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Jung Chang, 61, was born in Sichuan Province, China. She is the author of the bestselling books Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and, with her husband Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story. Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold more than 15 million copies.
What was your earliest ambition?
To be a writer.
Public school or state school? University or straight into work?
There were only state schools. But when I was 14, in 1966, the Cultural Revolution started and all schools were closed. I worked as a peasant, a “barefoot doctor”, a steelworker and an electrician. When the universities reopened I got into Sichuan University to learn English. Then, in 1978, scholarships to study abroad began to be awarded. I was in one of the first groups to go to study in Britain. After a year studying English at what was then Ealing College of Higher Education, I got a scholarship to the University of York to do a doctorate in linguistics.
Who is your mentor?
My mother. She showed us through her conduct so many things I still practise today: above all, how to be principled.
How physically fit are you?
I’ve had health problems but at the moment I’m all right. I hardly visit doctors. I go swimming and run up and down the stairs. I do Tai Chi in our garden. And I ski.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Have you ever taken an IQ test?
How politically committed are you?
With China still communist, I can’t help being politically conscious.
Do you consider your carbon footprint?
I don’t. But I do feel strongly about the environment.
Do you have more than one home?
Just one, which we love.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
The freedom to visit my mother, who lives in China, whenever I want. At the moment I don’t have that freedom because of my books, which are banned in China.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
To wake up naturally – no alarm. Luckily, I do that most of the time.
In what place are you happiest?
In London, at home, writing. And then cooking dinner and watching a good movie with my husband.
What ambitions do you still have?
To write more books.
What drives you on?
To feel fulfilled.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
I have written two good books – Time magazine called my biography of Mao “an atom bomb of a book”. And I have a happy cocoon of wonderful relationships around me.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
After Mao died, I had such high hopes that China would change – and it has. But although he was responsible for the deaths of 70 million Chinese in peace time, Mao’s portrait is still on Tiananmen Square and his corpse is still in Beijing for people to worship.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?
She would be ecstatic.
If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?
Rebuild. I’d feel sad but not crushed.
Do you believe in assisted suicide?
It entirely depends on the wishes of the person in question.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
I don’t believe; but I don’t disbelieve.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
You can’t quantify feelings. I have a very good life but there are things I’ve expressed that are hugely sad.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang, is published by Jonathan Cape