Written by Kenne Mwikya
The Wangari Maathai memorial lecture seeks to bring thinkers from around the world who share the late Nobel Laureate’s enthusiasm for change, her courage and resilience in the face of adversity. Who, then, is a better candidate for the inaugural lecture than the writer and historian Jung Chang author of Wild Swans which chronicles the lives of three women living in China before and during the Mao years?
Jung Chang is an engaging speaker, arranging her lecture as a series of anecdotes and events found in two of her books. Though most were light hearted like getting a chance at an interview with Mobutu Sese Seko at a salon where the despot was trapped under a steamer, some, like the story of her foot bound grandmother walking a long distance under excruciating pain with Jung’s mother on her back to escape adoption of the child by a dead general’s wife, are extremely heartrending.
Her process as a writer wasn’t something she was up to. Life after her father openly criticised Mao (he was a high ranking cadre) was difficult and seemed insurmountable. Public denunciation beatings and torture left his father mentally ill and sent Jung to far flung areas of China to work as a peasant “doctor”. Getting a degree and a master’s in English in China with little material from the west to rely on, she finally got a chance to go study for a PhD in the UK. Life in China had been hard, and she tried to forget, refusing to turn inwards, refusing to even talk about it with fellow colleagues and friends at college (she lied she was South Korean to evade probing questions).
A visit by her mother changed all this. She incessantly kept conversation with her daughter, even recording herself over the six months she visited and accumulating about 60 hours of material. It was then that Jung felt the need, the demand placed upon her by her mother, to record these stories in a book. Working at it and getting a publisher, she didn’t think it would sell but her mother assured her that it didn’t matter; putting the history on record brought them together in ways they had never experienced before.
Over question time, John Kampfner asked her whether there was any anger or bitterness when she was writing Mao: The Untold Story. “To be reticent isn’t an effective way of writing,” came Jung’s reply. She had deleted angry scenes where criticism of Mao became too passionate to accept reason. In fact, the anger she experienced was of a different kind than she’d anticipated. She knew things were bad, she has covered the Great Famine in Wild Swans but she hadn’t expected that things were that bad! For instance, she found out that the famine wasn’t because of bad economic management by the regime, but that Mao had actually anticipated it, selling food to Russia for military equipment and industries. People had to be taught to eat less, and he would see his own people die in the face of military expansion. Asked by a member of the audience about criticism of her work, she dismissed critics for being apologists for Maoism, sticking to earlier statements by her and John Halliday that they came to conclusions in the book on account of the large corpus of evidence they had collected for more than a decade.
Asked by John about China’s refusal to dispense with Mao’s legacy even in an age of authoritarian capitalism, Jung contended that this was due to the power and money it accrued. This preservation worked hand in had with indoctrination and censorship; Jung’s books have been banned in mainland China. Jung doesn’t believe that, like Mao, modern China is using soft power to export its political model to the rest of the world. Jung also contested the dichotomy of a western/eastern political model: they are pretty much the same. So, the introduction of university faculties offering programmes on Confucianism isn’t a bad thing. Mao condemned the philosopher, intolerant to anyone more popular than him, Jung jokes.
About whether we could expect a creative outpouring from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and years of continued censorship and indoctrination, Jung Chang gave a tentative answer on her thoughts on the future. The 11 year dark age where books and films from the outside world were banned and knowledge seeking in academic institution deemed “bourgeois and reactionary” had left an indelible mark on too many a creative enterprise. Good filmmakers became a parodying lot, shooting Kung Fu movies from an indeterminable past, intellectuals still have to prostrate their work to acceptable topics and content as deemed by the state and cultural work that yearns to enter the new century looking back and forward is stifled. And yet, there is hope, Jung’s book are freely sold in Taiwan and Hong Kong, pirated copies cheekily shared across a heavily policed internet and a blogger culture up to the task of criticising state policy and their economic, social and political reality is burgeoning in unprecedented ways. A world of possibilities.