The good side of China's 'evil empress'
The Sunday Times
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". 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.
"Writing was impossible during the revolution and nobody could have dreams. So, if I was found to have anything written, it 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, 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 and won a scholarship from York University, where she completed her doctorate in linguistics in 1982.
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.
"I just wanted to tell our stories and never expected it to be so well-received the world over," she said.
She married British scholar Jon Halliday, a Russian specialist, whom she met while working on a television documentary. Together, they embarked on writing Mao's biography. The result, Mao: The Unknown Story, became another international bestseller when it was published in 2005, after they put in 12 years of research and writing.
They portrayed Mao, whom Chang held responsible for the disastrous Cultural Revolution, in an extremely negative light, inviting praise as well as criticism from scholars and angering the Chinese authorities. That book, like Wild Swans, remains banned in China.
They interviewed hundreds of people, including top statesmen such as former United States president George H.W. Bush, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Singapore's first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who had known and met Mao.
They called on Mr Lee at the Istana in 1993 and spent an hour listening to his recollections of meeting Mao in China in 1976, just months before the Chinese leader died. The book said: "Singapore's (former) premier, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mao's penultimate visitor, described an almost-inarticulate Mao grunting, head lolling against the back of his armchair."
Chang's latest work, on the Empress Dowager Cixi, took six years to complete and was released last month. She said it was while doing research for Wild Swans more than 20 years ago that the idea for the Cixi biography first came to her.
"Like most Chinese, I grew up believing that the Qing empress was a vicious, manipulative and evil person," she said.
"But, while doing the research, I discovered that she was also the one who banned feet binding for women, promoted diplomacy with foreign countries and, in her last days, even attempted to create a constitutional monarchy and prepared to give the Chinese people the right to vote."
She began to view Cixi in a different light and came to regard the empress, who ruled Qing China unofficially for 47 years from 1861 to her death in 1908, as the woman who pioneered mediaeval China's move to modernity.
Criticism of her Cixi biography has started to come, but Chang maintained: "She is no doubt a giant for ruling over a third of the world's population for nearly half a century, but she is not a saint. Of course, she had her imperfections. I am only surprised she was not more ruthless and cruel."
Meanwhile, Chang is thinking of the next biography to write.
"I hope it will be another woman. I like to write about women."