You wrote Wild Swans 21 years ago but the book is still banned in China. Is there no sign of the censorship lifting?
The repression is very much there. Mao’s portrait is still on Tiananmen Square; his face is still on every Chinese banknote. He was responsible for the death of over 70 million Chinese in peacetime. The history of 20th-century China is still taboo – you have to toe the party line. If you don’t, you get banned.
Do you believe one day it will be read freely?
I thought the growing wealth and openness of the country with the internet would allow books like Wild Swans to get published, but I’ve lost faith. The Communist Party seems to have found a way of having economic achievement and keeping a tight control.
There must be copies that circulate in China?
People have scanned the book on to the internet for other people to download. This is a form of piracy, but one that I totally endorse. But, of course, China also has a big internet police.
How aware are you of their presence?
I’ve seen censorship working in front of my eyes, here in London. I was looking at a Chinese blog about my biography of Mao and when I was halfway, a box appeared which said, “This piece is currently under examination.” A few seconds later the whole thing went, and another box appeared: “This piece has been censored.”
To you, how much has China changed?
I go back once a year to see my mother. It has changed tremendously. I grew up in Chengdu, and my mother still lives there, but the city is unrecognisable, which is very sad. I’ve seen the destruction of old China. The China of my childhood was very different from the China of my youth. After the Great Leap, things were destroyed; and then in the Cultural Revolution, the city wall in Chengdu was dismantled to make place for a giant statue of Mao. After I left in 1978, there was another wave of destruction.
Why do you think the destruction continues?
There’s no sense of heritage. Mao destroyed the culture and produced a generation of philistines who do not appreciate culture. Now, people
are money-mad and property is the thing that makes money. The regime made a positive decision to channel people’s energy into money-making so they won’t be interested in politics.
China is now commonly described as the leading superpower. But is this simplistic, given the poverty that still exists?
It does frustrate me. There is huge discontent and also a huge lack of moral authority. The country seems to be still worshipping Mao. I can’t imagine a leading world power that has any kind of support from the rest of the world if you still worship a mass murderer.
Is it the eradication of culture that motivates you to write about the old China?
Most people want to write not because they have grand ideals, but because they simply love writing. That’s the case with me.
What is it about writing that you love?
It gives me immense tranquillity; it makes me feel most at peace with myself if I sit there engaged with a project I love. Mao was a bad man, but he was a very good subject – I was totally engrossed. Twelve years went by, only with regret that they were gone.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a book about the [Qing] empress dowager Cixi. She ruled China for decades, far longer than Mao. It was she who really brought China into modernity, but she has been maligned for a hundred years [Cixi died in 1908].
What drew you to her?
I first got interested in her when I was writing Wild Swans. My grandmother had bound feet and I was under some impression, because of Communist propaganda, that foot-binding was banned by the Communists. In my research, I discovered that it was the empress dowager who banned foot-binding at the beginning of the 20th century. I got very interested in her.
Is there a relief in not writing about yourself?
I loved writing Wild Swans, but it was quite painful. Writing Mao was painful but it was a different kind of pain. Wild Swans helped me transform my past into memories. I can’t tell you how important that is. Once they become memories, you can talk about them without feeling unbearable pain. Before I wrote Wild Swans I had nightmares. But now that’s gone.
Do you vote?
From time to time.
Is there anything you would like to forget?
There was a time, when I first came to this country, that I wanted to forget about China and my past. I went around telling people I was South Korean because I didn’t want them to ask me questions about China.
Are we all doomed?
I would not say we are not doomed, but I’m not certain we are doomed. I sometimes do have an ominous feeling.
1952 Born in Sichuan Province, China
1978 Moves to Britain for a year’s study. Wins scholarship from University of York
1982 Is awarded PhD in linguistics
1991 Publishes Wild Swans, her memoir of three generations of her family
2005 Mao: the Unknown Story, co-written with her husband, Jon Halliday
2012 Marks 21 years of Wild Swans. Speaks at Words in the Park, west London, 19 May (wayswithwords.co.uk)