Jung Chang Talkasia Interview Transcript
Airdate: July 23rd, 2005
LH: Lorraine Hahn
LH: Hello and welcome to TalkAsia, I'm Lorraine Hahn. My guest today is author Jung Chang, whose Wild Swans remains one of the best-selling non-fiction books in publishing history. Born in Sichuan China in 1952, Jung Chang grew up during the Cultural Revolution. She studied English at university and went on to become the first person from China to earn a PhD. in Britain. In 1992 she released Wild Swans, about the lives of three generations of women in her family. The book offered shocking insights into life in China in the 20th century and won immediate critical acclaim. Jung Chang joins me now to talk about her latest book, the biography of Chairman Mao, which she co-wrote with her husband John Halliday.
Jung Chang welcome to TalkAsia and Hong Kong, thank you very much for joining us. I wanted to start by asking you about this new book, Mao: The Unknown Story. Can you share with us, maybe for somebody who hasn't even picked up the book yet, some of the myths around Mao that you try and debunk.
JC: There are so many myth about the Long March. To start with there was the myth that Mao walked about 6,000 miles on foot, heroically - in fact he was carried most of the time on the litter. And he had actually designed the litter himself so he could lie back more comfortably. You know it was a long...like a reclining bed with a cover that would shield him from the rain and the sun. Later he actually said to his staff, "During the Long March I was lying in the litter, I had nothing to do. What did I do? I read, I read a lot." Mao was also a voracious reader. Another myth for example was Mao during the war against Japan: the myth was that he was an ardent patriot. Then we discovered Mao's strategy for the war against Japan. He did not see the Japanese war, the war against Japan, as the Chinese against the Japanese. He saw it as the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists. A sort of a triangular warfare, and he wanted to use the Japanese to destroy Chiang Kai-shek's state so he could come to power. He actually said to some visiting Japanese who apologized for the war, Mao said: "Don't apologize. We should thank you. Without you occupying a large part of China, we would not have been able to come to Beijing." To power he meant. And then the thing that we ask: has Mao got any strategy to drive out the Japanese after the Japanese destroyed Chiang Kai-shek? And then we discovered that he didn't. His only strategy was for Russia to intervene. And he even envisaged the situation for the Russians and the Japanese to divide China, like starting a Nazi Germany dividing Poland. He even thought of the border, which was the Yangtze River, and he envisaged himself ruling the Russian controlled part of China.
LH: Wow some of the details were just amazing. I mean you must have had to deal with a ton of research and so on, and information. How do you get organized?
JC: My husband and I, Jon Halliday, spent twelve years of our life working on this book. We interviewed nearly everybody outside China who had interesting dealings with Mao. And in China we interviewed over 150: Mao's inner circle, top echelon, his personal staff, his family and friends and relatives, even friends going back to 1914. We combed through archive materials, you know we spent a lot of time working on it. We also had great fun, we were like two detectives. We had a fabulous time and we found out a lot of things which we didn't know which were completely shocking.
LH: How did you get them to open up to you and talk to you and release this information that I presume was never released before?
JC: You know you'd be surprised how eager people were to open up and talk. I mean most people we interviewed were very old; they wanted to leave the sort of historical testimony to history and to the future generations before they died. And of course I always give people a copy of Wild Swans. Wild Swans is still banned in China but many people have read it, you know have heard about it. So I gave them a copy of the book and they knew what sort of a book I'm...I was going to write. And they decided that I'm honest, I wanted to write an honest book that is not party line.
LH: That is amazing. Now some say Jung, that you haven't sort of balanced the criticisms about Mao. That you know surely there must be something good about the man.
JC: I think we can't say surely, you know we kept an open mind and we looked for the things he did. And quite honestly we haven't been able to find the things that the people claim he was, you know, claim credit for him. For example, people say that Mao was the nation builder of China - he unified China. In fact that's not at all true; it was Chiang Kai-shek who unified China, and Mao merely imposed a totalitarian structure on the country. He also isolated China. You know under Chiang Kai-shek China was recognized, was one of the Great Four and was in the United Nations Security Council. Mao actually pulled China out of all that and isolated China from the world. He had done a lot of damage to China.
LH: Some people say you know he gave at least the Chinese pride in their motherland.
JC: People were dying of starvation, what pride was there? And Mao did have atom bomb. But that bomb cost tens of millions of Chinese lives. Because if we used the money to build the bomb to feed...instead of building the bomb, if we used the money to feed the people, not a single person in China would have to die. I mean the thing is this...after he took power in 1949 Mao's single minded pursuit was to build a military superpower so he himself could enjoy the fruit of dominating the world during his lifetime. Because he reckoned he had only 15 years to enjoy this - he was about 60 then when he launched the program. He rushed China. He extracted maximum food to export to Russia and Eastern Europe to buy the military hardware. And so he caused well over 70 million death.
LH: Jung we're going to take a very very short break. When we come back we'll ask Jung Chang about Wild Swans, the bestseller that made her a household name. Don't go away.
LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia. I'm talking today with celebrated author and Mao biographer, Jung Chang. Jung what was the driving force behind this book?
JC: Well I wanted to know a bit more about Mao, you know Mao dominated my earlier life. I saw him bringing disaster to my family. Both my mother...my father and my grandmother died in the Cultural Revolution, and I saw him turning the lives of a quarter of the world's population upside down. And yet I felt the world knew astonishingly little about him, and I certainly didn't know much. I didn't know what drove him, what went on in his head, how did he become the supreme leader of the Communist Party and then China, and what was he up to after he took power. I wanted to find out a bit more. And at first I thought the biography would take me two years, but in fact it has taken me and my husband twelve years.
LH: Twelve years researching one topic. How do you stay so focused?
JC: Well it's one topic but numerous myth. We have just one case after another to investigate. And we...you know like Mao's relationship with Stalin, his relationship with Nixon. You know before he died, the person he most identified with was Richard Nixon. And he sent a plane in spite of all his anti-American rhetoric; he sent a Chinese plane all the way to America to fetch Nixon to say a private farewell. Nixon came in February and Mao died in September. And he, you know, when Chiang Kai-shek, his archenemy died, Mao spent the whole day mourning Chiang Kai-shek, which was also completely unknown. I mean he slaughtered millions of people to keep Chiang Kai-shek out of power and yet he identified with Chiang Kai-shek. He had this sort of syndrome of "fallen kings," he identified with leaders who are disgraced. And he was full of self-pity when he died because he saw himself as a "fallen king" -- he didn't fulfill his dream of becoming a military superpower and dominating the world. He was full of self-pity and yet he didn't spare a thought for these tens of millions of people who perished in his pursuit.
LH: How do you draw the line and where do you draw the line rather, between interest and let's say obsession in a particular topic?
JC: It's not sort of obsession. I think obsession suggests something sort of unhealthy, and ours is curiosity: historian's curiosity and writer's curiosity. We just wanted to get to the bottom of things and wanted to get into his head - and I believe we have.
LH: You mentioned to me earlier that you were like "two detectives" when you were researching your book. Did you feel at all at any time that maybe what you were doing was pretty dangerous?
JC: We knew perhaps the regime would not like it because the current Chinese government still claims legitimacy from Mao. You know China's not a democracy; people would ask why are you in power. So their answer is you know, "We are Mao's heirs. Mao is the founding father of China and we are his successors." And Mao's portrait is still on Tiananmen Square. We didn't feel...well you know the danger of course is always at the back of our mind, but more we feel a sense of outrage. And I feel it's so unacceptable for them to claim that, and for Mao's portrait still dominate Tiananmen Square. The equivalent would be Hitler's portrait still dominates the center of Berlin, and the German leaders claim themselves to be Hitler's heir. I think the world should be very worried.
LH: So you weren't really worried about upsetting the Chinese authorities, you know maybe banning...they may ban you from traveling to China. Or even your family - you have your mother or sister still in China. Any sort of repercussions, you weren't worried about that?
JC: Well we certainly were not worried about upsetting the Chinese government. You know we are writers and we write independently, we write the truth. And I...well of course I worry about being banned from entering China. I love China; I regard it as my country and my people, I love people dearly. In fact through writing Mao and writing Wild Swans, I felt a deeper sense of love for the Chinese people knowing what they have been through. I love my mother dearly; of course I hate not being able to go back to China to see her. I just hope this is going to be unlikely, you know this scenario of me being banned...I hope it's going to be unlikely.
LH: You said that when you were writing Wild Swans before it was very therapeutic. Was this book therapeutic as well?
JC: Not exactly I must say, because when I started writing Wild Swans it was 1988. You know my mother came to London to stay with me and told me the stories of my grandmother, my mother and my father. Up till that time I had been in Britain for ten years - I left China in 1978, two years after Mao died. And for a long time I didn't want to think about China, it had many painful memories there. But my mother's visit made up my mind to write Wild Swans. And as a result I wanted to go back to China; I wanted to think about China, I feel more Chinese than ever. So I think that was very therapeutic. But Mao, I think Mao was more investigative, was more to write a book for history.
LH: Jung we're going to take another very, very short break. When we come back we'll be asking Jung Chang about her other passions, and how life is these days for her in London. Stay with us.
LH: Welcome back, you're watching TalkAsia and my guest is author Jung Chang. Jung you were given a different name correct, when you were born? It wasn't Jung Chang...
JC: No it wasn't. You know when I was born I was given the name Er-hong, which means the second wild swan. You know the word hong, which means wild swans is part of my mother's name and part of my old name. But when I was growing up in China in the 1960s, China was increasingly becoming regimented and all my friends changed their names to you know Chang - the army, Lee - the soldier. And so I asked my father to give me a different name and I said I want a name with a military ring to it. So I got the name Jung, which actually is a classic name which means "military affairs." But it's a lovely name with the character which now only exists in poetry, classic poetry and some antiquated phrases. So I...that's how I got the name Jung.
LH: When you look back at your days as a Red Guard, how do you feel? Do you still think about it sometimes or...
JC: Yes, I mean you know I became a Red Guard when I was fourteen, when the Cultural Revolution started in 1966. I had been brought up in this intense personality cult of Mao, Mao was like our god. I mean there was a song every child in China learned to sing which went: "Father is close, mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao." So when Mao ordered all the youngsters in China to become Red Guards, it just was out of the question that we didn't want to join. In fact not to be included was a sign of ostracism. And so that's how I became a Red Guard. But I was only in the Red Guard for a couple of months and then left. And this was because there was a lot of violence and atrocities in my school. My school is, I think is one of the oldest public schools in China -- it was founded in 141 BC, and there were lot of antiques in our school. They were smashed, the teachers were abused. And my parents also became victims of the Cultural Revolution. My father was one of the few who stood up to Mao and protested against the Cultural Revolution. He was imprisoned, tortured, driven insane and exiled to a camp and died at the age of 54. My mother was under tremendous pressure to denounce my father; she refused. But you know she went through over a hundred violent denunciation meetings. Her head was pushed down, her arms were twisted to the back, and she was made to kneel on broken glass, paraded in the streets. And so there were a lot of terrible things happening all around me.
LH: Right, your life in London these days, you've spent what now, almost thirty years there now? That's a long time.
JC: Yes, I arrived in 1978.
LH: Would you ever consider ever going back maybe to China to live and join your mother or your sister? Or is England now home, is London now home?
JC: London is home. I'm married to an English man, half English half Irish, you know we co-wrote this biography of Mao together, Jon Halliday. And I love him, I love London, I love England. I fell in love with Britain as soon as I arrived. (LH: No culture shock?) No, you know London was like another planet in those days. And yet you know I felt immediately at home. You know when we first arrived we were all wearing this Mao suit and we had to move in a group. We were not allowed to go to lots of places, particularly the pub. We were told not to go to the pub, because the Chinese translation for pub, jiu ba, suggested somewhere indecent with nude women gyrating. But I was torn with curiosity of course so one day I sneaked into a pub. I pushed the door open, I saw nothing of the kind of course only some old man sitting there drinking beer. I was rather disappointed of course. But I did so many things, I had so many adventures when I first arrived.
LH: And working with your husband, was that difficult? I mean did you have disagreements on angles, approach, whatever?
JC: We have lots of disagreements but not difficult, because we are you know we are hitting ideas at each other. My husband did most of the research in the Russian archives - he speaks Russian, and the Russian archives are a treasure trove. And together we interviewed people around the world and we traveled in China together, and we are you know we are a very happy team. I think only the collaboration that can produce this book, because we constantly worked out Mao's life together.
LH: With all the work that both of you put in, or yourself, how do you unwind? Do you read, I don't know, shop?
JC: Shop, yes...and yes. And gardening, which I like very much, and I love skiing, I charge my battery skiing. And I have, we together have many friends, we like the same kind of people. We have many friends; we have wonderful times. We're not at all, you know we don't reject the fun, we love the fun, we love the fun of research!
LH: Are you working on anything now? Next project?
JC: I'm translating the biography of Mao into Chinese because my biggest wish is for Chinese people in mainland China to read it...
LH: Jung thank you very very much it is a pleasure to meet you (JC: Thank you). That is TalkAsia for this week, I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.
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