Author and artist Anchee Min grew up in China during the fierce and tumultuous reign of Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Min’s two earlier books, Red Azalea (1994) and Katherine (1995), examine Chinese life during and after the chaotic Cultural Revolution, which was in part engineered by Mao’s wife Jiang Ching. A teenager during the Cultural Revolution, Min served as a Red Guard and was then exiled to a harsh life working among peasants in rural China. Min admired Jiang Ching; Mao’s wife seemed a great revolutionary heroine as she exhorted the teenage Red Guards to obliterate old habits, ways of thinking, and art forms. Jiang Ching enforced a cultural shift that transformed traditional Chinese arts into vehicles for Communist propaganda; a favorite project was the reworking of several traditional Chinese operas into new, filmed versions paying tribute to Chairman Mao and his political policies, and to Jiang Ching herself. Anchee Min was recruited to star in the last of these operas, The Red Azalea. Min’s fortunes fell when, upon Mao’s death in 1976, Madame Mao was discredited and jailed. Min lost her starring role and was forced to work as a cleaning woman until, with the help of another Chinese actress, Min left China and began a new life in the United States.
Min’s narrative of Jiang Ching’s life begins with a prologue set in 1991, as a defeated Madame Mao prepares to commit suicide in her prison cell. She tries unsuccessfully to convince her daughter Nah to write her biography. Nah refuses, and Jiang Ching’s disappointment is expressed in typical Chinese fashion: Nah is “a rotten piece of wood that can never be made into a beautiful piece of furniture.” Jiang Ching tries to inspire Nah by recounting an ancient tale that tells of a daughter’s loyalty to her mother. Jiang Ching’s language reveals a mind deeply rooted in Chinese cultural traditions, one that falls naturally back into old ways of thinking when this most radical engineer of the Cultural Revolution is faced with failure.
Jiang Ching is born Yun-he (Crane in the Clouds) in Shan-dong Province. Yun-he’s mother, a concubine to a violent alcoholic, tries to bind Yun-he’s feet to ensure the little girl’s prospects for a good marriage, but Yun-he defiantly removes the bindings. The little girl is left unfit for the role her mother had hoped she would play—the wife or concubine of an upper-class Chinese man. Although the child Yun-he rejects this role, as a young woman she will find herself struggling to play a series of roles imposed by her relationships with men.
Yun-he’s mother leaves her father and the two are for a time homeless; they eventually go to live with Yun-he’s grandparents. The little girl’s grandfather teaches her about art, opera, and poetry. When Yun-he reaches her early teens and her grandparents begin efforts to marry her off, she runs away and becomes an apprentice to an opera troupe. When the troupe disbands in 1930, seventeen-year-old Yun-he is unable to find acting jobs and returns to her grandparents’ home, agreeing to marry a businessman named Fei. A year later she leaves her husband and becomes a student at Shan-dong University, where she meets her first great love, Yu Qiwei, a student and radical Communist.
Yun-he begins an affair with Yu Qiwei, now having two new roles to play: She is both lover and political helpmeet to a powerful man. Her passionate sexual awakening coincides with her sense of being an important part of Yu Qiwei’s work. Yun-he is caught up in the political struggles of the young activist and his friends, and in a secret ceremony becomes a member of the Communist Party. However, Yu Qiwei is arrested for his Communist activities, and a depressed and frightened Yun-he takes up with a new boyfriend. Her relationship with Yu Qiwei is shattered. Feeling that she has misplayed her role, Yun-he moves to Shanghai to try once again to become an actress. Yun-he tries to keep her Communist associations a secret, but in Shanghai she is arrested as a Communist sympathizer. In jail she is tortured and, desperate to win her release, signs a statement denouncing the Communists.
After her release from prison Yun-he changes her name to Lan Ping (Blue Apple). She wins the part of Nora in a Shanghai production of the Henrik Ibsen play A Doll’s House. This performance will be Lan Ping’s only professional success; while she revels in the play’s positive reception and the glamour of appearing on stage, she pines in proximity...
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