I meet author Jung Chang in a classy Chinese restaurant atop a Kensington hotel in London on a Friday evening, 7 p.m. sharp. She’s ten minutes late and I’m having a beer with the barman, Vittor. He’s Italian but can speak smooth Mandarin, picked up from three years on cocktail duty. Vittor demonstrates by showing someone the toilet in what rings like true, learned dialect. I tell him I can’t speak a word of it, and he balks.
“What a lad,” he says, for the first time of many. I’ve got an Asian name and an even Asianer face. And Vittor’s the Asianest man at the bar.
It’s at that point a petite figure approaches modestly from around the corner. She’s kept on her coat, as have I, and we shake hands delicately.
Twelve years ago, Chang debuted her first novel—and now a classic—Wild Swans, a memoir of three generations, beginning with her once-concubine grandmother and leading up to her own landing in London in the 1980s. She sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and hasn’t let up since.
Her latest, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, is a logical extension of her bibliography that goes back to before the birth of her grandmother in 1909—a revised history of the woman who ruled China for 47 years after taking the throne in a coup. Jung looks to upend the prevailing view of Cixi as a conservative despot that left the country in a mess.
We sit, and throughout the early portion of our conversation, Chang frequently gathers her thin cream mackintosh, bunching it up around her throat. She describes herself tersely as a ‘historical detective.’ And she pulls her mack up to the throat ever tighter when I produce a copy of her first book and place it on the table with a thud by accident.
“But we’re not here to talk about that book, are we?” she confirms, nodding, in her hushed voice.
“No,” I say, and she perks up, letting her throat loose and removing her silk scarf.
A waitress arrives to take our order. Jung asks for a classic mojito and tells me about her new one, her third book, as she sips lightly from the straw.
“At the age of 16 [Empress Dowager Cixi] was a concubine. She seized power in 1861, when her husband died and their son became emperor. She launched a coup and made herself the real ruler, because her son was only five years old. Then she opened the doors of China. She introduced electricity, telegrams, railways, steamers; she abolished ‘death by a thousand cuts.’” That’s slowly slicing the convicted, to death.
“She faced this punishment herself, for the coup,” Jung says.
What drew you to Cixi? “When I was researching on Swans, I realized she was the person who abolished foot-binding.” As described in that book, Jung’s grandmother was subjected to foot-binding. “And I was surprised. Because Cixi’s image was of a cruel despot, an image that she has even to this day, inside and outside of China.”
So how did she manage to research this book, when all of the archives are kept tightly under wraps? Well, she was helped by insiders smuggling documents out of China, she says. “Archivists have photocopied and compiled them. In my house, I have 120 volumes of imperial decrees. It’s a lot of work.” She leans forward with her plastic toothpick. “Excuse me, I’d like to try another mushroom.”
“I’m not a big fan,” I say.
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
In Jung, there’s a quiet delight in all that is liberated outside of the cruel regimes she was brought up under. It’s the little squidgy things in life, like chili-soaked mushrooms, that bring the mischievous smirk to her lips.
Before writing, Jung was a jobbing electrician, hooking up villages all over the region. She was also a ‘barefoot doctor’—a doctor with training but little footwear. “Because on the paddy fields, shoes were too precious to be worn,” she says, giggling.
She wrote her first poem in 1968, when she was 16, she says, and her eyes slide up to the left as distant plates clink. “I was lying in bed with my poem when the red guards came to raid our flat, so I had to rush to the toilet and tear up my poem and flush it.”
She was allowed to leave China on scholarship, but fear followed her across land and water.
“You must have been paranoid, with all those horror stories,” I say.
“Yes, but I wouldn’t call it paranoia. I’d call it well-founded fear,” she says, chuckling.
“London was like another planet, everything was new. In China, Mao banned flowers—in school we had to pull out all the flowers and the grass. They were condemned as bourgeois habits. Mao was more extreme than other tyrants.
“The first time I was allowed out, we went with a couple people. We had to go out in groups; we must have looked quite a sight in our blue Mao suits! I went straight to Hyde Park that first day out. I was mad with joy, seeing all the trees and flowers. London has never lost its attraction. It’s magic. Even the weather. I love the sun behind rainy clouds, which gives them a special, soft feel.”
How does your day look, from when you get up and start working?
“I love my own routine—of getting up at my own time, and not being woken by alarm clocks. It’s not like working on a novel—you don’t wait for inspiration. You work doggedly. Then John and I have lunch together.”
Who does the cooking?
“He gets soup from our local deli. I also adore this Spanish ham, ibérico. I nibble a bit of that every day. The most delicious jamón in the world. It even beats prosciutto. A friend of mine gave me a present once, a whole leg. I had a slicing machine in the house, and ate it every day. Then I discovered ibérico.”
We return to her writing routine.
“In the evenings, I relax. We go out to parties, to dinners, with friends. About half the week. The other half, we stay at home and I cook something. I’m a very good cook, I do it by intuition. And we watch a good old Hollywood movie, or a fantastic series.”
I ask if she’ll ever write fiction, or re-write that poem.
“I don’t think fiction suits me. Fiction and non-fiction very rarely cross. If you’re good at non-fiction, you’re likely not that good at fiction. I think they’re very different.” She leans back. “I enjoy being a historical detective and finding out what really happened.
“I specifically steered away from folklore about her. I didn’t read one novel about her. There is a thing in Chinese, wild history, folklores, and legends. I didn’t read a single word of those. In the Forbidden City archives, in that one alone, there are 12 million documents.
“The republicans, then the nationalists, then the communists wanted to make [Cixi] this villain. And they wanted to say they fixed her mess. They all wanted to say they launched modern China, but they didn’t. I didn’t want to say she founded modern China, because the 20th century, totalitarian China, Mao founded that.”
What is modern China to you?
Jung ponders, shifting her eyes up to the left again. “Modern China, as [Cixi] introduced it, was one with modern facilities, railways, steamers, machine manufacturing. But she didn’t industrialize in a blind and bulldozer way; she wanted to keep as much tradition as possible. So it’s an industrialization I very much approve of, in fact.” She smiles. “A modern way of conducting the army and navy. That’s the material side. But as well as the material side, also the educational side. The traditional Chinese education system imprisoned and impeded Chinese thinking. Children were forced to memorize Confucian teachings, at an age when they had no chance of understanding it. You had to become a conformist. And she got rid of that. She introduced the Western education system.
“Modernity also included women’s liberation. She not only unbound women’s feet, she released them from their homes and decreed education for women and allowed them to go abroad.
“Her last project was to create a constitutional monarchy. But she died before that happened.”
What will your last project be?
We leave that question to silence, and chew the mushrooms.
And as we leave, Vittor leans across the bar, looking at us both.
“What a lad,” he says.