Lord, Bette Bao. Spring Moon
(New York: Harper and Row, 1981, soft cover edition, 2004). 480 pp, $13.95.
Chang, Jung. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1991, soft cover edition, 2003). 544 pp, $15.00.
Both Spring Moon and Wild Swans
tell compelling personal stories reflecting changing times in 20th
century China. While the 450 to 500 pages of each reflect the tumultuous,
and many times painful, shift from traditional to modern China, the major
difference is that Wild Swans is a non-fiction memoir spanning three
generations of the author's family, while Spring Moon is a fictional
account of a wealthy clan living in luxury while the country experiences
political and social upheaval outside the secluded compound.
Both Lord and Chang are well equipped to write
these wonderful stories. Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans,
grew up in China with parents who were active leaders in the Communist party,
eventually falling victim to Mao's Cultural Revolution. Chang was one of
a lucky few given permission to study in Britain, receiving a doctorate
in linguistics from a British University. Although Wild Swans is
her first book, it does justice to the detailed story of three women's lives,
inspired by stories told to Chang by her mother. Chang includes her own
experiences as a Red Guard, peasant, "barefoot doctor," and steelworker
for the Party.
Bette Bao Lord, also born in China, moved
from Shanghai to Brooklyn as a child. An internationally best selling author,
she graduated from Tufts University and studied at the Fletcher School of
Law and Diplomacy.
Both Spring Moon and Wild Swans
are world history studies in the sense that they deal with the political
history of a country trying to establish itself as a power in the world,
drawing ancient traditions into the modern while building a unique national
identity separate from the West. Moreover, they are a glimpse into China
itself and the people who daily endured upheaval, hardship, and suffering
on a personal level as the country transformed itself. Both offer compelling
reading, while exquisite detail and personal stories leave the reader with
a vivid picture of the struggle for survival in the midst of political turmoil
in China over the last 100-plus years. Although Wild Swans is banned
in China, both books have become national and international best sellers.
A real life saga of three generations of women,
Wild Swans begins when foot-binding and concubinage could still define
women's realities, and ends in contemporary times when women gained leadership
roles in the communist party. The reader sees, through the author's eyes,
Chinese citizens living through Japanese occupation, struggles with the
Kuomintang, the "Cult of Mao," and the rise of the Communist Party. Especially
interesting was the intellectual evolution of the family's women as they
moved from devoted communists to disillusioned independent thinkers who
recognized the dangers inherent in blind loyalty to Mao.
Spring Moon, unlike Wild Swans,
focuses on a pampered daughter (named Spring Moon) who lived a secluded
life of luxury and privilege in the fictitious powerful house of Chang.
Over the course of the book, readers watch Spring Moon grow from a teenager
into an old woman facing a country torn by revolution. Her bound feet and
life of familial piety eventually stand in stark contrast to her own daughter's
"floppy" unbound feet and firm commitment to revolutionary change. Moreover,
the complicated love that develops between Spring Moon and her uncle, despite
marriages and children, provides an intriguing reflection of the larger
threat of change to her whole country and traditional way of life.
Teachers will benefit from reading both books
for historical background, and will be able to utilize excerpts to reinforce
the study of China from 1900 to the present. Useful also as summer reading
assignments, both books demonstrate change and continuity over time and
call heavily on the themes of traditional interactions, demography, social
and gender structure. While Wild Swans at times becomes heavy with
political detail, both teachers and students at the high school level and
above will be inspired by the story. In addition, the collection of family
photographs included in the book puts faces with names, making the story
come alive. Spring Moon, while much easier reading, is no less engrossing
although somewhat less politically detailed, involving the reader more deeply
in the personal turmoil of the fictional characters. They are, in fact,
a great compliment to each other.
Stillwater Area High School