Among the Chinese artefacts in Jung Chang’s Notting Hill drawing-room there is a large terracotta horse and a 19th-century painting of “big noses” – as she was taught to call foreigners – kow-towing to an emperor in the Forbidden City. “They are to remind me of what he destroyed,” the 53-year-old author says in her slightly guttural, Chinese-accented English.
The “he” referred to is Mao Tse-Tung, the subject of an 800-page biography Chang has spent the past 10 years researching and writing with her husband, the British historian Jon Halliday. It occurs to me that her waist-length mane of black hair might also be a reminder of, or rather reaction to, Mao: when Chang joined the Red Guard at 14 she was forced to chop off her plaits because long hair was considered bourgeois. “No, no,” she says with a tight smile. “I just like long hair, and so does my husband.”
She certainly has a brisk, no-nonsense way about her, this Jung Chang. And although she deploys an infectious giggle from time to time, she can come across as a little humourless and literal-minded, too. Her emotional guard is permanently up, one suspects, and this is completely understandable.
The first half of her life was hard, marked by distrust and fear. Her parents were committed Communists who were, nevertheless, denounced as class traitors during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was paraded through the streets with a derogatory placard around her neck. Her father was tortured and sent to a labour camp – where he went insane and died in 1975. Chang herself was exiled to the foothills of the Himalayas, where she worked first as a peasant in the fields and then as a steelworker in a factory before being “rehabilitated” and, unusually, allowed to study abroad.
So it was that, in 1978, she came to Britain to read linguistics for a doctorate at York University – and decided to stay on in self-imposed exile. After a visit from her mother 10 years later, she wrote a family memoir that was to change not only her life but also, arguably, the way China was perceived by the outside world.
Wild Swans became the biggest-selling non-fiction paperback in publishing history – 10 million copies were sold and it was translated into 30 languages. When I ask her if she still has to pinch herself about the success of that book she gives a bluntly self-confident answer: “No. I can believe it.”
Wild Swans is still banned in China; did this make it difficult for her to research her new book? “Yes and no. There was a top secret edict about me issued to Mao’s inner circle in 1994. And some people were worried and declined to be interviewed. But most were not put off and they talked to us. I think people were dying to reveal what really happened. The trouble is,” she says, “the current regime claims its legitimacy from Mao and so doesn’t want the myths about him to be dismantled.”
They’re not going to like this book much, then, I suggest. “No, they’re not,” she replies flatly. “It won’t be published in China but it will be smuggled in and I am translating it into Chinese for publication in Taiwan and Hong Kong.” I imagine that her argument about Mao being as evil as Hitler and Stalin will go down well in the People’s Republic. “But it’s true!” she says. “Mao was responsible for the deaths of 70 million people in peacetime, through his organised famines and purges. That makes him the biggest mass murderer in the history of the world.”
But surely nothing he did can compare to the hideousness of the gas chambers?
“No, but Mao did create a climate of almost unparalleled fear, suspicion and hatred. The terror was such that parents were even afraid of talking to their children. Mao was different from Hitler and Stalin in that he liked to have people tortured and executed in public. Hitler and Stalin did their torturing and killing in secret. And whereas those two European despots were condemned in their own countries shortly after their deaths, Mao is still a holy cow in China. For as long as his portrait and corpse remain in Tiananmen Square, China will never be able to move on and grow as a country.”
Clearly Chairman Mao was a monster – he was as cruel to his own close family as he was to the nameless masses – but did Chang find any aspects of his character she liked? “As ‘liking’ implies a moral dimension I can honestly say there is nothing I like about Mao. But I was constantly impressed by his ability to scheme and come out on top when he seemed to be in a hopeless situation. He was smart. He could outsmart even Stalin. And he was far-sighted. He knew he could only conquer China with the help of Stalin and he knew he would have to use terror and brainwashing to keep hold of power.”
As a teenager, Chang was indoctrinated along with everyone from her generation. “The Cultural Revolution started when I was 14,” she says, “and very quickly I saw the violence and the atrocities that came with that. At school I and the rest of my class saw our teachers being abused and beaten. And we were ordered to pull up the grass from the school lawn because cultivation of flowers and lawns had been deemed bourgeois.
“I watched my mother being denounced at public meetings. She would have to kneel on broken glass, head bowed, while the crowd berated her, screaming hysterically, their fists clenched. She would come back with her knees full of glass fragments and my grandmother would have to pick them out with a tweezer. In that audience I learned to be a little brave. I hoped my mother would see me or know there was someone out there who loved her and that she would draw strength from that.”
But if Mao was so successful at brainwashing people, how did Chang alone come to have doubts about him? “I wasn’t the only one and, anyway, my doubts only came later. I didn’t challenge him explicitly in my mind because I thought it must be the people around him who were letting him down and doing these bad things. It is difficult to think clearly when there is no other source of information and you cannot discuss matters with other people.
“I probably first came to doubt Mao on my 16th birthday. I wrote my first poem that day, but then my father’s persecutors raided the flat and I had to tear it up and flush it down the lavatory. I thought to myself then, ‘If this is a socialist paradise on Earth, what can Hell be like?’ But I didn’t dare to challenge Mao openly. He was too frightening even to think about.”
When Chang came to England she felt as if she had stepped onto another planet. “I remember feeling so happy at the sight of flowers. And I remember walking into a gents because the sign had a picture of someone wearing trousers, which is what women had to wear in China. You know, the Mao suit. I was in a group of 14 all wearing that suit. I didn’t know how to be polite to people at first because being polite was considered bourgeois in Mao’s China. The traditional forms of greeting there were: “Where are you going?” and “Have you eaten?” I kept asking people this in London and I kept getting funny looks.
“We were not allowed out on our own and we certainly weren’t allowed in pubs, because we were told they were indecent places in which nude women gyrated on tables. We were also told anyone who took a foreign boyfriend would be drugged and put in a jute sack and carted off back to China. For at least a year after I came here whenever I went near the Chinese Embassy my legs would turn to jelly and, if I was in a car, I would slide down the seat so that my head would not show. I had nightmares about China for a long time after I came here. Writing Wild Swans was my therapy.”
And is writing Mao her revenge? “I wouldn’t say so. Revenge implies something personal. I wanted to write a biography that was fair and objective. Mao did not just do harm to me and my family, he did it to the whole of Chinese society.”
When I ask about her working methods, Chang stands up unsteadily – she is wearing a leg brace over her jeans, having torn a ligament on a recent skiing holiday – and hobbles to the top of the stairs to call down to her husband’s study. “Jon, come up here!” she shouts in a raspy voice. Jon Halliday, a genial 65-year-old, duly appears. They met while teaching at London University in the 1980s and got married in 1991. “He wants to know about our working method,” Chang says.
“We would work in separate studies and come together at lunchtimes to share discoveries,” Halliday says as he sits down next to his wife. “We divided the workload by languages, really. So all the work to do with China, the reading and travelling, fell to Jung and that is the bulk of the book.”
“Jon is being modest,” Chang says. “He speaks many languages. He did most of the important discoveries in places such as the Russian archives.”
“But the interviews we did together,” Halliday adds. The list of people they interviewed for the book is impressive. It includes George Bush senior, Gerald Ford, Edward Heath, Lech Walesa and the Dalai Lama. I tell them, though, that I am most intrigued by their encounter with Henry Kissinger. He was an apologist for Mao, was he not?
“I did get the impression that Kissinger was quite seduced by the idea of absolute power and by the mystery of China,” Halliday says. “He de-demonised Mao for many Westerners. But it was Nixon who built up a propaganda unit in the White House which encouraged the press to compare him [Nixon] to Mao – two people from underprivileged backgrounds rising to the top against the odds. Quite a bizarre comparison, really.”
If Mao were to walk into the room now what would they ask him? They laugh uneasily and think for a moment. “I don’t think there is any question you could ask that would get a useful answer,” Halliday says eventually. “He would evade. He’s not going to level with you. Whenever he was asked a difficult question he would sit completely silent, playing at being inscrutable.”
“I feel that over the years Jon and I have come to such an understanding of the mind of Mao that we could work out his motives,” Chang adds. “We wouldn’t need to ask him. We would know his answer.”
Wouldn’t they want to know if Mao felt any guilt, I ask? “We know he didn’t,” Chang says. “He cleared his conscience at the age of 24. He simply decided he would not feel guilt. He said he rejected the concept of a conscience. To compensate for this lack of guilt, though, he developed an intense fear. On the eve of taking power he would tremble at the sight of a stranger. He became full of self-pity and obsessed with his personal security.”
Ten years is a long time to devote to one book, I point out. Has Mao haunted their dreams? “No,” Chang says. “But sometimes when we were wrestling with a problem of why he did something, the answer would come to me in a moment of reverie while lying in bed, at a point between being awake and falling asleep.”
Wild Swans chronicled the lives of three generations of women in Chang’s family: her grandmother, who was the concubine of a warlord general; her mother; and Chang herself. Does she regret not having had a daughter to continue, as it were, the story? “I must say the thought has come to me sometimes,” she says, “but I don’t dwell on it.”