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How York study gave writer an open-minded ‘bombshell’
Wild Swans author Jung Chang will be in York on Thursday to talk about her life and work as part of the Festival of Ideas. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
JUNG Chang will never forget her first time in Britain.
It was 1978, a couple of years after the death of Mao. Things in China were beginning to change, and the young assistant lecturer from the University of Sichuan was among the first group of 14 Chinese scholars allowed to go abroad.
They were strictly controlled, living in Chinese embassy accommodation and not allowed to go out on their own. “We all wore Mao suits,” she says. “We were quite a sight!”
She began sneaking out on her own against the rules, to enjoy the sights and sounds of 1970s London. Every time she saw a Chinese person, she worried that they would inform her embassy. But she had a fantastic time, she says. “The year in London was fabulous. Everything was so different!”
Then came the offer of a scholarship to study for a masters degree in linguistics at the University of York. Her government approved the move – and she came here in 1979.
She was to stay for three years, becoming the first person from communist China, she says, to get a doctorate from a British university.
She has never forgotten an early conversation with her tutor inYork. She had rattled off a list of the linguistic theories she liked, and those she didn’t. “And at the end, he said ‘show me your thesis’,” she recalls.
She was startled; she hadn’t even begun to write it. He pretended to be surprised, and pointed out she seemed to have made up her mind about everything already.
It was a revelation, she says. In China, she’d been taught always to follow Mao or Marxist thought. “To keep an open mind was a bombshell!”
She loves York to this day. She loves London even more, where she lives with her British husband Jon Halliday. It was in London, while teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies, that she wrote Wild Swans, the story of three generations of women in 20th-century China – her grandmother, her mother and herself.
Memories of her family’s experiences in the Cultural Revolution were still raw when she first came to the UK, she says – so raw she didn’t want to write about them.
Her parents were both Communist Party cadres who were targeted in the chaos of the cultural revolution, as many high officials were.
She later wrote in Wild Swans about how they were publicly humiliated – ink was poured over their heads, they were forced to kneel in gravel and wear placards denouncing them around their necks, then were sent to prison.
“I wanted to forget all about that,” she says.
Then, in 1988, her mother came to visit her in London. Mother and daughter talked and talked. Her mother left her with 60 hours of tape recordings – and Wild Swans was born.
• Jung Chang will talk about her life and work at York Theatre Royal at 7.30pm on Thursday as part of the York Festival of Ideas. Tickets free from the Theatre Royal box office on 01904 623568.
• Festival of Ideas events will be held across the city until June 30.
For details, visit yorkfestivalofideas.com