BOOK REVIEW / The noise of Chinese whispers: Jung Chang on the maternal memories behind Wild Swans (Flamingo, pounds 6.99)

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE always dreamed of being a writer. In my teens in China, I worked as a peasant and an electrician. While I was spreading manure in the paddy fields and checking power distribution at the top of electricity poles, I would polish long passages in my mind. But the idea of writing for publication seemed out of the question. China was consumed by endless political persecution in those days, and most writers were denounced; many were sent to prison camps. In 1966, when I was 14, the great majority of books were burnt across China. Even writing for oneself was extremely dangerous. I had to tear up the first poem I ever wrote, which was on my 16th birthday on 25 March 1968, and flush it down the toilet because Red Guards had come to raid our flat.

I came to Britain in 1978. In a world that felt like another planet, I began to develop an urge to write about my life in China. But subconsciously, I could not dig deep into my memory. In the violent Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, my family suffered atrociously. I did not want to relive the nightmare of my father's imprisonment and insanity, my mother's kneeling on broken glass, or my grandmother's painful death.

In 1988, my mother came to London, her first trip out of China. One day, she suddenly told me what she wanted to do most was to talk to me.

She talked every day for months. By the time she left Britain, my mother had done 60 hours of tape recordings, and I had been overwhelmed by her longing to be understood by me. Here, outside the social and political confines of China, she was able to do something she had not been able to do all her life: open her mind and her heart.

I learnt about my mother's many close shaves with death, her spells in detention, her torments, and her emotional conflict with my father, whose first love was his ideal, communism. I also came to know the agonising details of my grandmother's footbinding: how her feet were broken and crushed under a big stone when she was two to satisfy the standards of beauty of the day. And yet, my mother's stories were not unbearable or depressing. Underlining them was a strength that was all the time uplifting.

As if some of the strength were now injected in me, I made up my mind to write Wild Swans, the story of my grandmother, my mother and myself through the turbulence of 20th-century China. For two and a half years, I shed my fair share of tears, and tossed and turned through quite a few sleepless nights. But I persevered.

Then, near the date of publication, just as I was beginning to worry about how the book would be received, my mother wrote and told me not to be disheartened if people paid no attention to it. I had made her a happy woman because writing the book had brought us closer. This alone, she said, was enough for her. My mother was right: I had come to a new degree of closeness to her. What was more, I was happy I was now able, through the book, to pay her a small tribute.

Wild Swans turned out to be a success. It has brought my mother and me surprising joys beyond our dreams. My mother has found understanding from millions of readers all over the world in numerous moving letters. And I, at last, have become a writer.