It is 35 years since Jung Chang arrived in Britain from Communist China and 22 years since the publication of Wild Swans, her bestselling memoir. She is 61 now. And yet the figure picking her away across the hotel restaurant looks, from a distance, like a young girl.
She is wearing a short white dress, cinched at the waist with a wide belt, and high, strappy beige boots cut out at the toe. Her hair is long and black, youthfully half-bunched, and her face seems unlined.
The venue – the five-star Royal Garden Hotel in London – was chosen by her. It is an imposing establishment. A single orchid floats in a glass bowl on the table, the waiting staff give small bows. I am expecting Chang to be as grand, or at least to wear a certain pre-eminence on her sleeve. She has earned the right.
Wild Swans, in which 100 years of Chinese history is told through the eyes of three women (her grandmother, her mother and her), became the highest-selling non-fiction paperback book ever published.
Translated into 37 languages, and selling more than 10 million copies, it established Chang as the spokesperson of 20th-century China, a woman who experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand – including her parents’ torture, her own brainwashing as a member of the Red Guard, periods of forced labour, and subsequent disillusionment – but who recorded it with a calm if moving dispassion.
Mao: The Unknown Story, a 900-page biography she published in 2005 with her husband, further established her academic credentials.
But Chang, when she sits down, only wants a glass of tap water, and her manner is more nervous than imperious. She talks as if she expects me not to know who she is. (“Wild Swans, my book in which…”)
Her manicured nails are as shiny as oyster-shells, but she fidgets a lot, folding the skirt of the dress over and over, and smoothing the buttons. She has just got back, she tells me, from a friend’s birthday party.
I mishear the location and when we establish that the celebration took place on the Greek island of Hydra, she blames herself for my misunderstanding, shaking her head and repeating, “Sorry, sorry… Yes… My mistake, the pronunciation.” She has a small habit of speech, too, a noise she uses to punctuate her thoughts, half smack of the lips, half hum.
Her third book, which she is here to discuss, is a biography of Empress Dowager Cixi . Cixi was a semi-literate concubine who, through her own determination and wiles, ruled China behind the scenes from 1861 to 1908.
It is a serious work, based on eight years of research, but as well as being a political portrait it is as full of fascinating detail about eunuchs, Pekinese “sleeve dogs” (so small emperors would carry them in their robes’ sleeves) and Chinese habits of mind (the tendency to appease a deadly force by exalting it – so smallpox was known as “heavenly flowers”).
Cixi, Chang argues, was not the brutal despot of conventional opinion, but a free thinker who opened the doors to the West, revolutionised the education system, abolished such cruel practices as foot-binding and “death by a thousand cuts” (in which the victim was sliced up alive), and embarked upon a system of modernisation, including industry, railways, the freedom of the press, women’s liberation and plans for parliamentary elections.
Cixi’s last act was to poison her own stepson, to prevent his rule. “Isn’t it unbelievable?” Chang says, with glee. “He was no good… He was obsessed with clocks… He was content never to travel from the Forbidden City, or to meet outsiders. He would have been a catastrophe. She has been universally maligned for 100 years, mainly because she was a woman. But how can you not feel..?”
Chang emits a small hum. “He is the one regarded as the hero, but it’s the Empress Dowager who deserves our sympathy!”
Would she agree, I venture, that she had fallen in love with her subject? She smiles broadly. “Yes. Yes. I did. I’m afraid I did. I felt, I very felt… um. I try to keep a detached tone, but I never wanted to erase the passion in my writing. This is my interpretation of her, my take on the facts.” She throws back her head and laughs. “Fall in love with her? Yes. I did.”
Both Chang’s previous books are banned in China, and she is only allowed to return there, to visit her sister and mother (her three brothers live in Canada, France and Britain), on condition she visits no other friends and avoids all travel and political activities. Much of the research for this biography took place in the Chinese archives.
“Cixi is OK because she is history, and actually the Ching period is a big period to study in China because it was the height of the Chinese empire.” She gives a wry smile. “I think the authorities might have been rather relieved that I was going into a history rather than a Communist leader.”
Does she think this might be her first book to be published there? She picks her words carefully. “I think if someone else had written it, it would be fine. But they won’t want to raise my profile.”
You can tell she is careful what she says – she doesn’t want to bring attention to her friends and family. But her scholarship is, of course, itself a criticism.
In conversation, Chang repeatedly contrasts the policies of the Empress Dowager with those of the Communist regime. The speed of modernisation, she says, did untold damage to the Chinese landscape and culture – both of which Cixi was careful to safeguard. “In the mad rush of high-speed growth people did the most devastating thing – they destroyed nature.”
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