Chairman Mao nearly killed Jung Chang. "There were no safety rules in my factory," she recalls. "I realised there was probably a screw loose at the back of a power-distribution board. I was so stupid. Instead of switching off the electric supply first, I poked my screwdriver into the labyrinth of live wires - at 380 volts - only to find that the screw was not loose after all. I felt my arm shaking with tension. I began to pull it back. Right at the very edge, a series of colossal jolts shot through my hand and down to my feet. I could easily have died."
In 1971 there was no Chinese equivalent of our Health and Safety Executive. "Nobody gave me any formal training. Mao didn't like rules. He said, 'The more books, the more stupid you become.' I had one book, an electrician's manual, but I didn't understand it. I couldn't even recognise a fuse."
Chairman Mao would cheerfully have added the 19-year-old to his millions of victims if he had foreseen that she would later write a devastating account of her experiences in the Cultural Revolution, Wild Swans, to be followed by Mao, the biography written with her husband, Jon Halliday (out in Vintage paperback today). She was in trouble because her parents were "class traitors" - former members of the Communist party elite. "I was exiled to the edge of the Himalayas, working for two years as a peasant and a 'barefoot doctor', that is, a doctor without training."
Finally she was allowed to return to her parents' home in Chengdu, the capital of the province of Sichuan: "This was a tremendous improvement. Urban people were guaranteed basic food and clothing." She was assigned to a local steel factory, where, for almost two years, she was part of a team of half a dozen electricians.
"I received five electric shocks in the first month. I had a fear of heights but an electrician was meant to go up the electricity poles inside and outside the main hall of the factory, which was three or four storeys high. I was afraid of getting up a ladder of five steps."
The experience had, like the lethal fusebox, its positive side: "Basically the job involved waiting to be called, allowing me a lot of time to study."
She was desperate to be selected for the university place reserved for just one worker out of the entire factory: "My fellow electricians voted for me and wrote a recommendation that made me out to be a model worker." When she left for university, a photograph was taken of this terrific bunch. Published in Wild Swans, it includes the man who was her boyfriend; but, for fear of landing him in political hot water, she will not, even three decades later, tell us which one he is.Reuse content