In 1978 the Chinese author Jung Chang left Communist China to study in Britain. Ten years later, inspired by a visit from her mother, she began writing about her life in her homeland. The resulting book, Wild Swans – which is still banned in mainland China – went on to smash bestseller records worldwide. Now Chang's story is set to make history again, with an international collaboration to perform it on stage for the first time.
The new work, co-produced by London's Young Vic, will appear in the British capital next April as part of World Stages London, a new season of international theatrical collaborations.
Speaking yesterday, Chang said she was "glad the Young Vic is going to transfer it [the book] into another art form".
"I was born and raised in China under Mao when China was cut off," she said. "In 1978 I was able to become one of the first group of 14 people to come to Britain. It was like another planet. I soon made friends with people from all over the world."
Chang, 59, was born to Communist Party parents in Sichuan Province. She became a member of the Red Guard when she was 14 and then worked in various jobs before studying English.
Yesterday, she revealed she was prompted to write Wild Swans, which has been translated into 30 languages and sold more than 10 million copies, after her mother visited her in London in 1988. It tells the true story of three female generations of Chang's family.
"I didn't want to write anything, I didn't want to look back at the past," said Chang. "[But] my mother came to stay with me, she talked every day, and she left me with 60 hours of tape recordings". She later added: "This new production means a lot to me. To see it on stage. It feels great to know that the play is in good hands."
In 1982, Chang became the first person from the People's Republic of China to earn a PhD from a British university, in linguistics from the University of York.
The new production will be directed by Sacha Wares who directed the Olivier Award-winning Sucker Punch, which appeared at the Royal Court last year. It will be adapted for the stage by young playwright Alexandra Wood. The designer Miriam Buether, who designed the sets for the Royal Opera House's Anna Nicole, which opened earlier this year.
"We have been working on this project for four years now," said The Young Vic's artistic director, David Lan. "It couldn't have come at a better moment. China couldn't be more in our consciousness. There are large numbers of people of Chinese extraction living in the capital. This is a way to think about people who are living around the corner."
The play is being produced in conjunction with the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts and the Actors Touring Company. It will premiere in Boston in February before coming to Britain.
Hefty tome flew off the shelves
* First published in 1991, Jung Chang's Wild Swans has been translated into 30 languages and sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Emotively critical of the Cultural Revolution and the hardships forced upon her family by China's Communist Party, the volume (as well as her subsequent biography of Mao Tse-tung) remains banned in Chang's homeland.
Reviewing it for The Independent in 1992, Lucy Hughes-Hallett wrote: "It is an extraordinary story ... popular history at its most compelling ... readiness to record life's small pleasures as well as its looming horrors is not only an index of Jung Chang's honesty and good humour; it is a part of what makes her book so fascinating."
Famed for her exhaustive research, Chang's Wild Swans is a hefty tome that charts her family history from 1894. The paperback version weighs in at 720 pages – none of which have yet been converted into celluloid, despite Portobello Pictures purchasing the film rights in 2006.