Gender Matters: Why Achebe and Jung Chang Have Opposing Interpretations of Western Influence
While neither Wild Swans nor Things Fall Apart was entirely positive or entirely negative toward the societal change brought about by imperialism and Western influence, imperialism was certainly more condemned in Things Fall Apart than in Wild Swans.[i] Okonkwo, the main character in Achebe’s novel based in an Igbo community in Africa, struggled to come to terms with the changes colonialism brought to his village. By detailing the lives of three generations of women in her family, Jung Chang, the author and narrator of Wild Swans, demonstrated the progress that Westernization introduced to patriarchal China. The two figures viewed imperialism differently because their pre-imperialism statuses were entirely dissimilar: Okonkwo’s life was happy and prosperous before Western intervention, whereas the narrator of Wild Swans and her ancestors were subjugated to harsh Japanese rule and an incredibly patriarchal society before the adaptation of Western ideology. For Okonkwo, imperialism exchanged his freedom for European domination, while Western influence freed Jung Chung from the yoke of Japanese and male oppression.
Okonkwo was very resistant to the new politics and religion of the European-based society because he placed a high value on his status and position in society before the European conquest. In the first fourteen chapters, nearly two-thirds of the novel, the narrator painted an image of what Okonkwo’s life was like in traditional Igbo society. The in-depth explanations about cultural practices, such as tribal rituals and ceremonies for the gods, introduced readers to the wonders and uniqueness of Igbo identity and culture to show what colonialism later destroyed. The narrator chose to retell stories of Okokwo’s wrestling successes and crop harvest miracles to exemplify the successes Okonkwo had achieved early in his life. Young Okonkwo, with his three lives and expansive farm, was seen by his village as “one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered.”[ii] Okonkwo’s personal achievements set him apart from the other men in his village and allowed him to rise to a privileged position in his community.
The introduction of Western imperialism in Okonkwo’s village dissolved the preexisting village identity and centuries of traditions, reversing Okonkwo’s social status. When Okonkwo returned from exile to find his village taken over by white Christian missionaries, he resisted the new politics and religion of the society for fear of losing his position, as he was zealously concerned with his image and societal perception of himself. Christianity, forced on the village by the missionaries, undermined the native religion around which political and societal structures were based. In a partial realization of Okonkwo’s biggest fear—being a failure like his father—Christianity upended the social system, privileging believers over Igbo traditionalists. Though the converted villagers at first refused to let the outcasts into their church, the outcasts “were the strongest adherents of the new faith” and even “brought the church into serious conflict with the clan a year later by killing the sacred python.”[iii] The importance of this event is twofold: by admitting the outcasts into the church, the missionaries removed the inequalities that existed between pre-colonial Igbo social classes, erasing the importance of Okonkwo’s successes. Additionally, the killing of the python is symbolic in that it signified the death of the traditional Igbo religion and the impending death of Igbo culture as a whole. In a way, this death also reflected Okonkwo’s death in the end of the book, as both the python and Okonkwo died in part because they no longer had any special worth in society.
The title of the book is in and of itself a hint at the narrator’s view of imperialism in Africa. “Things Fall Apart” is a line in William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, written shortly after World War I, in which Yeats alluded to the collapse of tradition systems and the clash between ancient and modern world order. The loss of control poeticized in Yeats’ piece is mirrored in Okonkwo’s experiences; in his early life, he thrived by maintaining meticulous control over his farm and his family. When the white men arrived, they “put a knife on the things that held [the village] together and [the village] has fallen apart.”[iv] The Westerners and their religion are the superior force that Yeats predicts will destroy tradition and ancient cultures, and they also destroy Okonkwo’s reputation and, ultimately, his life.
For Jung Chang and her female ancestors in Wild Swans, with the influx of Western influence and ideology came liberation from female oppression and emperor-style rule. Though modernization certainly did improve the role of women in society, the greatest transformation for women came under Communist rule. As is shown in the beginning of the novel, women in the late 1800s and early 1900s were treated as secondary citizens in China. Women were seen as so inferior to men that the author’s great-grandmother wasn’t even given a name; she was simply called “Number Two Girl.” Chinese tradition required that women be subservient to men, their primary responsibility being taking care of the house and serving their husband and his family. The author’s grandmother, whose “greatest asset” were her bound feet –not her intelligence or her talents– was essentially treated as property; her father practically sold her off to a general who used her only for pleasure. Even after World War II freed the native Manchurians from Japanese rule, the author’s mother still resented the “powerlessness of women, the barbarity of age-old customs.”[v] Women were still seen as inferior to men and as property, as they were often sold or trafficked to rich men. Because of this, the idea of basic gender equality promised by the Communist party was extremely appealing.
The Communist system also appealed to Jung Chang’s mother because it called for a radical change in the Chinese social structure. Industrialization and modernization created a new class, the lower class workers, who were in search of a political ideology that supported them instead of the elites. It also brought about new definitions of the state—citizens wanted a responsive nation-state that prioritized the will and needs of the people. Jung Chang’s mother witnesses first hand how disadvantaged the lower classes were in China under the emperor, as she recalled being “appalled by the casual extravagance of the Kuomintang elite while people were starving to death in the streets.”[vi] The economic inequality was just one of many factors that caused the Chinese government to lose legitimacy—another would be the Opium Wars triggered by Western imperialism—but it is one strong example of how a weak Chinese society was the perfect breeding ground for Western Communist ideology.
The evaluation in Wild Swans on the benefits of Communist rule was mixed; initially, this governmental system, developed in Europe, proved to be a great solution for China’s struggling economy and social problems. Immediately after the Communists seized control of Jinzhou, they “issued relief grain, salt, and coal to the destitute. The Kuomintang had never done anything like this, and people were hugely impressed.”[vii] Whereas Okonkwo saw Western values as detrimental to well-functioning and culturally important Igbo traditions, the Chinese quality of life was much improved for the average working-class citizen. The Party also established the Women’s Federation, which “supervised the freeing of concubines and shutting down brothels, organized women to make shoes for the army, organized their education and their employment, [and] informed them of their rights.”[viii] For Jung Chang’s mother, the ability to choose whom she wanted to marry, to not only have but also invoke her rights, and to work for the Communist party signified a monumental step in women’s freedoms. Of course, once Mao’s dictatorial rule intensified, the public became disillusioned toward communism. However, modernization and the spread of Western ideology were initially heralded by Jung Chang’s family for liberating women from the chains of the patriarchy.
Because the pre-colonial conditions in Okonkwo’s village were much better than those in pre-revolutionary China, it makes sense that Okonkwo resented the shift away from traditions, while Jung Chang and her ancestors embraced the change. Another important factor that likely shaped each individual’s response to Western influence was his or her gender. As a respected leader in a male-dominated society, Okonkwo had much more to lose from colonialism and societal transformations than Jung Chang and her ancestors did, as they were among the lowliest class of people in China, being both female and under the harsh Japanese occupation. Had Okonkwo been a woman, Achebe’s novel might have played out much differently; the same can be said for the women in Wild Swans. Because of this, and because the Western imperialism was much more prevalent and dominating in Africa, it is impossible to equate and adequately compare the two experiences. Ultimately, Achebe wrote a strong critique of colonialism that aimed to capture the flourishing side of African culture, while Jung Chang authored a familial biography and autobiography that shed light on the female struggle in pre-revolutionary China and the progress that Communism brought to women.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1992.
Chang, Jung. Wild Swans. London: Harper Collins Publishers. 2003.
[i] For the purpose of this paper, it is important to note that “imperialism” will not be used to refer to Japanese rule in Manchuria, but rather on western influence and ideological exchange with China.
[ii] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 5.
[iii] Ibid, 138.
[iv] Ibid, 152.
[v] Jung Chang, Wild Swans, (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003), 91.
[vi] Ibid, 98.
[vii] Ibid, 113.
[viii] Ibid, 129.