Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1617
Anchee Min’s novels center on strong, morally ambiguous women who are affected by the vicissitudes of present and past life in China. All of Min’s protagonists suffer from an oppressive, often violent society that seeks to circumscribe their lives with tight rules and rituals that stifle their free personal, and especially sexual, development. Her characters have to learn to live under these rules and try to adapt to them as best they can, for the penalties for violating the rules are brutal, whether the rules are those of Mao’s Communist regime unleashing the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, or the tight court rules of the imperial Qing Dynasty, which was extinguished in 1912.
Min’s first three novels are told against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, an era Min personally experienced and suffered through. Her first novel, Katherine, brings an outsider to Communist China, a European American woman who quickly falls into the traps sprung by a society hostile to any acts of individualism. Characteristic of Min’s fiction, individualism is ultimately expressed by a woman’s right to enjoy and self-determine her sexuality. Her protagonist Katherine quickly encounters social and personal jealousy, and Katherine’s opponents use the strict, puritanical dictates of official Communist society to avenge themselves. In Katherine, return or emigration to the United States serves as the solution to the dilemma posed by rigid Chinese society. In Min’s third novel, Wild Ginger, such an escape is no longer possible, and tragedy is the foreordained outcome.
For her second novel, Min chooses a powerful historical woman as protagonist, just as she does in later novels. In Becoming Madame Mao, Min envisions in great psychological detail the woman who would become Mao Zedong’s last wife. Min’s Jiang Qing is presented as an ambiguous character who undergoes a vast personal development that her author has called a journey from innocence to hell, with hell partially of her own making.
From writing about a historical person whose acts personally affected the author, Min moved to two novels telling of the life of the woman who would become China’s last empress. With Empress Orchid and The Last Empress, Min’s efforts to resurrect a historical person are successful and force a genuine reassessment of that person’s vilified life. Critics have worried that Min’s meticulous research distracts from the literary development of her protagonist, but this objection appears misguided; it may be related to the fact that Min’s character is very ambiguous—any reader looking for a fully sympathetic protagonist, or a purely evil one, will find her difficult to like.
Stylistically, Min’s fiction is very descriptive and at times has the quality of a painting or a historical film. Her choice of the old Wade-Giles system for transliterating Chinese names of the imperial age, rather than the Pinyin system generally in use since the late twentieth century, forces readers to keep in mind that her empress Tzu-Hsi is more familiar to the modern world as Cixi. The same is true for all the other names in the two novels about her. At the time her characters lived, however, Wade-Giles was in use in the West, so there is some justification for Min’s choice.
When Min’s somehow underrated first novel, Katherine, appeared, many readers and critics were unsure of how to read the work, as it did not fall easily into any category. The novel tells of a European American woman, Katherine, who is invited to teach English in Shanghai after the Mao era is over. One of her enraptured students, Zebra Wong, tells the story from her point of view. Katherine’s Chinese students, male and female, come to look upon Katherine as the epitome of sexual liberation still lacking in their socially oppressed and austere lives. As Katherine nonchalantly engages in sexual affairs with some of her students, perhaps of both sexes, jealous forces conspire to expose her and have her expelled. Before her departure, however, Katherine adopts an unwanted, sickly Chinese girl named Little Rabbit. With the help of a sympathetic U.S. congressman, Katherine gets Zebra and Little Rabbit to follow her to the freedom that the United States represents in Min’s novel.
Becoming Madame Mao
With Becoming Madame Mao, her striking novel about the woman who, as Jiang Qing, became the last of Mao Zedong’s wives, Min turned to one of China’s most hated historical persons. Min’s goal was to show the person behind the popular image, and her novel showcases her protagonist’s development from early rebellion and misfortune to triumph and eventual downfall. For each stage of her life she passes through, the protagonist acquires a new name. The girl Yunhe refuses foot binding and runs away, the young actor Lan Ping moves toward the Communists, and Jiang Qing becomes Mao’s wife. Min has called her protagonist’s fate a journey from innocence to hell, and it is captivatingly told. With a narrative structure that shifts from first to third person and between past and present, Becoming Madame Mao seeks to underline how a private person acquires a public image and how early events affect later decisions.
It is during her youth and after Jiang Qing’s fall from power after Mao dies that Min’s character shows her most sympathetic qualities. Sentenced to death but kept alive in prison, Jiang Qing, in a moving scene that speaks of her unbending will to assert herself, is caught having stitched her name in tiny characters on the shirts she must sew together. In Min’s novel even a notorious woman has a personal, vulnerable side.
Wild Ginger takes the reader straight to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution as experienced by a trio of teenagers. With extreme clarity, Min depicts the absurdities of a totalitarian system that turns society into an Orwellian nightmare where today’s outcasts are tomorrow’s heroines and vice versa.
As the novel opens, Wild Ginger, a teenage girl, is an outcast because of her father’s partially French heritage in Mao’s xenophobic People’s Republic. Her spirit refuses to be subdued, however; she even rescues her friend Maple, narrator of the novel, from the girl bully Red Pepper, who uses politics as an excuse to torment her adversaries. Symptomatic of the wild political swings of the chaotic era, Wild Ginger suddenly becomes a Communist heroine and even meets Chairman Mao. Her downfall comes when both she and Maple fall in love with a boy named Evergreen. In the vicious political climate of the day, Wild Ginger commits suicide out of desperation as the tide turns against her again.
Although some critics have objected to this novel’s dramatic emotions and improbable coincidences, which put the characters’ fates on a roller-coaster ride, it was exactly such emotional chaos and turmoil that Mao and his wife unleashed on China from 1966 to 1976. Wild Ginger can be seen as a worthy fictional counterpart to Min’s celebrated memoir Red Azalea, which covers the same era.
Empress Orchid and The Last
In two historical novels based on meticulous research, Min renders the life of China’s final empress in the most sympathetic light possible. Her focus is on the rigid imperial rules and court intrigues that made her protagonist struggle for her life. Opposing the traditional negative view of Empress Tzu-Hsi (in Pinyin, Cixi), Min’s two novels offer an alternative.
Empress Orchid features the desperate struggle of the young Manchu girl Orchid Yehonala, who chooses life as one of Emperor Hsien Feng’s (in Pinyin, Xianfeng) seven imperial consorts next to three thousand concubines. To lead a meaningful existence, she must capture the attention of the emperor. Min is particularly effective in her description of the means Orchid employs in her carefully crafted dance of seduction.
By bearing the emperor’s son and by participating in political decision making, Orchid incurs the jealousy of others, and, as in all of Min’s novels, the woman protagonist has to fight for her life. Choosing allies wisely, Orchid manages to avoid being put to death in the young emperor’s tomb after his untimely death. She succeeds in turning tables and becomes coregent for her baby boy, the new emperor. Empress Orchid closes as the young widow is torn by her desires for General Yung Lu. In Min’s novel, Orchid remains chaste, contrary to historical malicious gossip.
The Last Empress tells of Tzu-Hsi’s reign as regent, first for her young son and then, after his early death, for her nephew. In Min’s extremely sympathetic rendition, Tzu-Hsi’s historical actions are all motivated by her love for her family and by her recognition of China’s weakness against militarily superior Western and Japanese forces. Where hostile historical propaganda has implicated Tzu-Hsi in the murder of her son to regain power, for example, in the novel the son dies of an illness exacerbated by venereal disease. There are moments when Min’s Empress Orchid is near despair at the limitations imposed on her by her gender and by ancient traditions. She is shown disconsolate at the betrayals of those close to her.
What gives Min’s two novels about China’s last empress their particular power as fiction is the author’s uncompromising decision to portray a historical person in a sympathetic yet still accurate and thus ambiguous light. Perhaps because Min stays so close to history, some readers and critics have found themselves unable to connect with her protagonist. The presence of an authentically ambiguous protagonist, however, is the very strength of Min’s historical fiction.