Jung Chang: The author of 'Wild Swans' on ruthless empresses, English pubs, and why email monitoring is nothing new to her
In Wild Swans, you speak about being encouraged to inform on people from a young age. How did that culture leave its mark on you?
I'm cautious of people. But when I was in China, I saw people take tremendous risks not to inform on others. You make real friends: friends who are life and death. And, of course, I have more understanding when I encounter treachery and meanness. I sort of take it in my stride.
If you could write to the 12-year-old you, what would you say?
I think she did pretty good. The moment I caught a real glimpse of what Maoism was like in the Cultural Revolution, I rejected it. When my parents became victims, I was ready to do anything for them, to die. So I feel I would say to my 12-year-old self, "Well done".
Does the monitoring of communications in the West concern you?
Not me personally, because I know I'm under Chinese government surveillance so I assume all my emails and postcards are read and my telephone calls to my mother in China are listened to. That has been built into my system. From that background, I don't feel as startled as the general British public. But, of course, I fully sympathise with the desire to preserve liberty and privacy.
If you visit China today, there are Starbucks and McDonald's on every street. Yet Wild Swans is still banned. Do you see that changing in your lifetime?
No. I am rather pessimistic. I think I probably won't see the publication of Wild Swans and particularly Mao: The Unknown Story, and probably even the Empress Dowager. I am banned as an author. But I live in hope, my latest book is being published in Chinese in Taiwan this summer.
Did you get a sense of knowing Empress Dowager Cixi?
I got to know her very well. Her main achievement was to bring China into a modern society and she had many qualities. She was ruthless: when someone took up armed rebellion, she would crush them. Then she had a wide range of interests: she loved horticulture, she bred dogs, tamed birds and was an accomplished painter.
You travelled from China to Yorkshire, via London, in 1978. That must have been a big culture shock?
I love York, I was there yesterday. I went to my room where I stayed and looked out the window over the lake. Every morning I was woken up by water birds. I had a wonderful time there: I learnt far more than linguistics.
Do you remember when your mind-set shifted?
I remember the day I went to see my supervisor to discuss my PhD proposal. I babbled on and then he said, "Now show me your thesis". And I said, "What are you talking about? I haven't started yet". And he said, "But you have all the conclusions". It was as if that single question undid the knot that had been fixed by my totalitarian education.
Did you live the student life?
Yes, I was particularly keen on pubs. When I first came to London, we were warned against going into an English pub. The Chinese translation suggested somewhere indecent, with nude women gyrating. I was torn with curiosity, of course. One night I sneaked out of my college, darted across the road and into the pub and I saw nothing of the kind. I was really rather disappointed.
Jung Chang, 62, was born in Sichuan, China, three years after Mao took power. She wrote about her upbringing in ‘Wild Swans’, the third bestselling novel of all time. Her latest book, ‘Empress Dowager Cixi’, is out now in paperback
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Man who held up 'hire me' sign at Waterloo station returns a year later with 'I'm hiring' sign
- 2 UK weather: Snow to fall in the coming week with sub-zero temperatures to last until early February
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Warriors in ancient Iraq suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder more than 3,000 years ago, say researchers
- 5 This crazy skiing video will leave you feeling queasy
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Mr Selfridge series 3: Actress Kara Tointon says 'we're starting to see his demise'
Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors
Downton Abbey season 5 episode 6 - review: Thomas and Lady Edith show sad signs of the times
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
George Galloway condemns 'racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag' Charlie Hebdo at freedom of speech rally
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party