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Jane Ahlin, Published May 11 2013

Ahlin: Most of all, do justice to our mothers’ stories

Concluding her acknowledgements following her 500-plus page book, “Wild Swans,” the Chinese-born writer Jung Chang made brief mention of her mother. Had she made the mention in a prologue, I might not have noticed. However, coming at the end, it stuck with me.

Chang said, “Much of the book is the story of my mother. I hope I have done her justice.”

Chang’s mother’s life was caught up in the dramatic sweep of 20th-century Chinese history. Born in a time of warlords and peasants to a powerful warlord and one of his concubines – an extraordinarily beautiful woman right down to her tiny, painfully bound and crushed feet – Chang’s mother grew up to embrace the revolutionary promises of communism under the charismatic leadership of Mao Zedong, only to suffer bitterly when the high ideals of revolution, so successful in the 1940s and early 1950s, became the economic unreality of the “Great Leap Forward” followed by the backward and cruel practices of the “Cultural Revolution” and “Red Guard.” At the time of Chang’s birth in the early 1950s, her father’s prominence as a communist official meant the family was highly respected. By the time she was a teenager, however, her parents were persecuted and humiliated by the very communist leadership they revered. As the maltreatment continued, her father, physically and mentally, became a broken man. But Chang’s mother persevered and took dangerous chances to restore the family honor – not unlike her concubine grandmother had chanced an escape fraught with danger a few decades before when it looked as if she would have to give up Chang’s mother to be raised by the warlord’s wife.

Indeed, Chang’s story really is the story of three strong women: Chang’s grandmother, her mother, and Chang, herself, who needed her grandmother’s unwavering help to keep the family afloat during her parents’ unfair persecution, who was a teenage participant in the Cultural Revolution as everything from an untrained “barefoot doctor” to an untrained electrician, and, finally, who became the one to make her life away from China.

Chang and I are only a few years apart in age, although neither that nor her book, “Wild Swans,” was on my mind when I got out an old cassette tape one day this past week. I was thinking of Mother’s Day. On the tape, one of my aunts talked to my maternal grandmother – a widow in her early eighties at the time – about her life. Much of what my grandmother said centered on the years when she was young and on her early married life. That’s when Jung Chang’s book came to mind. Suddenly, I found myself identifying my grandmother, not as an older woman in the time I grew up, but as a young woman shaped in another era entirely. (How centered she was in the accepted wisdom of the early 20th century. As the oldest, she saw the good sense in quitting school after eighth grade to work in the family store and help with the younger children while her brother went on to high school. She was happy to work. She liked being busy.)

Not much history is written from the perspective of the women who kept hearth and home together no matter what else was happening around them. Not surprisingly, we rarely look at our mothers and grandmothers as history’s participants the way Jung Chang did, either. Of course, few family chronicles would echo so strongly a century of national change, nor can we compare life in a repressive society with our own that’s open and free.

But there are echoes for all of us. Thinking of my own mother and grandmothers, I wonder whether I haven’t considered their lives as they were affected by political, social, and economic change because they didn’t see themselves that way. More likely it’s because most of us see the women in our lives first and foremost in their relationships with us.

My female heritage is of nurturers who always stepped up to do what needed to be done. Not much drama, but like Jung Chang, in telling their stories, I want most of all to do them “justice.”


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.