SOAS University of London

World renowned author Jung Chang reveals she wrote Wild Swans at SOAS in graduation speech

3 August 2018

World renowned author Dr Jung Chang accepted an Honorary Fellowship at SOAS University of London’s 2018 graduation ceremonies where she revealed she wrote her autobiographical book Wild Swans – Three Daughters of China whilst at SOAS. The ground-breaking memoir was published in 1991 and sold over 12 million copies and was translated into more than 30 languages.

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Jung Chang 2018

Dr Chang accepted her Honorary Fellowship from fellow Honorary, the acclaimed artist Sokari Douglas Camp CBE. SOAS Director Baroness Valerie Amos CH was also present at the ceremony.

Dr Jung Chang discussed her experience writing at SOAS: "I have a special affection for SOAS because it was here – [it was] while I was working here that I wrote Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, the book that was largely responsible for me being here today. In the mid-1980s Professor Pollard, Head of the Far Eastern Department, invited me to come to SOAS and take charge of the China part of external services. This began many memorable years of my life. We ran courses for Chinese Studies for many international companies like the British Foreign Office. Many of our former students are now ambassadors and counsel generals.”

On writing Wild Swans and her mother’s influence she said: “In 1988 my mother came from China to visit me. For the first time in our lives she told me the stories of her life and that of my grandmother. Once she started she couldn’t stop. She stayed with me for 6 months and she talked every day. When I was out working at SOAS, she talked into a tape recorder.  By the time she left London, she had left me 60 hours of tape recordings and I had decided to write Wild Swans.

“I wrote a synopsis and showed it to Peter Whitaker, Head of External Services at SOAS and he greatly encouraged me. My colleagues were also very enthusiastic and they helped me…. when Wild Swans was published they immediately organised a presentation in one of the seminar rooms. It was one of my very first book talks.”

On being a writer she said: “To be a writer had been my childhood dream but I had not been able to write because when I was growing up under Mao writing was the most dangerous profession. But when I worked as peasant spreading manure in the paddy fields and when I worked as an electrician I was always writing in my head with an invisible pen. At last at SOAS my dreams were fulfilled and I became a writer and I shall forever be indebted to this great institution."

Dr Jung Chang is a world renowned author. Born in Sichuan Province, she left China for Britain in 1978 and obtained a PhD from the University of York becoming the first person from Communist China to receive a doctorate from a British university. She is best known for her autobiographical book Wild Swans – Three Daughters of China, published in 1991, which sold over 12 million copies and was translated into more than 30 languages. It is the most widely read book about China this century. Other books include Mao: The Unknown Story (with Jon Halliday), described by TIME Magazine as “an atom bomb of a book”; and Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. She has won many awards, including the UK Writers’ Guild Best Non-Fiction and Book of the Year UK, and was the coordinator of Chinese Studies at SOAS in the mid 1980s through to the early 1990s.