Two compelling Chinese female memoirists are now watching China from different sides of the world — and continuing to tell the Middle Kingdom’s story in unique ways.
Lijia Zhang lives in China as a journalist and, more recently, a novelist. Jung Chang views China from London through the prism of its past. At the recent Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali, in public talks and private interviews, both writers reflected on today’s China, their concubine grandmothers and their work.
The two writers won received acclaim for very different memoirs. Chang’s celebrated Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991) is a searing account of the lives of her grandmother, her mother and herself, centered on their suffering during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Chang, born in 1952, had a privileged upbringing as the child of Communist Party members.
Her distinguished parents’ criticism of Mao led to their persecution and imprisonment.
Lijia Zhang, born in 1964 and a former worker in a missile factory, is the author of the coming-of-age chronicle ‘Socialism is Great!’ A Worker’s Memoir of The New China (2008). “We were very poor,” Zhang says; she was forced to stop school at age 16 to earn money.
While Chang was in Britain undergoing graduate studies in English linguistics on a government scholarship, Zhang taught herself English using a borrowed radio in her factory dormitory. “I learned by listening to the BBC,” she says. “My Chinese accent was awful.”
Both women have gone on to author more books. Chang has written two controversial biographies of Chinese leaders — Mao: The Unknown Story (2005), with her husband, the Irish historian Jon Halliday, and Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (2013).
Chang’s view of Mao is fiercely critical, while she finds redeeming qualities in the much-derided Empress Dowager Cixi, who held power in China from 1861 until her death in 1908.
Zhang, who lives in Beijing and writes in English for the international press, recently published her first novel, Lotus (2017), about prostitution, set in modern day Shenzhen. Zhang found fiction a lot harder than journalism.
“Journalists have certain habits. For example, I do a lot of research so there’s a tendency to use all the material. In fiction writing, how you reveal information is an art. It’s very difficult. And I find the freedom extremely intimidating.”
So does Zhang want to keep writing fiction? “Absolutely.”
Zhang’s novel is based partly on the life of her grandmother, who was forced to become a prostitute as a teenager. Her grandmother met her grandfather “on the job” and became his concubine.
Chang’s grandmother was was a concubine – to a warlord. “Her feet were broken and bound when she was two years old,” Chang says. Zhang grandmother’s feet, too, were bound, but because she was a peasant and had to work, it wasn’t done until she was six years old, to allow the foot to develop enough to walk to the fields.
Wild Swans, largely based on 60 hours of taped conversations between Chang and her mother, has brought them closer together and even made her mother a popular figure with tourists. Chang’s books have been translated into Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but remain banned in mainland China.
Assessing China today, Chang says, “I’m very torn. On the one hand, I can see that people have much better lives. My sister, who lives in China, has been to Bali as a tourist and my mother’s caretaker has a basic social security net. People of the middle class all seem to have cars. People are living a kind of life I never thought China could manage.”
She acknowledges that “many writers have freedom to write what they want, but unfortunately my topics fall into the most harshly controlled area – and that is history.”
Zhang says, “I think China is much freer now. Among family and friends, people generally say what they think — but getting published is another matter.” She believes that writing in English draws less scrutiny from authorities.
Unlike many pundits, Chang sees “very little” parallel between Chairman Mao and China’s current leader, President Xi Jinping.
“The most important thing about Mao is he didn’t care about his people. All the evidence seems to suggest that Xi does want the Chinese people to lead the good life… People are fulfilling their aspirations in their lives, and that’s fundamentally different from Mao.”
China and the world are much changed from Mao’s time, Chang observes.
“[Xi] seems to be concentrating more power but he’s not getting totalitarian control… To have Mao’s kind of totalitarian control you need to do so many other things which Mr Xi is not doing.”
To recreate Mao’s China, “you seal the country off, you control the information to the minimum and you feed the population with a rigidly controlled trope of whatever he feels is true or false, and that is not the case with today’s China.”
Travel is one way to breach the information wall. “Although there’s the firewall stopping people from learning what really happen outside, it’s not impossible to climb over the firewall,” Chang opines. “Also, people traveling abroad, if they really want to, they can find out things.”
“The two most important things about brainwashing under Mao, one is to isolate the country from the rest of the world which Mr Xi is not doing, and the next thing is to instill terror of an incredible kind. In China today, there is repression but it’s in no way comparable to Mao’s China,” Chang says.
“It’s still a cage,” Zhang says, “but the cage has got so big, many people often don’t feel the limits.”
Muhammad Cohen is editor at large of Inside Asian Gaming, contributor to Forbes and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie