Jung Chang on life in nationalist China (1986)

In this extract from Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1986), she describes the parlous state of the Chinese economy under the Guomindang:

“When the Guomindang first arrived, they had issued a new currency known as the ‘Law Money.’ But they proved unable to control inflation. Dr Xia [Chang’s step-grandfather] had always been worried about what would happen to my grandmother and my mother when he died – and he was now nearly eighty. He had been putting his savings into the new money because he had faith in the government. After a time the Law Money was replaced by another currency, the Golden Yuan, which soon became worth so little that when my mother wanted to pay her school fees she had to hire a rickshaw to carry the huge pile of notes (to ‘save face’ Jiang Jieshi refused to print any note bigger than 10,000 yuan). Dr Xia’s entire savings were gone.

The economic situation deteriorated steadily through the winter of 1947-48. Protests against food shortages and price fixing multiplied. Jinzhou was the key supply base for the large Guomindang armies farther north, and in mid-December 1947 a crowd of 20,000 people raided two well-stocked grain stores.

One trade was prospering: trafficking in young girls for brothels and as slave-servants to rich men. The city was littered with beggars offering their children in exchange for food. For days outside her school my mother saw an emaciated, desperate looking woman in rags slumped on the frozen ground. Next to her stood a girl of about ten with an expression of numb misery on her face. A stick was poking up out of the back of her collar and on it was a poorly written sign saying ‘Daughter for sale for 10 kilos of rice’.

Among those who could not make ends meet were the teachers. They had been demanding a pay rise, to which the government responded by increasing tuition fees. This had little effect, because the parents could not afford to pay more. A teacher at my mother’s school died of food poisoning after eating a piece of meat he had picked up off the street. He knew the meat was rotten, but he was so hungry he thought he would take a chance.

By now my mother had become the president of the students’ union. Her Party controller, Liang, had given her instructions to try to win over the teachers as well as the students, and she set about organising a campaign to get people to donate money for the teaching staff. She and some older girls would go to cinemas and theatres and before the performances started they would appeal for donations. They also put on song-and-dance shows and ran rummage sales, but the returns were paltry – people were either too poor or too mean.

One day she bumped into a friend of hers who was the granddaughter of a brigade commander and was married to a Guomindang officer. The friend told her there was going to be a banquet that evening for about fifty officers and their wives in a smart restaurant in town. In those days there was a lot of entertaining going on among Guomindang officials. My mother raced off to her school and contacted as many people as she could. She told them to gather at 5pm in front of the city’s most prominent landmark, the 60-foot high 11th century stone drum tower. When she got there, at the head of a sizeable contingent, there were over a hundred girls waiting for her orders. She told them her plan. At around six o’clock they saw large numbers of officers arriving in carriages and rickshaws. The women were dressed to the nines, wearing silk and satin and jingling with jewellery.

When my mother judged that the diners would be well into their food and drink, she and some of the girls filed into the restaurant. Guomindang decadence was such that security was unbelievably lax. My mother climbed onto a chair, her simple dark-blue cotton gown making her the image of austerity among the brightly embroidered silks and jewels. She made a brief speech about how hard up the teachers were, and finished with the words: “We all know you are generous people. You must be very pleased to have this opportunity to open your pockets and show your generosity.”