The good side of China's 'evil empress'

The good side of China's 'evil empress'

As a 16-year-old Red Guard in communist China in the late 1960s, Jung Chang tore up the first Chinese poem she wrote soon after completing it, to avoid suspicion and questions.

After that, she resorted to writing mentally about the madness and events which unfolded before her eyes during the Cultural Revolution, which threw the country into turmoil between 1966 and 1976.

Intellectuals and those who were literate were sent to farms and the countryside for "rehabilitation" and young people without training were made "barefoot doctors" - part-time peasant physicians in villages - or engineers in factories.

Now living in London, author Chang recalled how she destroyed her first poem to explain how much she wanted to write, even as a teenager growing up in the most bizarre decade in modern Chinese history. It was a period when she worked as a barefoot doctor, steel factory worker and electrician before she was sent to study English at Sichuan University in 1973, three years before the end of the revolution.

"I was keen to record those things in my life then because I knew I might need to use them some day," she said in an interview with The Sunday Times last week. "Writing was impossible during the revolution and nobody could have dreams. So, if I was found to have anything written, I was bound to invite trouble."

Chang, now 61, was in town for the Singapore Writers Festival and to promote her latest book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. Her 1991 bestseller, Wild Swans, was a biography of three generations of women in 20th-century China - her grandmother, mother and herself - and sold more than 13 million copies in close to 40 languages.

The second eldest daughter of a high-ranking communist cadre and his Manchurian wife, Chang was probably inspired to write by her father, who had a deep interest in literature. He was purged for not agreeing with Mao Zedong's policies, and died during the revolution.

It was destiny perhaps that Chang passed an examination in 1978 to win a year-long scholarship to study English in London, together with 13 other young people from different parts of China.

"I was thrilled to be able to leave China to find my new freedom and realise my dreams," she said.

Once in London, she decided to stay on and won a scholarship from York University, where she completed her doctorate in linguistics in 1982.

After graduation, she found work as an adviser to the Channel 4 documentary series on China - Heart Of The Dragon - and, after that, taught at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London University.

She started writing Wild Swans after her mother visited her in 1988 and narrated the stories of her life, and her mother's, in 60 hours of recorded tapes.

Her mother, now 83, lives in their hometown in Sichuan and is taken care of by her elder sister. Chang has three younger brothers, all living outside China.

With her mother's rich oral history as well as her own recollections, some from first-hand experience and memories of the Cultural Revolution, Chang wrote the book in two years.

"I just wanted to tell our stories and never expected it to be so well-received the world over," she said.

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