A discussion with Jung Chang

Life and Politics: A masterclass insight into writing with Chang

Photo Credit: Niall Maher/ Trinity News

Jung Chang is a best-selling author and historian whose writing primarily focuses on Chinese history. Her autobiography, “Wild Swans,” has sold over 20 million copies online. Alongside this, she has penned the bestselling biographies “Mao: The Unknown Story,” and “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.”

The event began with a presentation of the Burke Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse through the Arts, for which Ms. Chang was the recipient. Ms Chang graciously accepted the award, calling it a “great honour,” for which she was “delighted,” and “moved,” to have received.

Like anyone who’s dreamt of becoming a writer, Chang revealed to us that it was a love she has had since birth. As a child, she revealed she would lay on the ground and look up to the sky trying, “to imagine what was going on behind the clouds,” and made up ghost stories to scare her friends on the way to school. But unlike anything aspiring writers in Ireland have experienced, her childhood dream of being a writer was something that would seem to remain just that; a dream.

Mao’s China was a place of persecution, where writing was an offence punished by transportation to a gulag. At the age of 16, Chang recalled lying in bed after finishing her first poem, only to hear pounding on the door as a surprise raid took place. Paralysed by the fear of what would happen if her poem was discovered, she tore up the poem, and thus her first attempt at writing was quelled. It would be years before she would return to her dream.

Tens years later, at the age of 26, Chang was given the opportunity to study abroad in the UK through a scholarship. Chang explained the fear from Mao’s tyranny was so deeply instilled in her, she began to wear make-up in an attempt to disguise herself from embassy officials. She was hesitant to write, as it was a painful reminder of her past and the pain from the loss of her father, which she wanted to forget.

She wanted to soak up the “New World,” in which she had found herself, and no longer wanted to write a book. However,  she found her way back to writing, when after receiving a PhD in Linguistics from the University of York, her mother came to visit her. During her 6 month stay, the two became closer, and thus, she decided to sit down and write “Wild Swans.”

After the success of her first book, it seemed only right that her second book be a revealing biography of the tyrant who had ruled her childhood, Mao Zedong. It took 12 years for her and her husband to do all the necessary research before the publication became possible.

Finally, her third novel was different to the first two, in the sense that instead of exposing the regime beneath which she had lived, she exposed the true nature behind  Empress Dowager Cixi, as opposed to the one which the government had been “brainwashing,” the people with. In the question and answer portion of the evening, we learned that Chang is banned from China, and is only allowed to visit for 15 days once in year, in order to visit her mother.

Even then, she is kept under surveillance, and is not allowed to make any public appearances. Furthermore, she described the control of China as “watertight,” as none of her works are allowed within the country.

The experience of hearing Chang recount her life as a writer, was not only inspiring to me as a writer, but also as a woman. And it seemed that everyone present truly felt their outlook on the arts had shifted.  Chang’s talk was both emotive and honest. It was with great passion, that she conveyed the need to write about what she had experienced and lived through.

Although I have yet to read her biography, “Wild Swans,” I have no doubt that it will be on my list this Christmas.