Diametrically opposite sketches of two brutal and towering personalities in China's history emerged from bestselling author Jung Chang's engaging lecture at the Singapore Writers Festival on Monday night.
In one corner was Mao Zedong, the communist leader who founded the People's Republic of China in 1949, whom Jung argued was a thoroughly selfish dictator who "criminally misruled China".
In the other corner was Empress Dowager Cixi, whom Chang hailed as a proto- feminist reformer who abolished female foot-binding and lifted the country "from a mediaeval society to modernity".
A full-house audience of 140 listened to and chuckled over her often witty insights into her life and research into these two historical figures, in her lecture held at The Salon of the National Museum of Singapore.
Here to promote her new biography Empress Dowager Cixi (2013), the author is best known for her memoir and family history Wild Swans (1991), which has sold more than 10 million copies internationally, and her explosive and contentious biography Mao: The Unknown Story (2005), co-authored with her husband, British historian John Halliday. Both books are banned in China.
Born in China in 1952, she was a reluctant Red Guard during the upheaval of Mao's Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, during which her father was tortured as a capitalist roader and died. In 1978, two years after Mao's death, Chang, an English- language student at Sichuan University, left China for further studies in Britain and settled there.
Recalling her experience as one of the first groups of Chinese allowed to study overseas, she said wryly in clipped, British-accented English: "We all wore Mao suits and had to go out in a group. We were quite a sight in a London street."
China at the time had expunged Western-style entertainment such as pop music and bars. In London, "we were told not to go into bars, jiu ba - as it is called in Chinese - had connotations of drunk men and nude women. I sneaked into one and was quite disappointed", she said, to laughter.