he made tremendous mistakes, but it fears really discussing them because that might wake up people's anger and resentment."

Readers moved by "Wild Swans" -- the story of Ms. Chang's family from her grandmother's birth in 1909 to her own departure from China -- may wonder if she will write an objective biography of the man who caused her so much sorrow.

Her father's collapse

Maoist political attacks, for example, led to the mental collapse of her father, a particularly upright Communist Party member. He died in 1975 at the age of 54, as the Cultural Revolution was ending.

But Ms. Chang is determined to find the truth of Mao. She is researching and writing the biography with her husband, British historian Jon Halliday. And as with some of the literature that emerged from the Holocaust of World War II, the life-affirming dignity of "Wild Swans" comes not from anger, but her calm and thorough rendering.

"Mao played such a huge role in my life -- he dominated the first 26 years of my life -- but I feel like I don't know the whole picture yet," she says. "Of course, I have personal feelings, but I hope they won't interfere with a scholarly biography."

rTC Ms. Chang also does not solely blame Mao for the Cultural Revolution: "He generated an environment in which people's worst instincts could come out, in which it was OK for people to torture and kill. So it's more than Mao; it's the system. It involves so many people. There is this tremendous personal responsibility that so many people in Chinese society still haven't come to grips with."

Thus her interest in Mao should not at all be confused with the popular revival throughout China these days of the Great Helmsman's image on laminated cards, badges and buttons -- often as a talisman of good fortune and sometimes even as a latter-day god of justice.

The Mao renaissance coincides with government-sponsored hoopla attending the 100th anniversary of his birth in December. But in this era of newly free Chinese markets, it frequently boils down to just money-making gambits.

The Mao mania even includes the recent opening here of several "theme" restaurants intended to tap into the apparent nostalgia among some of Ms. Chang's generation for their experiences in the Chinese countryside, to which they were sent as youth during the Cultural Revolution to be educated by the hardships of peasant life.

Ms. Chang's generation -- now in their 40s -- often is called China's "lost" generation, because the turmoil of their formative years cost many the chance for formal education. At the new restaurants they can eat simple fare, such as salted pork and fish, that even many Chinese peasants nowadays disdain.

'Barefoot doctor'

Ms. Chang, 42, also spent time in the Chinese countryside, including a stint as a village's "barefoot doctor" or largely untrained medic. For her, there is no nostalgia.

"Maybe with the passage of time your memory tends to stick to nicer things, and there were some beautiful things in the countryside, like the landscape," she says. "But I seriously doubt that the people who opened that restaurant want to go back to the country and live like peasants."

The same is perhaps even more true for Ms. Chang, whose refined life in England these days is far removed from the still harsh realities of rural China.

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