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16 October 2019

Jung Chang Q&A: “Not writing isn’t a scenario I would contemplate“

The author on communism, robots and the history of China.

By New Statesman

Jung Chang was born in Sichuan province, China, in 1952. She is the author of six books – including the bestselling “Wild Swans” – all of which are banned in China.

What’s your earliest memory?

I grew up in Communist China under Mao. When I was three, my mother was detained on suspicion of being a “counter-revolutionary” and I was sent to live in a kindergarten. I remember my mother sitting next to me one night, holding my hand. I would not let go because I feared she would disappear for ever.

Who are your heroes?

I admire the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes.

What book last changed your thinking?

The Diary of a Provincial Lady paints such a vivid picture of a woman in the early 20th century. I have never felt quite so engaged with any literary characters of that period.  

Which political figure do you look up to?

Empress Dowager Cixi of China (1835-1908). She brought medieval China into the modern age at a time when women were not allowed to be rulers, so she ran – and transformed –  the country from behind a screen. It was she who banned foot-binding and started women’s liberation.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I am no good at any quiz, but I do know perhaps more than most people about modern Chinese history. Forgive me for this immodesty, but I have spent 30 years studying the subject.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

In China, when the country was a democracy. The first general election was held in 1913, and a democratic China functioned until 1928 – an astonishing fact I only discovered recently and am presenting for the first time in my new book.

What TV show could you not live without?

I can live without any of them, but I enjoy watching a lot of them.

Who would paint your portrait?

I don’t want to have my portrait painted.

What’s your theme tune?

Does anyone have a theme tune apart from characters in movies? I love “Lara’s Theme” in Doctor Zhivago, and the Sicilian theme for The Godfather.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

A single remark from my doctoral thesis supervisor untied a strangling knot that had been fastened on my brain by a totalitarian “education”, which told us not to draw conclusions from facts but to start from Marxist theories. “Keep an open mind” was the advice he gave me, without spelling it out.

What’s currently bugging you?

What is going to happen to China, Hong Kong, Britain, the world…

What single thing would make your life better?

A robot to do all the chores I hate: paper-work, organisation, making numerous small and big decisions about everyday life.

When were you happiest?

Sitting on a roof terrace in Rome gazing across the rooftops.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

This is not a scenario I would contemplate.

Are we all doomed?

Only God knows. But I feel we human beings must work for a better future. 

“Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister” by Jung Chang is published by Jonathan Cape. Chang appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 1 December

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This article appears in the 16 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war