How to be hopeful: Jung Chang on the moment she knew Mao’s China would become less brutal

The author reflects on an inspiring photograph taken soon after her parents were released from Mao Zedong’s labour camps

In 1971, Lin Biao, who controlled the Chinese army for Chairman Mao and was his right-hand man in the Cultural Revolution, fell out with his boss and tried to flee to Russia, but his plane crashed in Outer Mongolia and he was killed. Suddenly, Mao had to make concessions to the victims of his purges. My parents, who had been in the camps, came home.

They came back separately. When I saw my father I was very sad and happy at the same time. Happy, because I hadn’t seen him for so long; sad, because he had aged tremendously, and had suffered so much, living in isolation in the mountains of Miyi, on the edge of the Himalayas in south-west China, for three and a half years.

For the first few days, he seemed at a loss in the big city and would refer to crossing the road as “crossing the river” and taking a bus as “taking a boat”.

Jung Chang’s mother in the labour camp in Xichang, just before she was released in 1971.
Jung Chang’s mother in the labour camp in Xichang, just before she was released in 1971. Photograph: Jung Chang

I had been to see my mother in her camp. She was only 38 when I saw her but she looked like an older woman. Also, her skin was burnt and peeling from the sun, because she had to work in the fields and the sun in that area, Xichang, in Sichuan, was very harsh. When she was first sent there, in 1969, she didn’t get breaks; while the others had a moment of rest, she had to stand and be denounced. Over the years, things did improve, and eventually she was released in 1971 and came home.

Not long afterwards, in the spring of 1972, she and I went to Beijing for the first time. We saw the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. I had a camera and took photographs, but the photograph I really remember is one I asked someone else to take. It is of my mother and me in front of a great bush of winter jasmine that was just bursting into blossom. It seemed to symbolise how we felt: that, finally, things would be less brutal, that they would get better. That moment of intense hope is etched in my memory.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China by Jung Chang is published by Jonathan Cape (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

Jung Chang

The GuardianTramp

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