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Wild Swans author Jung Chang "It is me that is being banned. I feel very sad... there is nothing I can do"

Her latest book looks at the lives of the ‘fairytale’ Soong sisters and their rise to power.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

“THE THING I wanted most was for people in China to read my books,” author Jung Chang said of her bestselling accounts of historical figures from modern Chinese society.

Her first book, Wild Swans, was an international bestseller, and propelled her into a career writing about ordinary and extraordinary figures of modern China. 

Her latest book, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is published this month but a nationwide ban on her books in mainland China means it might never reach the hands of many people in her homeland. 

“I feel very sad, frustrated and of course, any writer would be disappointed. I’m in the process of translating Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister into Chinese. I invest a lot of time, and put my heart and mind into this, and there is nothing I can do,” she said in an interview with TheJournal.ie

Her books, from Wild Swans to her latest Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister are all banned for her portayal of Modern China, which is unsympathetic to the image fostered by the Chinese authorities. 

It relates in particular to her text Mao: The Unknown Story about the Communist Party leader and founder of the People’s Republic of China, and her later writing on the Empress Dowager Cixi, who controlled the Chinese government at the end of the 19th century.

China operates a strict ban on books and biographies of political figures, and anyone who imports or circulates these texts faces severe penalties. The long-instated censorship is seen as a way to restrict questioning of the official history portrayed by Beijing.

But the 67-year-old, who now lives in the UK with her husband, Louth-man Jon Halliday, challenges that very history in her work using documented evidence and accounts.

As a result, she has been banned from entering China – save for two weeks of the year when she is allowed to visit her elderly mother.

“Writing a biography, you have to have a lot of detail and we all know the devil is in the detail,” she explains.

“Once you ask questions, you immediately find the propaganda and the myths don’t add up. They don’t make sense. That’s how I have always come to the truth, or as close to the truth than that myth and propaganda.

“Propaganda is always vague, which is why they don’t want people to do research because once you start to ask questions, you inevitably dig up the true story.”

image002 (1) Source: Penguin Random House

Her latest book explores the lives of the three Soong sisters from Shanghai, who at the beginning of the 20th century were key figures among the political elite.

The three women are revered as “fairytale figures” in modern Chinese society but hundreds of documents and interviews later revealed the story portrayed to millions of Chinese citizens is not as accurate as Beijing would claim. 

Red Sister, Ching Ling married Sun Yat Sen, considered the ‘father’ of the Chinese republic; Little Sister May Ling became the first lady of pre-Communist China, while Big Sister, Ei Ling became a political advisor – each had a lasting effect on Chinese politics. 

“It goes without saying that this book is going to be banned. A lot of Chinese publishers thought my first book, the Empress Dowager, may not be banned because she’s a historical figure and died in 1908, she’s harmless to the party.

She said that publishers had contacted her and asked her permission to market the book in China. “Then they went back and asked their bosses and they all invariably said no. So it’s going to be banned too.”

“It’s me that is being banned because if the book does well, and by association my other books do well, particularly the biography of Mao, it will make people interested.”

Myth

A widely-known tale in China involves Ching Ling or ‘Red Sister’, and the wife of Sun Yat Sen – the ‘father’ of China. The story is documented in Jung’s book but turns the official narrative on its head.

Sun, a revered figure in Chinese history, was the leader of the Nationalist Party of China and was instrumental in the revolution which ended the two-and-a-half century rein of the Qing dynasty. 

“There is a famous story of Sun Yat Sen and Ching Ling in the book about a time when they were surrounded by Sun’s political enemies,” Jung explained. 

“It goes that she volunteered to cover his escape and that’s as far as the official telling goes. She is in love with him, passionately, and wanted to sacrifice herself for him.

“That’s all true, but once I started writing, I realised there were many hours between his escape that were not counted for. He left her so she covered him to escape. But even when he reached safety he still didn’t want her to leave.

“I discovered this by looking at the hour he went and the hour he reached safety – these are all records that are kept.

“So I asked why there are so many hours between when he reached safety at 3pm and when the enemy attack happened at 8pm. There were five hours, so why didn’t he alert her, let her escape. I drew the conclusion that he didn’t want her to leave at all. 

“He wanted her to be the bait for the enemy attacks and if she left, the 50 guards he left her with would have gone and there would be no one to resist the enemy and there would be no battle… so it made sense to him that she should be there to stir up the battle.”

“If you go into the detail, if you try to add things up, you inevitably discover the truth.”

Jung has been documenting the history of modern China from her own personal perspective and the broader public perspective for almost 30 years. 

Wild Swans, published in 1991, documents her own experience, as well as the experiences of her mother and grandmother living in China. It became an international bestseller, was translated into almost 40 languages and sold 13 million copies. 

In the years following its publication, her later works continued to make bestseller lists in the UK and beyond. 

Her intention, she says, is to “demystify modern Chinese figures” and “correct the falsification of history. In doing so, she admits to giving a voice to female figures throughout modern China’s history. 

“I don’t do that consciously but I do hope that’s what I do. People, through knowing the real Soong sisters who had been like fairy tale figures, as unreal to me as other people, will now get to know real Chinese women a bit more. 

“I don’t want to write a book to go over well-trodden ground and parrot what everybody else is saying. If the book has nothing surprising in it then I wouldn’t want to write it.”

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang is out now, published by Vintage.

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