By Jared Bowen
BOSTON —Wild Swans, a 1991-memoir by Jung Chang about her family’s survival during much of 20th century China’s upheaval, has long been a global bestseller, with over 30 million copies in print. For years, Chang refused attempts to adapt her story for film or television. For theater, however, she gave the go-ahead. Its premiere production is now playing at the A.R.T.
The play covers a wide swath of time in China during the 20th century, a period of extraordinary upheaval and ferocity. Idealism is wrenched into oppressive ideology under Mao Tse-tung. This is the first and only adaptation of Jung Chang’s phenomenally successful 1991 memoir of the same name, which recounted how three generations of her family endured China’s transformation from fledgling communist state to world superpower.
“Wild Swans is a personal book,” said Chang. “China is the background. And of course when I wrote Wild Swans I made sure the personal descriptions were absolutely accurate and what I wrote about China was accurate. It has stood the test of time.”
Chang’s story is often the stuff of horror. She relays such events as her grandmother made a concubine of a warlord general, rendered on stage in puppets. She tells of her parents’ relationship, shredded by the Communist Party and Chang’s own efforts to withstand her family’s traumas.
“This is my personal story and my mother is still alive and everything is in my heart. I so fear that something will go wrong and the portrait is not going to be accurate, and the description of the times is not going to be accurate. So I was very reluctant to let go,” said Chang.
But when David Lan, Artistic Director of renowned British theater Company The Young Vic, approached to adapt her story, Chang finally acquiesced.
“It took me quite a while to persuade her to let us do it. And I still don’t know why she did,” Lan said.
In response, Chang said, “What they’re trying to do is be faithful to the spirit of the characters and the spirit of the times. I help them be accurate to these issues.”
"What’s distinctive about this story is it’s about a woman who really is so clear about who she is and is so committed to trying to work out a good way to live. The whole family is like corks bobbing on a very troubled sea. We tried to find scenes which are resonate in every way, and which when put together are coherent and give you the most you can expect,” said Lan.
In partnering with the American Repertory Theatre, the Young Vic took a huge risk, adapting Chang’s 800-page book for the stage. The result is a remarkably streamlined production. At just 90 minutes, it still feels epic. It begins in 1948 in a Manchurian marketplace, then moves to a peasant-filled field. From there it glides into the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and onto 1978, a modern China.
“The book is very critical of the experience people went through before the cultural revolution immediately afterwards. But it’s not about China now. It’s about how China got to be, how it is,” Lan said.
We are treated to glimpses of how Chinese policies affected the individual and how initiatives like Mao’s great purge—stripping homes of writings and books—affected people and families.
"It made me realize on a personal level how grateful and how lucky I am to be in this generation and away from all the politics of China and stuff, because my gran emigrated from there to Britain, eventually, and one can see why she did that,” said Katie Leung, who plays Chang on stage and is already known for playing Harry Potter’s love interest, Cho Chang, in film.
Leung says she had concerns about tinkering with Chang’s already beloved book.
“It’s not as big a pressure as being introduced as Harry Potter’s first girlfriend, but certainly it’s a big thing as well, and I think we just want to make sure that we get it right,” Leung said.
As for Chang, she’s maintained a respectful distance from the production. To her, the play is a new work of art. “I did whatever I can. What I have, what is my baby, is my book. And now they’ve created Wild Swans on stage,” she said.
Participate in the Wild Swans Community Memior project, created in collaboration with Harvard's metaLab and Zeega. The memior is an immersive experience of the community's relationship to China or Chinese culture. Meet new people and explore their stories in any order you choose.
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About the AuthorJared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts.