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...
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