Anchee Min Min, Anchee - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anchee Min Red Azalea

Born in 1957, Min is a Chinese-born memoirist now living in the United States.

Recounting Min's coming of age and sexual awakening in Communist China during the 1960s and 1970s, Red Azalea (1994) details how the private lives of individuals were affected by the political indoctrination that permeated Chinese society under the regime of Chairman Mao Tsetung. A series of vignettes related through Min's precise and sparse language, Red Azalea begins with Min as a child; she cares for younger siblings in a dilapidated, multi-family dwelling, while her parents work long hours in a factory. Min also works diligently at school, becoming one of the best students in her class. However, her faith in Mao's vision for China is severely tested when she is forced to denounce one of her favorite teachers. In 1974 she is sent to a youth camp, an assignment that separates her from her family and introduces her to a life of intense, regimented labor in which individual needs are sacrificed for the sake of the Revolution. Despite threats of punishment, including execution, Min develops an attraction for one of her female comrades. Sustained through the hardships at the camp by her love of Revolutionary operas, Min is unexpectedly selected as an actress for the government's musical productions and propaganda films. Apparently destined for a leading role in the Cultural Revolution, she engages in a surreptitious affair with a man known as the "Supervisor," who helps her attain the leading role in Red Azalea, a film about the life of Mao's wife, Comrade Jiang Qing. Min's harsh but upwardly mobile path collapses with the death of Mao in 1976, and she is immediately demoted to a custodial position in the studio where she had recently been a leading actress. In 1984, nearly penniless and able to speak little English, Min came to the United States under the sponsorship of a fellow actress who had previously immigrated. She began writing Red Azalea as an assignment for an English class, and over the course of seven years she worked through the painful psychological toll of her experiences in Communist China. Critics have applauded the book as an important case study of the Cultural Revolution's impact on average citizens. Although some reviewers disliked her short, sharp sentences and her use of anglicized Chinese names, others praised the stark bluntness of Min's story and the power of its language. As Laura Shapiro and Karen Springen have argued, "much of [Red Azalea's] strength lies in [Min's] prose, as delicate and evocative as a traditional Chinese brush painting."

Penelope Mesic (review date January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Freedom Writer," in Chicago, Vol. 43, January, 1994, pp. 55-7, 112-14.

[In the following review, based in part on a conversation with Min, Mesic discusses Min's first years in the United States and her struggle to deal with the brutality she endured in China.]

Nine years ago a young woman named Anchee Min left mainland China to come to Chicago. She was 26 years old, had never flown before, spoke no English, and was weak from being compelled to do menial work despite recurrent, untreated bouts of pneumonia—an informal punishment for wanting to emigrate. Yet as the plane began its descent, the lights along the lake were so dazzling—"In Chinese cities there are not lights like these at night," she explains—that she thought of her father's passion for astronomy and his fantasy of flying to the stars. "Is this heaven?" she wondered. "Is this a different planet?"

In fact, the distance between her old life and the new is so great that the answer could almost be yes. Min grew up in extreme poverty amid the turmoil and repression of the Cultural Revolution, then at 17 was sent to a grim communal farm for three years of backbreaking labor. A rare chance—being chosen to play the lead in a film biography of Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Tse-tung—turned sour when Mao died and his widow was jailed by her political rivals. Min abruptly fell from favor.

A friend, the actress Joan Chen, interceded, and Min was accepted as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After learning English, she put her old experiences and her new freedom to use and wrote a powerful true account of her life in China. The agent who handled Amy Tan's blockbuster The Joy Luck Club agreed to represent Min and sold the story to Pantheon Books, which will publish Red Azalea in February. Min's editor at Pantheon considers it "our biggest book of the season" and a potential bestseller. The memoir has been chosen as a featured selection by two book clubs, the film rights have been optioned, and Min is scheduled to make a ten-city promotional tour. Recalling the past, Min seems almost stunned by her present success and prosperity.

On a bright afternoon last October, Min was dressed in the thoroughly American costume of oversize yellow sweater and black leggings. She had spent the morning in the equally American pastime of planning her daughter Lauryan's second birthday party. In China, Min says, she had lived with her family in a two-room apartment where three families shared a single toilet. Here she and her husband own a late-Victorian brick apartment building in Bridgeport that they have rehabbed together.

Min now exercises her artistic freedom not only as a writer but also as a painter and a photographer At last she can affirm the value of private feelings over the crushingly impersonal interests of the state. And she stands to gain enormously from her honesty. Red Azalea was published in England last fall, where a reviewer for the London Times wrote that it was "as simple as a young girl's diary and as evocative as the most skilled poetry." That praise doesn't really convey the book's urgency and power, for it reveals the human cost of political intrigue, sexual repression, and draconian punishment for anyone showing signs of the grave crime of "bourgeois individualism."

The one constant amid so much change is Anchee Min herself. The same qualities—intelligence, discipline, keen powers of observation, determination—that made her a leader of the Little Red Guard in grade school have helped her here. Overcoming the obstacles of a new language and a different culture, she has risen overnight (before Red Azalea she had published only two brief articles) to the top of a crowded and competitive field. But as her book makes clear, the New York publishing industry has nothing—in terms of crowds and competition—to compare with an underdeveloped country of one billion where cutthroat clandestine rivalries flourish.

Min grew up in Shanghai, a waterfront city always in the forefront of political and artistic movements. She was born in 1957 and from the age of five cared for two younger sisters and a younger brother, while her parents—prevented by policies of the Cultural Revolution from working at jobs commensurate with their education—struggled to earn enough to keep them alive. Min's brother was so thin, so raggedly dressed in hand-me-downs, that the neighbors called him "Flea."

Yet there were others so poor that they envied even the Mins. Below them was a family of 11, forced to live in one room, who coveted the Mins' four-room apartment. They tried to drive the Mins out by emptying their chamberpots onto the Mins' bedding. Next, an elder daughter, feigning madness, slashed Anchee's mother with a pair of scissors and threatened the children with an ax. The local shapers of the Cultural Revolution, having abolished the police in Shanghai as "a revisionist mechanism," had basically abandoned the city to chaos. The Mins believed they had no recourse but to put up notices asking to exchange their apartment for someone else's. The next day a burly man and his four grown sons arrived with their belongings in a truck, administered a preemptive beating to the neighbors' "mad" daughter, and forced the Mins out—to a much worse two-room apartment over a welding-equipment factory, where Anchee's parents live to the present day. While Anchee Min, ten at the time, speaks of the incident without a word of criticism for her parents' gentle inability to prevail, it is evident that it was a bitterly formative experience.

And yet as a child, she innocently espoused the system under which she lived. At one point she even considered denouncing her father, who was sometimes less than enthusiastic about government policies and encouraged her to think for herself. At another time, she recalls, "I was looking for a chance to save somebody and die, like one 12-year-old girl who had saved three children from a railroad track. The train ran over her legs and she got to see Mao and be a national hero." Min laughs. "One day a tricycle went in the street and I pulled the child out of the way, but no one reported my good deed, and I didn't die. I was so disappointed."

When the party introduced a new humanitarian campaign, she embraced the cause wholeheartedly. "They showed us pictures like starving Somalis and told us they were children in the United States. We didn't know not to believe. 'What do you do?' was the big slogan. So I led my class to collect papers for recycling, for which we got seven cents a pound to donate." In 1972, Min remembers, estrangement from the United States took a different form: fear of an air attack. "We practiced air-raid drills at midnight, dug foxholes—we were so scared of Americans."

Xian-Ming Yuan has known Min since 1970, when the two girls were Little Red Guard leaders together, and is now a computer expert in Massachusetts. "In the beginning we truly, truly, truly believed, and loved to see the party's slogans everywhere," she says. "As leaders we put the slogans up in classrooms. But after a while we were tired of that. The words seemed funny and meaningless"—an opinion that the girls, whose thoughts turned to foreign literature, drawing, and astronomy, could never openly express.

But before this period of doubt, when Min's belief was most fervent, an excruciating conflict arose. A teacher whose name means "Autumn Leaves" in English was Min's favorite. After studying in the United States, she had returned to China to teach. Affectionate and dedicated, she added enthralling fairy tales from the West to the curriculum. Perhaps because those qualities made her stand out—"In China you're promoted up, up, and then to jail," Min says, not joking—the young Anchee was encouraged by the local party secretary to denounce the woman as a "secret agent of the imperialists." The child struggled to decide whether the accusation was true. "One day when it was raining hard, the teacher gave students her raincoat, rainshoes, and umbrella as they went home. She went home wet," Min remembers. But the party secretary was relentless in his arguments; Min was won over, and Autumn Leaves was brought before a crowd of 2,000 people, including her own students and colleagues.

A nightmarish scene followed. Two men twisted the teacher's arm to compel a confession. She was kicked and manhandled. Her eyeglasses fell off. As the crowd roared threats at the teacher, Min, dizzy, her hands shaking, read the denunciation. Unexpectedly, the teacher squatted on her heels and confronted the child seriously, kindly, exactly as if seeking to explain a problem in math. "My heart felt like a boiling teapot," Min writes in Red Azalea. Unable to back down, hating the beloved teacher precisely because her remembered kindness made the task of denunciation more difficult, she screamed a final accusation. When her parents found out what she had done, her mother, unworldly but principled, herself a teacher, locked the child out of the house for six hours and threatened to disown her. The teacher, lucky to escape imprisonment, was exiled from China for 11 years. When she returned, and by chance encountered Min, the teacher pretended not to recognize her. "I was not forgiven," Min writes with horrible finality.

In conversation, Min points out that this coercive process was tragic but unremarkable—there were countless public denunciations all over the country. "The party encouraged you to do things to show you were a revolutionary." Those things were meant to be painful. The pain was proof of one's selfless commitment. "Kids denounced their parents," says Min. She adds that it was hard to write about the episode with her teacher, but necessary because it was a lack of self-examination—of one's motives and responsibilities—that had led to the Cultural Revolution in the first place. Defiantly she adds, "I'm not afraid. If people read this about me and say, 'Anchee Min, you're such a terrible person,' I say, 'So? Who's not?'"

Her editor at Pantheon, Dan Frank, points to the passage as one that convinced him of the truthfulness of Anchee Min's account. "Her portrayal of herself is not necessarily a flattering one," he says. "You could accuse her of being manipulative or cold. It's such unflinching honesty."

Min is equally frank about what might be regarded as the book's central episode, when, at the age of 17, she was sent to Red Fire Farm. "Because the cities were so crowded," she explains, "one child from each family had to go to the countryside." It was a leveling policy that deliberately denied a college education to many of the brightest students, including Min. A truck carried the young people from Shanghai—Min didn't ride in a car until she was 20—to a uniquely unpromising stretch of land by the East China Sea. "The land was salt; everything did poorly there," she says. "The cotton we raised was nearly too poor in quality to use. We could not feed ourselves on what we grew."

In a particularly vivid passage she describes the stiff native reeds, which pushed back up despite every effort to eradicate them, not only competing with the crops but poking through the dirt floor of the bedroom she shared with seven other young women and penetrating her thin mattress. Clearly, for Min, they came to symbolize the inhospitable nature of the place. Later, looking at a photograph of one of her paintings, she indicates some bending vertical lines. "Look, those reeds have even gotten in here," she says, smiling faintly. The heat and insects, the heavy agricultural work done with few modern implements, the poverty and the hunger—"We dug up sweet potatoes at night and ate them raw," she remembers—made the life harsh. The rivalries, denunciations, and lack of prospects made it intolerable.

Some of the 13,000 workers sought dangerous consolation with one another. In Red Azalea,...

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Margo Jefferson (review date 26 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Growing Up amid the Conflicts of Ideology and Life," in The New York Times, January 26, 1994, p. C19.

[In the following review, Jefferson provides a positive assessment of Red Azalea.]

In a movie theater recently, when Farewell My Concubine ended, the man behind me turned to his companion and announced, "Well, it might not be the most sophisticated film I've ever seen, but what it shows us about life in China…."

I found it a very sophisticated film, and one that showed much more than a social realist view of repression in imperial nationalist and Communist China. Farewell My Concubine also explored questions dear to...

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Rhoda Koenig (review date 31 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Red Azalea, in New York Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 5, January 31, 1994, p. 63.

[Below, Koenig favorably reviews Red Azalea.]

An agricultural worker who was selected from the rice fields for movie stardom, Anchee Min has a marvelous story to tell, but her account of her own career is less fantastic than her portrait of everyday life in China during the Cultural Revolution. The Maoists did all they could to promote cooperation, and produced a society riven with envy and hatred; they tried to drive out such inefficient emotions as lust and love, and created a country of perverts and hysterics. In 1967, when Min was 10 years old, the neighbors, angry...

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Richard Eder (review date 20 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life in a Chinese Opera," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 20, 1994, pp. 3, 7.

[Eder is an American critic who has won a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. In the following excerpt, he provides a favorable review of Red Azalea.]

At home, Anchee Min's family was squeezed into two rooms shared with two other Shanghai families. From the age of 5, Min writes, she had to be an adult, tending her three younger siblings, Blooming, Coral and Space Conqueror—her father combined a private passion for astronomy with a public regard for Maoist oratory—until her parents got...

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Judith Shapiro (review date 27 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Counterrevolutionary Sex," in The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, p. 11.

[In the following review, Shapiro concentrates on the sexual relationships in Red Azalea.]

Even in today's comparatively freewheeling China of discos and dating, Anchee Min's steamy memoir of two love affairs—one with another woman, the other with a man—would be unprintable "spiritual pollution." But during Ms. Min's coming of age in China during the Cultural Revolution, nonmarital sex could be punishable by death and homosexual love was an unthinkable counterrevolutionary crime. This memoir of sexual freedom is thus a powerful political as well as literary statement....

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Orville Schell (review date March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stolen Kisses," in Vogue, Vol. 184, No. 3, March, 1994, pp. 278, 281-82.

[Schell is an American journalist, nonfiction writer, and critic who has written extensively on modern China. In the following review, based in part on a conversation with Min, he discusses Red Azalea and how Min came to write it.]

"Falling in love is so powerful that it makes you forget about almost everything else, even making revolution. Instead of wanting to struggle and destroy things, you want to find peace and to celebrate living. Because the Party knows that people in love are no longer completely under its control, its leaders have always been deeply...

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Laura Shapiro and Karen Springen (review date 11 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "This Girl's Life," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXIII, No. 15, April 11, 1994, pp. 76, 79.

[In the following review, Shapiro and Springen comment on Red Azalea and Min's life after she left China.]

Harrowing tales of life under totalitarianism have been published before, but Anchee Min's Red Azalea—the story of a young girl coming of age in thrall to Maoism—ranks as one of the most memorable. Much of its strength lies in her prose, as delicate and evocative as a traditional Chinese brush painting.

Growing up in Shanghai in the 1960s, Min was the best student in her class, a junior Red Guard who memorized the revolutionary operas of...

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Anchee Min with Kathleen Wilson, CLC Yearbook (interview date 14 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following interview, Min discusses how the events of the Cultural Revolution affected her formative years and later prompted her to write Red Azalea.]

[Wilson]: One of the most noticeable things about Red Azalea is that it was written without direct dialogue. Was there a reason for this?

[Min]: It sounds more Chinese.

Is that how a Chinese novel would be written?

I'd say yes. Classic Chinese literature is very close to how lyrics are written. It's more about "Qi"—the breath of the piece, the music of the writing.

Do you think that if you had written a novel in Chinese it would have had the...

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