A friend recommended this book and told me another friend liked it very much too. And so I embarked on this swan journey …
Although this is an autobiography, I read it, bearing in mind that it is still a construct. A fairly easy read in chronological order, peppered with introductions of new characters as well as detailed explanations of past events in recounting mode. Many things tend to make more sense in retrospect, and this can been seen in this rearrangement of all the seemingly trivial happenings to portray a negative impact of the prevailing ideology at that time, set against the historical backdrop and breathtaking scenery of China.
I wish and I wish … my history texts in school were this interesting! If so, I would have swallowed the texts up in no time remembering all the vivid descriptions without having to memorize them consciously. The engagement of this text comes from a very personal level, and that is what makes me relate to it strongly. For me, it has a similar effect, as The Woman Warrior – by Maxine Hong Kingston – did. Perhaps for a man reader, he might be less able to understand the sufferings of the women, being discriminated in the different eras, differently but discriminated all the same. Now, don’t shoot me for that line. The keyword here is “perhaps”.
Is this a story just about women then? Definitely not so; it is also about ideology, beliefs, conditioning, education, kinship, love and freedom. All these are not isolated chapters but rather, they are all intertwined to bring readers a touching story, a story in which the characters in real life had been forbidden to breathe a word to anyone for decades.
For an ideology of a single individual to affect millions of people, the people have to believe in that ideology, and that is achieved though conditioning. In an alarming manner, the scenes painted in the story show the extent to which people can be manipulated to act upon and live by. Surely, these people had had basic analytical abilities? I believe they did, but an excellent strategy of withholding information, giving vague instructions, and instilling fear of punishment due to disobedience created a fog for these people. Not only were they unable to analyze anything, they were in constant fear of falling out of line, when the line was not even drawn explicitly.
In face of such an environment, it is heartening to read that the parents were able to be firm in providing a quality education which included concrete values with multiple areas of interests. From the depictions, it appeared that the upbringing was strict but choices of interest were left up to the children to decide. I cannot help but compare this attitude in modern times. It seems the opposite now, in the sense that children have no concrete values to abide by but also little freedom to choose their areas of interest. Which is better for the children, I wonder?
Now let’s shift the focus to the characters. Kinship and love – two very important things in life – are displayed in the characters of the mother and grandmother. Both characters – to me – represent a strong feminine voice, soft amid the chaos, yet loud in their perseverance. The kind of bursting energy and the extent of self sacrifice that can be found in both characters are really admirable. This is especially so for the mother whose self control and resilience are beyond my imagination. I feel very much for her when I read that she actually talked for hours into the tape recorder years later. How can anyone stay sane with so much emotion bottled up inside for such a long period of time? To be honest, I wouldn’t know how to survive if I were to be thrown back in time to that era.
Whenever I think of the character of the father, I feel very sad. His end has to come, not because he does not deserve happiness, but because he cannot see light in the breaking of the new dawn. He had lived all his life for his belief but was stifled by it when he realized all that he had done wholeheartedly for the greater good only resulted in inflicting harm on himself and his family. His vision of a new world never materialized, but I hope he found peace, wherever he might be.
This swan journey has been a fulfilling one for me, one in which I truly experienced the feeling of being choked by lack of freedom in life. How can happiness be found in a place where there is absolutely no freedom, not even in thoughts?