Swan's song of Chairman Mao

May 2, 1997

Jung Chang is taking the art of history writing from the familial to the global with her biography of Mao. Lucy Hodges talked to her about it.

Later this month - just weeks before Hong Kong reverts to China - Jung Chang, author of the bestselling novel Wild Swans, will remind the world what the Chinese have endured this century. In a weekend of talks on Chinese culture at the Royal Festival Hall, London, she will read chunks from her family saga, including the description of visits to her parents when they were confined in separate camps during the cultural revolution.

It is her favourite passage from Wild Swans, depicting her feeling for her parents and her mother's love for her. "My mother hugged me, her whole body seeming to say that she did not want to let me go, that she was afraid she would never see me again,'' writes Chang. "At the time, we did not know whether her camp and my commune would ever come to an end. We had been told we would be there for life. There were hundreds of reasons why we might die before we saw each other again."

Unlike so many of their compatriots, they did survive. Chang escaped China altogether in 1978 when she came to Britain and has since become a writer of world renown; her mother, aged 66, is still alive and living in Chengdu, the capital of Sizchuan province. For four years since Wild Swans Jung Chang has been working on a biography of Chairman Mao which, if her family history is anything to go by, will be a searing indictment of the Chinese leader.

It is a hugely ambitious project, effectively a rewrite of the 20th-century history of the world's largest nation - the kind of thing normally done by a foundation or an institution. Chang gave up her teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, to pursue it. And she is writing it with Jon Halliday, her husband, brother of London School of Economics professor Fred Halliday and an expert on the Far East, flitting back and forth between London and Beijing, interviewing people about Mao and burrowing into the archives. They have another two years to go before it is complete.

Talking to me at her home in London, she said it would contain revelations about Chinese history and about Mao. "Our book is going to have lots of new information,'' she says. "We start from nothing but first-hand sources.'' It will be heavily researched but not heavy going and carefully sourced and written to reach as wide an audience as possible. "It's a tremendous story."

One important event it will cover is the famine Mao created by his insistence that the peasants make steel. It was "perhaps the biggest famine in the 20th century anywhere in the world'', says Chang. It is estimated that more than 30 million people starved to death. "He had sometimes almost infantile ideas and he wanted to turn China overnight into a first-class modern power. How was he going to achieve this? We must make more steel.'' Mao was pushed into semi-retirement "because of his crazy economic ideas, because he was not capable of managing the country'', says Chang. He wanted to make a comeback and did that through the cultural revolution, which catapulted the country into civil war and led to years of extreme hardship and violence for millions, including Chang's parents, senior officials in the Communist party when the revolution began.

Jung Chang spends most of every day at her computer in her Notting Hill house, surrounded by Chinese artefacts. "I love it,'' she says of her writing. "I love the whole process. I love doing research. I love finding out new information. I love tinkering with words."

Aged 45, she is exquisitely turned out in a maroon silk jacket and black skirt, her luxuriant hair tumbling down to her knees. After all those years of strict conformity - Mao jackets and trousers - and hard labour in the commune, she takes delight in her appearance and in the beautiful things around her.

The elegance is deceptive, however. There is no doubting Jung Chang's ambition and serious intent. She is engaged on a mammoth undertaking, requiring hard work and tricky negotiation. She will not say whether she interviewed Deng Xiaoping before he died. "People often don't want to be identified,'' she says. She will say she has interviewed a number of very old people, contemporaries of Mao's, people in their nineties, some of whom have died since.

But she is open about those she has interviewed outside China. Imelda Marcos, for instance, had several meetings with Mao and got on well with him. "Very often Mao told foreigners more things than he told his colleagues,'' explains Chang. "So, his conversations sometimes with foreigners were very, very interesting.'' He met Henry Kissinger several times, another person with whom he had a rapport. Chang and Halliday have interviewed Kissinger. Ditto George Bush, and Edward Heath. Another interviewee was President Mobutu of Zaire, whom Chang bumped into in a Hong Kong hair salon.

Chang has found Chinese archives to be a goldmine. The Chinese are meticulous at keeping records. Her husband has pored over the archives in other countries, including Russia, Germany and Albania (Albania was China's only European).

In the 1980s, before the Tiananmen Square massacre, moves were made in China to publish archive documents. For example, archive workers put out volumes of material about the Long March, such as the military telegrams exchanged. Diaries were issued to officers in the Communist and Kuomintgang armies as well as military plans. "They would compile them and make them public,'' explains Chang. "Very often the regime would withdraw these valuable sources of information, but some copies have spread around." Many personal diaries were destroyed during the revolution but some survived. As far as Chang knows Mao did not keep a diary but some of his colleagues did. The pair have had access to some of them but not as much as they would like. "All the obstacles mean we have to dig out things, discard false information and sift through an enormous number of red herrings, dead ends and false leads to get at the truth."

The 1980s were golden years for China's historians because masses of information seeped out - most of it still unused. Chang's great advantage over western biographers of Mao is that she lived through some of that country's great upheavals and could interview people for her book in a way westerners could not. It is pretty amazing she has been given so much access considering Wild Swans is banned in China, that it is scathing about Mao and that Mao is still officially the great founder of the People's Republic.

Her purpose in writing Wild Swans was not political, she says. It was simply a personal story, significant because it reflected the history of China. Chang tries not to preach. Wild Swans is written seductively, engaging you with three generations of women.

Jung Chang saw Mao only once, and describes the experience in Wild Swans, how she went to Beijing in her capacity as a Red Guard to genuflect to the great leader. But he was nowhere to be seen. The group hung around for weeks in the cold with one blanket between two, experiencing blocked lavatories, fleas and lice, waiting for the great moment. Chang developed rheumatism. When she did get to see Mao, she was so exhausted that she only got to glimpse his back as he drove in a motorcade around Tiananmen Square.

Most people in China have not a clue about the real Mao, the real history of the Chinese Communist party or the history of China this century, says Chang. Wild Swans was published in Hong Kong, and a few copies have been smuggled into China. For her, the acid test of what will happen to Hong Kong's cultural life when the Chinese take over is what will happen to her books. "Will Wild Swans still be published there? And when the Mao book comes out, will it be published in Hong Kong?'' she asks. "I do hope so."

Chang is less optimistic now about China than she once was. There have been incredible changes in that country, she says. She has been back each year and every time she notices differences. "I feel very torn. In China I never feel relaxed. I constantly feel either delighted or too depressed, either too happy or too angry because there are very good changes and very bad changes.'' She had been chatting to her mother on the phone on the morning of our interview about the crooks who are conning the Chinese people into buying fake clothes and bad food. Economic liberalisation may be a good thing but there has not been enough regulation keeping pace with that. What pleases her is the personal freedom which people enjoy now. The general living standard too is much higher than it was.

But further change will not be painless. "In the 1980s I was tremendously optimistic,'' she says. "I felt that China was changing and that it was inevitable things would change for the better." Now, 20 years after Mao's death, she can see there is no planning for China's future, no detailed work being done about the thorny issue of China's contested borders, no solutions being put forward for the regions that want to break away. The country still operates from day to day, she says.

Inevitably, the Mao book will resonate politically in a way Wild Swans did not. But the touch will be light. "Your message should come across unobtrusively through your story,'' she says. "I hope our Mao book will be a very good read."

Jung Chang will appear at "Writing on the Wall: Focus on China'', a weekend of events on contemporary writing and culture in China, Purcell Room, Royal Festival Hall, London, May 16-18.

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