FOR A MOMENT, as writer Jung Chang floats into Hong Kong’s exhibition centre during this year’s book fair in July, sound drains from the room. Movement stops. Even static, it seems, is not permitted to buzz. In a full-length silk tunic painted in soft aqua blues and greens, with nude stacked heels and a long mane of black hair piled high at the front, Chang, 61, is an arresting presence – somehow serene, yet powerful.
Eight years after the author published her scathing portrayal of Mao Zedong in Mao: The Unknown Story, she is back with a new revelatory book. This time, Chang delves further back into China’s history with the biography Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. It’s billed as a portrait of a complex and curious revolutionary, whose sensitivities will be a surprise to many, because Cixi is commonly thought of as a ruthless autocrat.
Chang’s interest in Cixi was piqued, she says, during research for her hugely successful book Wild Swans. She learned it was Cixi who banned the practice of foot binding in 1902, rather than, “thanks to my brainwashing”, the communists.
She was further drawn to the legendary figure after unravelling Mao’s boyhood freedoms, uncovered during the 10 years of research for that book. “I discovered how extraordinarily different his youth was to mine,” she says. “He was a peasant lad, but he had numerous opportunities: scholarships, he could go abroad. He had extraordinary freedom – he could read whatever he wanted to read and he could write whatever he wanted to write.”
Chang asserts that under the Dowager’s rule and in the shadow of her legacy following her death in 1908, the Chinese, including Mao, were afforded unprecedented freedoms. The same was not true of the biographer’s upbringing. Chang, born in 1952, says she always dreamed of becoming a writer, but that it simply wasn’t possible in the China she grew up with. She recalls flushing down the toilet a personal poem written in 1968 on her 16th birthday, as Red Guards raided her family’s flat. Her poetry could have been cause for danger. During the Cultural Revolution, she says, “nearly all writers were persecuted, driven to suicide, sent to the gulag. Some were executed.”
Later, when she was exiled and worked as a barefoot doctor, steel worker or electrician, her mind would stockpile words. “When I was spreading manure in the paddy fields, or when I was checking electricity supplies on top of the electricity pole, my mind would always be writing with an invisible pen. I just couldn’t put that pen on paper.”
In 1978, two years after Mao died, Chang was one of 14 students who won academic scholarships to study in the West. In the excitement of her new life in London, her words dried up. “To write would have meant to look back, look inwards, at things I would rather forget,” she recalls. “My father and my grandmother died in the Cultural Revolution and their deaths were the most painful spots in my heart. I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to enjoy life.”
It was her mother who reignited her writer’s spirit by recounting the family’s history during her first visit to London, leaving her daughter with 60 hours of recordings. “It was like my mother knew I had this unspoken dream and she was making it possible for me to fulfil my dream.”
The result was Wild Swans, the story of her grandmother, her mother and herself, which told heart-breaking stories of 20th-century China and communist rule. The book, which sold 13 million copies, afforded her, both in access and finances, the opportunity to write Mao: The Unknown Story, which exposed the leader as a crushing dictator with power equal to that of Hitler and Stalin.
When Chang talks, she is lively. Her chocolate-brown eyes sparkle almost as brightly as her diamond earrings. Her answers, well practiced now after two decades recalling anecdotes for inquisitive interviewers, still reel with emotion. For her, life must feel like a rags-to-riches Cinderella story. Does she ever ask herself why she came to tell her nation’s stories? “I just don’t know,” she replies. “I’m incredibly lucky to have found the most wonderful subjects.” She admits that such “luck” was combined with a certain courage – of going back, accessing files, meeting sources – but says there are plenty more courageous individuals living in China who do not have the means or freedoms to tell stories.
Despite both Wild Swans and Mao being banned in China, she has never been denied entry, and returns often to see her mother. But she’s worried that attitudes in the country are changing and that, once again, freedoms may be taken away. “There’s a resurgence of feeling towards Mao,” she says, with creased brow. It makes her fearful, not just for herself but for China’s people.
Yet the years living in China under communist rule, and then the years after, researching the tyranny, have failed to dampen her feelings for the country. “I grew up there. I only left at 26. Because of the country’s suffering and the people I know, it’s deep inside me, it’s under my skin.”