Without a doubt, Wild Swans influenced my travels more than any other book.
Wild Swans describes the lives of three women living in China over the course of the last century: the author, her mother and grandmother. Detailed, intense and unflinching, it tells the story of girls with bound feet, Mao’s revolution and the famines and doctrines that came to characterise the land.
Yet, with place names like Tiger Leaping Gorge, I also imagined a world of beauty, a world so different to mine that I ached to try to understand it. Since China holds a quarter of the world’s population within its borders, I felt both ashamed and awakened at the level of ignorance this book revealed in me. I also began to appreciate the freedom I had grown up with and taken for granted in my own life.
The trouble was, no-one else I knew wanted to go there. My quest to find a travel partner resulted in me exploring Peru, Mexico, Italy and Thailand, before Mr Spider finally agreed. We headed there with only a plane ticket and a Rough Guide in 1999 – and the experience did not disappoint.
If I read Wild Swans now, it would probably have less of a profound effect. I am older and, hopefully, a little wiser. But the fascination with delving below the metaphorical tip of the global iceberg, of hearing as many sides of the story as there are people involved, has not left me.
Nor has the gratitude at being able to do so.
Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China
As a Travel Guide – Wild Swans provides a fantastic introduction to understanding China, although as Jung Chang left in 1978 it misses the changes of the last 30 years.