Jung Chang was born in Sichuan Province, China, in 1952. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) she worked as a peasant, a ‘barefoot’ doctor, a steelworker, and an electrician before becoming an English-language student at Sichuan University. She left China for Britain in 1978 and obtained a Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1982 at the University of York – the first person from Communist China to receive a doctorate from a British university.
She is the author of the best-selling books Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (which the Asian Wall Street Journal called the most read book about China), and Mao: The Unknown Story (with her husband, the British historian Jon Halliday). Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 15 million copies, in addition to millions in pirated editions and computer downloads in mainland China where both books are banned. Among the many awards she has won are the UK Writers’ Guild Best Non-Fiction (1992) and Book of the Year UK (1993). Jung Chang is currently completing a biography of the Empress Dowager of China, Cixi (1835-1908), to be published in 2013.
Why I write
Writing is the most exciting thing for me. It absorbs me completely, and calms me down like nothing else.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Almost everyday when I am at home in London, for as many hours as possible.
Worst source of distraction?
Traveling – but that’s pleasure.
Best source of inspiration?
How often do get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
After Jon (Halliday) and I spent 12 years writing our biography of Mao, Mao: the Unknown Story, after I then translated it into Chinese, and finally finished the Notes in Chinese – when all this was over in late 2007, I felt somewhat lost. I did not think I could ever find another subject nearly as fascinating. Happily, I found Cixi, the Empress Dowager of China (1835-1908), who is riveting.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
If you mean someone whose writing I look out for: the Shanghai blogger Han Han.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Best book about China?
The Good Earth – certainly one of the best.
Turgenev’s First Love is special to me. I read it in the Cultural Revolution in 1969 when I was exiled to the mountains of Ningnan, in south Sichuan. One of my brothers had bought the book, together with hundreds of other foreign and Chinese classics, on a black market in Chengdu, where books that had escaped the bonfires of the ‘revolution’ were sold. As a 17-year-old, I fell passionately in love with this novella, and learned many passages by heart.
The one I’ve just re-read who gave me indescribable pleasure is Vladimir Nabokov.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Wow, did I know all these things? (It was an essay to do with linguistics, which I studied for a Ph.D.)
Does writing change anything?
Yes, my life.