Chang's Grandmother's story
The book starts by relating the biography of Chang's grandmother (Yu-fang). From the age of two, she had bound feet. As the family was relatively poor, her father schemed to have her taken as a concubine to a high-ranking warlord General Xue Zhi-heng, in order to gain status, which was hugely important in terms of quality of life. After a wedding ceremony to the General, who already had a wife and many concubines, the young girl was left alone in a wealthy household with servants, and did not see her "husband" again for six years. Despite her luxurious surroundings, life was tense as she feared the servants and the wife of the General would report rumors or outright lies to him. She was allowed to visit her parent's home, but never allowed to spend the night.
After his six year absence, the General made a brief conjugal visit to his concubine, during which a daughter, Chang's mother, was conceived. General did not stay there for long, even to see his daughter but he named his daughter Bao Qin meaning precious zither. During the child's infancy, Chang's grandmother put off persistent requests for her to be brought to the General's main household, until he became very sick and it was no longer a request. Chang's grandmother had no choice but to comply. During her visit to the household, the General was dying. The general had no male heir, and Chang's mother was very important to the family. Realizing that the General's wife would have complete control over her life and her child's, when he would die, Chang's grandmother fled with her baby to her parents' home, sending false word to her husband's family that the child had died. With his last words, the General unexpectedly proclaimed her free at age twenty-four. Eventually she married a much older doctor (Dr. Xia) with whom she and her daughter, Chang's mother, made a home in Jinzhou, Manchuria. She was no more a concubine, but a true, beloved wife.
Chang's Mother's story
The book now moves to the story of Chang's mother (Bao Qin/De-hong), who at the age of fifteen, began working for the Communist Party of China and Mao Zedong's Red Army. As the Revolution progressed, her work for the party helped her rise through the ranks. She met the man who would become Chang's father (Wang Yu/Shou-yu), a high-ranking officer. The couple were soon married but Communist Party dictates meant they were not allowed to spend much time together. Eventually, the couple were transferred to Yibin, Chang's father's hometown. It was a long and arduous trek. Chang's mother traveled on foot because of her rank, while her father rode in a Jeep. He was not aware that Chang's mother was pregnant. After arrival at Nanjing, Chang's mother undertook gruelling military training. After the strain of the training coupled with the journey, she suffered a miscarriage. Chang's father swore to never again be inattentive to his wife's needs.
In the following years Chang's mother gave birth to Jung and four other children. The focus of the book now shifts again to cover Jung's own autobiography.
The Cultural Revolution started when Chang was a teenager. Chang willingly joined the Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions. As Mao's personality cult grew, life became more difficult and dangerous. Chang's father became a target for the Red Guards when he mildly but openly criticised Mao due to the suffering caused to Chinese people by the Cultural Revolution. Chang's parents were labeled as capitalist roaders and made subjects of public struggle meetings and torture. Chang recalls that her father deteriorated physically and mentally, until his eventual death. Her father's treatment prompted Chang's previous doubts about Mao to come to the fore. Like thousands of other young people, Chang was sent down to the countryside for education and thought reform by the peasants, a difficult, harsh and pointless experience. At the end of the Cultural Revolution Chang returned home and worked hard to gain a place at university. Not long after she succeeded, Mao died. The whole nation was shocked in mourning, though Chang writes that: "People had been acting for so long they confused it with their true feelings. I wondered how many of the tears were genuine". Chang said that she felt exhilarated by Mao's death.
At university Chang studied English. After her graduation and a stint as an assistant lecturer, she won a scholarship to study in England and left for her new home. She still lives in England today and visits mainland China on occasion to see her family and friends there, with permission from Chinese authorities.