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Thank God for Jung Chang, who told the truth about China

Jung Chang talks to journalist during opening ceremony of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in February 2013 (PA)

China is not one of those places with which I feel a natural affinity, thus when someone writes a book about the country which enters your bloodstream, so to speak, then it really is remarkable. And so it was with Jung Chang, whose Wild Swans opened up China for so many of us. It was the story of her grandmother, her mother and herself, and in dealing with three generations, it told the story of the end of the Imperial era, the chaos that followed, and the story of the Cultural Revolution, all from within. As such it was and remains an incredibly important book. I, like a lot of people of my age, I suppose, was taught the history of China at school, but our text book was written by one of Edgar Snow’s acolytes: it was a narrative that more or less deified Chairman Mao, which was quite a remarkable thing, given that it was a Catholic school, and that our teacher was a devout Catholic who had himself fled from a murderous dictatorship in Germany. But humankind cannot bear very much reality. In those days everyone took the Kissinger line: Mao was more than just a great leader, he was a statesman and a philosopher. It was Jung Chang who for many of us revealed just how wrong this was.

The Cultural Revolution was appalling, we all know, but as Jung Chang lived through it she was able to describe the sensation of being inside the madness. She was a Red Guard, and there is no one better than a repentant fanatic to tell us how wicked fanaticism can be. Her next book, Mao: the Untold Story, told us the history that we had all ignored too long. One of the most astonishing revelations is that Mao did the Long March mainly in a sedan chair. Alright for some! But that really sums up Communist tyranny, and it is a motif repeated throughout Communist history: the comfort of the few, and the suffering of millions. At another point in the book, Mao asks, when it is clear that his economic planning must spark a famine: “What if one million have to die?”

If it were not enough to write two wonderful books, both superbly readable, and both banned in the People’s Republic, both telling us something that we need to know, Jung Chang has gone even further and tried to revise our understanding of the nineteenth century as well. I have just finished her latest book which deals with the Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled China, on and off, for nearly half a century until 1908.

The Dowager Empress was the subject of a lavishly illustrated biography by Marina Warner, back in 1972. Jung Chang’s book is in the opposite corner to Marina Warner’s. This latest book is a revisionist attempt to see the Empress as an enlightened reformer and skilled political operator, as opposed to a monstrous, grasping, greedy, corrupt and essentially stupid, selfish and short-sighted woman.

In defence of the traditional interpretation, it has to be said that Cixi’s Empire ceased to exist but three years after her death, and that what China needed was strong leadership, not the monarchy of boys and weaklings, which describes the last three Emperors, the last two of whom were handpicked by her. Moreover, not even Jung Chang can quite gloss over Cixi’s embezzling the funds set aside for the Navy, funds which might have made all the difference to China’s disastrous performance in its war with Japan. And then there is the matter of the Pearl Concubine, her adopted son’s favourite companion, who Cixi had thrown down a well when the court was fleeing Beijing in the tumult surrounding the Boxer Rebellion.Even Jung Chang does not try to defend this action.

The jury, in my opinion, is still out on Cixi. But one thing is certain: Jung Chang is one of the most important authors of our age, in that she has shown China to the world.