Penelope Mesic (review date January 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4958
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, Min describes a barbarous event arising from that impulse. A beautiful young girl named Little Green, delicate, cheerful, well groomed, the grand-daughter of a Chinese opera singer, met secretly—but not secretly enough—with a thin, bespectacled young man. Led by the company commander, Yan Sheng, an energetic, broad-shouldered woman with glossy pigtails, a group of workers armed with flashlights and rifles crept up on the couple and caught them in the act. Min participated in the ambush, experiencing a horrible sense of disloyalty to her friend. She later explained the official position: "A good female comrade was supposed to devote all her energy, her youth, to the Revolution; she was not permitted to think about a man until she reached her late 20s." Four days of "intensive mind rebrushing" compelled Little Green to describe the encounter as a rape. In an impromptu trial in the cafeteria, her lover was sentenced to death. Little Green went mad. Later, the company commander, Yan, came to blame herself bitterly.
The incident chilled Min's revolutionary fervor. She came to regard the ambush and its aftermath as a fundamental outrage against the most necessary human need for intimacy. "The culture since Confucius encourages sacrificing your own self for the community. But the basic human desires cannot be repressed," she says. "They come out in other forms, often evil ones."
Despite the obvious risks, she had a love affair while at Red Fire Farm, and one potentially even more dangerous. Her partner was Yan, the camp commander. The two women fell into conversation one evening when the dashing commander, whom Min clearly hero-worshiped, was playing her erh-hu (a stringed instrument) in the commune's abandoned brickyard. Soon they were taking every opportunity to meet privately, at first only for companionship. Yan made Min a platoon leader, assigning her to sleep in the bunk above her own. For greater privacy from the other six women sleeping in the room, they left the mosquito nets around their bed unwashed and, within their dusty folds, embraced one another.
Asked if it had been embarrassing to write so frankly about their relationship, Min says, "I never thought of the question in this way. I thought I'd better be honest from head to toe. If I can't be true to myself, it's meaningless. Someone did research on modern Chinese women and found they are ashamed of sex, think it's an animal thing, disgusting. In America, on Oprah Winfrey, women are able to speak the unspeakable." She regards the relationship between herself and Yan as entirely natural. "It's not my point to write eroticism. It's about loving, being human in an inhuman environment. I'm lucky I had it. It's not man and woman or woman and woman; it's another person, another mind—that's the love affair."
Sexual repression, Min thinks, is merely one aspect of a larger problem. "My Chinese friends say: 'You are talking about things that have never been said in China.' It's against the Chinese nature to examine the inner world of feelings. We are trained to neglect our emotional needs."
Because their relationship was their only solace, Yan and Min continued to creep into each other's beds at night, although there was an added element of danger. Lu, a platoon leader jealous of Yan's command, began spying on them. An additional complication was that what can only be called government talent scouts had come to the farm in search of a promising young woman to play the lead in Red Azalea, a film version of the life of Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Tse-tung. Min was being considered as the farm's candidate for the role, to compete against girls from all over China. It was a unique opportunity to return to the far easier life of the city, and she seized it with both hands. On the farm, she says, "people died like cockroaches. You think how to come out of this death pit. People chop off their fingers to go back to the city." Shrewdly, to convey an appropriate look of revolutionary dedication, she wore Yan's old military uniform, washed until it was faded to white, to what we would call the auditions. "A healthy look, a peasant quality," she says, was her greatest asset.
But Lu's insinuations about irregular relations between Yan and Min were beginning to jeopardize her chances. To play Jiang Qing, an actress had to exemplify revolutionary qualities, among them sexual purity. Ironically, Min later learned from an intimate of Jiang that she and China's leader had particularly enjoyed the danger of making love during enemy shelling. To remove suspicion from Anchee Min, the company commander pretended that she and Lu—the accuser—had in fact been lovers. Her selfless act doomed her to a demotion, but freed Min to go to Shanghai, one of five actresses who would train for a year before vying for the part of Jiang.
The five women, fierce rivals, lived together in a tumbledown cottage—luxurious compared with Red Fire Farm—on the grounds of the movie studio. The older actress responsible for their training, spiteful because she herself had no opportunity for the role, singled out another girl, a sly but talented beauty named Cheering Spear, as her favorite. When the filming began, Min had the job of set clerk—a position that covered the important tasks usually handled by an assistant director and menial jobs such as sweeping the floor. But well into shooting, the project mysteriously evoked official disfavor. In the shakeup that followed, Min replaced the first actress as Jiang. Going through a few stills from the production, she indicates one that shows her fending off an unidentified enemy of the people, and says, laughing, "That's me. Always with a gun."
With her new, more important role, Min was brought into intimate contact—and began a love affair—with a shadowy, androgynous high party official who was serving as the film's director. In Red Azalea this figure is identified only as "The Supervisor." He lived in spacious, elegantly furnished surroundings, smoked four packs of cigarettes a day at a time when smoking was regarded as a wasteful personal indulgence, and spoke with a reckless lack of political correctness. When Min objected that people would laugh at some artificial-sounding lines of dialogue, he answered, "Who do you think people are? They are walking corpses. The only thing they know is fear. That is why they need authority. They need a wise emperor. It's been that way for 5,000 years."
But just as Min was being initiated into the cynical honesty of real power, disaster struck. On September 9, 1976, Mao died. With his death, the authority of his wife drained away. Min puts it so vividly in Red Azalea: "The gossip grew fat, greasy, like a dish of pork neck," that Mao had been murdered by his wife. Within days, she was in jail, and crowds, dancing in the street "like boiling dumplings," called for her torture and death. The Supervisor, one of Jiang Qing's chief supporters, was clearly doomed. His best chance, he thought, was to get his name put on a list of mental patients, rather than one of traitors to the state. He had just enough time to pull strings at the studio, countermanding Min's banishment back to Red Fire Farm, before he disappeared.
The next six years were desolate. "I was forced to work as a set clerk again despite illness," Min says. "If I do not go to work, I lose my city permit"—which would essentially constitute exile to the countryside. Her applications to attend a university were denied unless, officials said, she was accepted at a foreign university. "That's like saying you can go to the moon if you want to," Min explains. But unexpectedly, in 1983, an actress whom she had met at the Shanghai film studio, Joan Chen, wrote and offered help. Chen had left Shanghai to appear in international productions, among them The Last Emperor, and she volunteered to find a school in the United States that would accept Min without test results demonstrating a knowledge of English.
"I had to do some tricks to get here. I wanted this so hard," Min says. "The studio finally let me go because I convinced them I wouldn't denounce my country." Meanwhile, Chen had found a place that required no proof of competency in English, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Min was accepted.
"I had my toughest job as an actress making my application to the American consulate," Min remembers. "I had a friend who wrote up what I had to say in English, and I memorized it. I was dressed in my mother's clothes, a green skirt and an old lady's blouse, and went into the consul general's office. She had these bright-green cat's eyes"—she points to her own eyes and opens them wide—"and it was the closest I had ever been to a Western person. It scared me, but I said my words right into her face. And then I kept showing her my paintings, explaining them so she couldn't ask me questions, because how would I know what she's asking? Finally I heard her say about the only English word I knew: 'OK.' And I go to myself, 'OK.' That's good, right? That means yes?
"I went to the next office and the translator there says, 'It's amazing. The consul general must be in a good mood today. She said she is giving you a visa because you are just so determined.'" With a proud, fierce look, she repeats it. "'So determined.'"
And yet Min almost didn't make it into the country. A customs agent in San Francisco asked her a question. When she didn't answer, he held her back, surprised that a foreign student had no knowledge of the language. A translator conveyed his suspicions. Min took a bold course. "I said, 'It's true. But if I don't learn the language in half a year, I'll deport myself.' The translator lied for me and told the customs guy I was just nervous."
Once in Chicago, she lived for a few months with a cousin she had never met before coming to this country, who nevertheless treated her generously and made sure that she received treatment to cure her lingering pneumonia. Then, living on her own, she applied the resolute self-discipline she had summoned to survive on Red Fire Farm. "So I would learn the language, I did not allow myself to see any Chinese. I ate no Chinese food. I worked as a waitress, delivery messenger, in a fabric-painting shop, and baby-sitting."
Her friend Xien-Ming Yuan, who came to this country several years later, describes something that made coming to the United States particularly hard. "We had been told America was a terrible place, full of monsters. Gradually we were thinking surely the United States couldn't be the same as we were told." But what was it like? "It was a blank. Scary. Very shocking. We had made the choice to come here and spiritually to fulfill ourselves. But I don't know how many times I cried—and Anchee, too."
One of Min's earliest American friends was Michelle Smith, a fellow student at the School of the Art Institute. "This was her first or second semester," Smith, who now owns an antique shop, recalls. "We had a teacher who was a nice guy but overbearing. I was shy and she was in alien territory, and it was very horrible. We talked a lot together about art, political things, the social structure, and she always said she was glad I didn't ask about her past in China—the same questions everyone asked."
In 1988, Min met another student who didn't need to ask the same old questions. Newly arrived from Shanghai, Qigu Jiang was, like Min, a painter and a freethinker, whose exhibition had been shut down by the government. "It was a very dangerous time," Jiang recalls. At their first meeting he and Min had only their dislike for each other in common. "I thought she was no good; she thought, This is not the kind of man I like," Jiang says, laughing. But realizing how much they shared, they were married in a hasty civil ceremony, which Jiang recalls rather wistfully: "No family was there. When the judge says, 'Kiss the bride,' it wasn't even a kiss, just her hair brushing my cheek."
And yet, as Min established a life here, her thoughts returned to her past life in China. She wrote about Red Fire Farm for a writing course at the Art Institute. "The teacher said, 'Interesting, but you're a poor writer,'" she recalls. "I showed it to Joan Chen and she sent it to a friend, Mark Sulzman, who wrote Iron and Silk," who in turn sent it to his agent. Eventually Min sent the story to the prestigious literary magazine Granta. "I didn't put return postage because I couldn't afford it," Min says. "Six months later I get a call from an editor there, Kim Addams. 'We're going to publish it. You'll be with a lot of great writers like Salman Rushdie,' she told me. And I said, 'Who's Salman Rushdie?'"
On the basis of the Granta article, which appeared in spring of 1992, Sandy Dijkstra, Amy Tan's agent, sold what was to become Red Azalea to Pantheon for a $75,000 advance. With her usual iron self-discipline, Min put the money in the bank and didn't touch it: "In case they don't want the book and I have to give the money back." She completed the manuscript on Christmas Day, 1992. "I was vomiting, my whole body was shaking after a year of living my past life and having to face myself." In a single sentence she describes her powerful, conflicting feelings: "I was so driven and so glad to be given the opportunity."
She says she doesn't know if she will write another book, feeling drained after the first one, "like I give birth to myself." But her editor, Dan Frank, feels sure that she will write more, saying that she has a writer's memory for detail and that not speaking English like a native has produced a startling freshness of language. "She doesn't know the common clichés—she has to invent her own way of saying things. I've tried to change what she's written as little as possible." A marvelously vivid example of what Frank is talking about occurs in an exchange between the grown-up Anchee and her mother: "My mother said she didn't believe evilness should rule. 'It's ruling,' I said." The word "evilness" has a quirky, awkward sharpness, which contrasts with the speed of Min's slightly unidiomatic rejoinder. In two lines she captures her mother's wistful naïveté and her own brisk realism. Her powers of description, her way with dialogue, her faithfulness to the story all confirm Frank's opinion that Min should write other books.
Since writing Red Azalea, Min has returned to her native city for an exhibition of her artwork and five evenings of readings at the Shanghai Municipal Center, a posh, modern glass-and-brick structure that reflects China's new prosperity under something closer to a free-enterprise system. "They allow me back because they think I brought the country honor and respect—that's before they read the book," Min says, laughing. She looks at snapshots taken at the readings—of her mother, the mayor of Shanghai, and old friends, among crowds of more than 1,000. Her editor says that these public readings before so many people in a position to know whether Min's story is true are further proof, if any were needed, of her veracity. They are also proof of her popularity, for as Min says, she is now treated as something of a hero for daring to speak honestly about the system. Yet the book will not appear in China, and Min's father tries to avoid danger by telling neighbors he hasn't read it and doesn't know what it is about.
Min still writes to friends in Shanghai. "We use a kind of code," she says. But she has never again seen the mysteriously elegant Supervisor or learned his fate, nor has she seen her lover Yan Sheng. "It would be like eating in front of a starving child," she says. The differences in their circumstances are simply too great.
All of Min's siblings have left China. "Her brother is in Japan; her sister Blooming lives here in Chicago with her husband and child; her sister Carol has moved to Austria," says her husband, Qigu Jiang. "They're quite an international family."
Min's parents have come to the United States for visits. "I want to have them here, but my mother has had a stroke," she says. "It's so cruel. By the time I can give her the chance to enjoy herself, her mind is gone." But Min's father, now the director of the Shanghai Children's Palace Planetarium, enjoyed his last visit, particularly meetings with officials of the Adler Planetarium, with whom he could discuss his beloved astronomy. "He knew in English the name of every constellation, every scientific word," Min says. "But when they said, 'Let's eat,' he needed a translation."
Min still feels, in her father's words, as if she has journeyed to the stars. "I wake up in the night and cannot believe I am here, cannot believe I drive a car. I'm so used to American freedom to say what I think now. I've become American," Min says. "I don't think my daughter, raised here, will ever have my appreciation of America."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425
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."
Margo Jefferson (review date 26 January 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1108
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 postmodern Westerners: questions of sexual impulse and identity, of the treacherous balance of power between lovers, or friends, or teachers and students, and of the process by which a soul is patched together then broken apart by public ideology and private longing.
Red Azalea, Anchee Min's memoir of her life in Communist China, has this same reach. Part of it reads like raw testimony; part of it reads like epic drama, and part of it reads like poetic incantation.
Anchee Min was born in Shanghai in 1957 and reared on the teachings of Chairman Mao and the operas of Madame Mao, "Comrade Jiang Qing." Her parents were teachers who had to struggle to support four children, and Anchee, the oldest, was a tough-minded babysitter by the age of 5. She was smart, too, and when the Cultural Revolution got under way she became a leader in her school's Little Red Guard. By the age of 13 she was a little tyrant in the making, able to denounce a favorite teacher to the political authorities and able to draft a cunningly worded speech that protected her mother from the same fate. "We were fighting for the final peace of the planet," she writes. "Not for a day did I not feel heroic. I was the opera."
That heroism underwent severe stress when she was removed from school at 17 and sent to Red Fire Farm, a vast labor collective on the China Sea, to be placed, in her vice principal's words, "in the category of becoming a peasant."
At Red Fire Farm Ms. Min worked in the rice fields from 5 in the morning to 9 at night. Her best friend was a spirited young woman named Little Green, who dared to tie her braids with brightly colored string when everyone else tied theirs with mud-brown rubber bands. Still, she did not speak out when Little Green was caught making love with a young man and, after being forced into "intensive mind rebrushing," went mad.
One day, when Ms. Min was alone in the brick factory, she heard someone playing a song from a banned opera on a two-stringed banjo. The opera was about a pair of doomed lovers; the woman playing the forbidden song was the company's force leader, Yan. And at this point the story becomes a subversive opera in the making. To be its heroine, Anchee must learn to disdain every rule she has ever been taught.
The first transgression is that of friendship: she and Yan, always meeting in secret, tell each other their life stories, mock the "Little Red Book" and exchange fumbling inquiries about sex. The next transgression is that of romance, for through a series of elaborate, even courtly twists, the women become lovers. Danger abounds—will they be caught? how will they be punished?—when the deus ex machina arrives in true Hollywood fashion. Jiang Qing is reforming China's film industry, and her associates are scouring the country for suitably valiant-looking peasants and workers who can be trained to act.
At this point, Ms. Min's story becomes a movie, full of uneasy but gripping shifts between George Cukor melodrama and Ingmar Bergman expressionism.
Ms. Min finds herself in a Shanghai film studio competing with a small claque of desperate starlets for the lead role in Red Azalea, the triumphant saga of Comrade Jiang Qing's life. She loses the part to a rival (a scenery-chewing "big tear machine"), and is reduced to scrubbing the set floors until the film's director, an elegant, faintly sinister man known only as the supervisor, notices her. Again, the affair begins with that most erotic of encounters: a furtively honest exchange. "The Supervisor asked me if he could have a cigarette. I lit the cigarette. His fingers were fine and smooth like a woman's. I lit the cigarette and gave it to him. The smoke we exhaled joined in the air."
We cut to frantic rehearsals, to fraught secret meetings with Yan, and to a park with the Supervisor, a park where Shanghai citizens come nightly to meet and mate, or to watch and masturbate, risking their reputations as patrolmen scan the bushes with flashlights, shouting, "Beware of reactionary activities!" The Supervisor deposes Ms. Min's rival and gives her the role of Red Azalea. "If it was love I shared with Yan," she writes, "it was ambition I shared with the Supervisor, to exceed ourselves, our time, to reach beyond our spoiled minds." And when feuds over the script's political content spoil that dream, the bottom line remains. "I paid a price at Red Fire Farm to get to play the role," Ms. Min says starkly. "I no longer cared whether other people would enjoy Comrade Jiang Qing's opera heroines. Red Azalea had become my life."
That life ended in 1976, when Chairman Mao died and Comrade Jiang Qing was arrested and denounced. In serious danger himself, the Supervisor stopped her from being deported to the farm, but could not stop her from being demoted to a menial studio job.
Ms. Min scrubbed floors for six years, sick with tuberculosis, fearful, "a stone, deaf to passion." She omits the details of how she managed to leave China, except for noting that her departure was set in motion by a letter from the actress Joan Chen, who had been in film training with her: At first, she writes, "the idea was as foreign to me as being asked to live on the moon, the moon as my father described it—icy, airless and soundless. Yet my despair made me fearless … I fought for my way and I arrived in America on Sept. 1, 1984."
That is the way Ms. Min talks. "My despair made me fearless." "The Supervisor had charged me with his lust the night before. I was like a bullet lying in the chamber of a gun." "She asked me to feel her heart. I wished I was the blood in that chamber." It was passion and despair that made her fearless; it was fearlessness that made her a writer.
Rhoda Koenig (review date 31 January 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591
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 because her family had a bigger apartment than theirs, poured the contents of their chamber pots over the Mins' furnishings and threatened them with an ax. ("There were no police. The police station was called a revisionist mechanism and had been shut down by the revolutionaries.") They were forced to move to a two-room apartment shared by two other families, with one toilet for all fourteen people. Several years later, Min goes to the public park at night with her first boyfriend. Passing the bulletin board with pictures of couples caught making love in the park, and evading the flashlights of the sex guards, they find a quiet place in the bushes. They begin caressing, and almost at once are surrounded by a "forest of masturbators." Her lover whispers, "They know they will be shot if caught—so do we…. The fright sweetens the mood. We are so near to death as well as to heaven."
Red Azalea is written almost entirely in simple declarative sentences, a style that suits the brutality of Min's story as well as her own childlike frankness and ferocity. When a rival steals her movie role, "I ate my rice cake in the dark in the smoking room. I felt like an animal who ate its own intestine. I could not eat any more." Her forthright manner also counterpoints the relentless hail of lies and insanity under which she lives: the boys and girls, so hungry they gobble fruit peels from trash cans, told to collect pennies for "the starving children in America"; a teacher warning her never to read a novel that "corrupted and destroyed" another girl ("I immediately wanted to read the book Jane Eyre, although this was the first time I had ever heard of it").
Despite the efforts of their government, some Chinese manage to keep alive a sense of humor, bravery, tenderness. Min's most poignant and dramatic story is that of her affair with another woman, a company commander on the farm where she has been sent to labor from five in the morning till nine at night. At first forbiddingly righteous and heroic, Yan turns out to have a need for love as great as Min's; expressing it puts them both in danger, which Yan meets, ironically, with a great soldier's craftiness and self-sacrifice. Her friend's book is a fitting tribute, as well as an ungrieving obituary for a loathsome time:
It was September 9, 1976. The reddest sun dropped from the sky of the Middle Kingdom. Mao passed away. Overnight the country became an ocean of white paper flowers. Mourners beat their heads against the door, on grocery-store counters and on walls…. The studio people gathered in the main meeting hall to moan. The sound of sobbing stretched like a hand-cranked gramophone at its spring's end. I had no tears. I cupped my face with my hands to hide my face.
Richard Eder (review date 20 February 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1251
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 home late at night. Min's mother would arrive in a near-faint from her grueling factory job, and the four little children had to revive her with wet cloths and back rubs.
It was the early 1960s. Min's formerly middle-class family struggled in poverty amid the din and watchfulness of the Cultural Revolution. Her mother tended to misstep. As a teacher she was had up by her colleagues for using the wrong ideogram in a poster and turning its message from "Long Long Life to Mao" to "No No Life for Mao." Her apology was accepted, but she was banished to factory work when one of the squares of newspaper she used at stool was vigilantly found to contain a photograph of the leader.
As for Min, like many bright and nervy children she flew like the sparks, upward. If you were a brilliant student, assiduously applied yourself to the slogans and parables of Maoism, and were anxious to shine, you would. "I was raised on the teachings of Mao and on the operas of Madam Mao, Comrade Jiang Ching," Min writes at the start of her memoir.
Opera—Jiang Ching's were ideological epics—is the key to Min's memory of growing up, as well as to the distinctive style and tone of her book. "We were sure that we were making red dots on the world's map," she writes in a phrase comically reminiscent of George Bush's points of light. "Not for a day did I not feel heroic. I was the opera." Her part was to be a little Red Guard and a polished apple to her political teachers.
As with operatic arias, the important thing was to sing well. Then Min discovered that the arias contained real words and that words could kill. Her most-loved teacher—she recited classical poetry and demonstrated the meaning of infinity by holding out her arms, cross-like—was denounced as a spy. Min was named to take part in the public denunciation. Her description of the persuasion and pressures put on a 13-year-old girl is agonizing. When the teacher is kicked and abused, refuses to confess and gently questions Min, the distraught child screams: "Mama, Papa, where are you?" A moment later, hysterical, she shrieks out her assigned accusation. Years after-ward, she apologizes to the old woman, who denies remembering her.
Min's book is in three parts. The first, brief and stunning, tells of her life until she is 17. The second, written more roughly but with great effect, describes her arduous assignment to work on a collective farm on the southeast coast. In the third, she is taken from the farm to compete as one of five finalists for a film role tailored to fit new ideological lines set out by Jiang Ching. Mao's wife, herself a former actress, was at the head of a hard-line faction jockeying for power, and the film was to be one of her weapons.
Here, Min lets her writing puff up into the operatic style that serves as her image of China in the '70s. The book's last part is by far its weakest. At the film school, Min is soon relegated to menial chores by officials who favor another candidate. Sitting in a dark stairwell after mopping the stage, she is approached by a sinuously beautiful man who comforts her and gives her egg rolls. He turns out to be a supremely powerful figure—known only as the Supervisor—who is Jiang Ching's right-hand man for the arts, and perhaps her lover.
He treats Min with alternating tenderness and coldness, makes love to her, has her brought to his magnificent mansion in Peking and gives her the coveted role of Red Azalea in a film that is intended to represent Jiang Ching's life. However, Mao dies, Jiang Ching and the Supervisor fall, and Min is back to mopping floors. The book ends there; years later she will emigrate to the United States.
Presumably the story is true but the telling is garishly unconvincing, an uneasy mix of "Cinderella" and The Story of O. "Pleasure swept over our flesh," Min writes steamily. The Supervisor stares into her eyes and demands to see in them "1,000,000 bulls rushing downhill with their tails on fire."
Min has written the book in English, and even in the first two parts the style can be awkward. Mostly she writes long strings of short declarative sentences—a rhythm, perhaps, brought over from Chinese—and this produces a cumulative small hammering. Yet time and again she makes a stranger's discovery, a glowing image or phrase that no native English-speaker would think of.
Such phrases light up the strangely affecting world of the Red Fire Farm, where 200,000 workers brought from the cities work 16-hour days, undergo constant haranguing by the cadres and sleep packed together in earth-floored huts, their only privacy the space under their mosquito netting: "a grave with a little spoiled air."
Min conveys the hardship and claustrophobia, but also the passions. She charts the unpredictable workings of exhilaration, exhaustion and despair. There is a splendid portrait of Yan, the section leader: big, fierce and vulnerable. Min and she become lovers; later Yan timidly confesses her liking for a male cadre, and Min helps her write steamy love letters that end up arousing them both. There is the fanatical, humorless Lu who covets Yan's job, yet Min writes of her in a way that captures our understanding if not sympathy. Through the horror of Maoism she is able to suggest the awful previous hopelessness that made so many Chinese welcome and administer it. She can give fanaticism a human face, which is not the same as embellishing it.
Despite her unworkable final section, Min's is a distinct and moving voice speaking out of a caldron of history. When, full of zeal, she goes to cancel her Shanghai residency before being trucked off to the farm, she has a premonition of the chill abstraction that lies beyond the fervor: "That afternoon I felt like a bare egg laid on a rock." Her family come down to see her off; she sits in the truck with the other conscripts. The cadres organize a sing-along, trying for exultation.
"My family stood in front of me, as if taking a dull picture," Min writes. "It was a picture of sadness, a picture of never the same. I was out of the picture…. We began to sing with Lu. Our voices were dry and weak like old sick farm cows. Lu waved her arms hard, trying to speed up the singing. People paid no attention to her. It was a moment when memory takes root. The moment youth began to fade. I stared at my parents who stood like frosted eggplants—with heads hanging weakly in front of their chests. My tears welled up. I sang loudly."
Judith Shapiro (review date 27 February 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908
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.
In some ways, the story Ms. Min tells in Red Azalea is typical. Born in Shanghai in 1957, she was "raised on the teachings of Mao and on the operas of Madame Mao, Comrade Jiang Qing." She own contests in reciting from the little red book and denounced her teacher at a political meeting. When the call came for young people to "volunteer" for work in the barren countryside, she was assigned to the Red Fire Farm, a 13,000-member collective near the East China Sea.
And here her story acquires its dramatic complexities, with her introduction to her future lover, Party Secretary Yan, a charismatic woman with "the shoulders of an ancient warlord." Under Yan's leadership, Ms. Min fights sharp reeds and leeches to bring wormy cotton from the salty earth. Farm life is desolate and regimented, filled with political competition and rigid surveillance.
Only one delicate woman, Little Green, provides color and grace. So fastidious that she spreads pig manure "as if she were organizing jewelry," Little Green cannot survive the tyranny of sexual repression. Comrade Lu, a vicious creature who sleeps nose-to-nose with a skull, which she claims belongs to a Red Army martyr, ferrets out Little Green's romance with a man from a neighboring company. One night Ms. Min and her comrades are summoned to bring their guns and flashlights, and the couple are found together, half-naked, in the fields. When the man is executed for rape, Little Green goes mad.
As if to atone for her failure to prevent Comrade Lu's persecution of Little Green, Party Secretary Yan stays close to this sad creature: "They were like two lost boats drifting over the sea in a dense fog." Yan's compassionate nature begins to warm Anchee Min's desolate world. When she discovers Yan playing forbidden tunes on a two-stringed banjo in an abandoned brickworks, a secret friendship blooms. Yan confides that like Little Green, she too is in love with a man—and Anchee Min writes love letters on her behalf, stirring up her own erotic longings as well as Yan's. Soon the two women are sleeping in one bunk in a crowded room, their nakedness hidden by a mosquito net adorned with Mao buttons, while Lu studies the quotations of Mao nearby. Simple metaphors convey this dangerous passion: "A wild horse broke off its reins…. She was melting snow. I did not know what role I was playing anymore: her imagined man or myself…. I went where the sun rose…. My senses cheered frantically in a raging fire."
Their passionate and tender affair is interrupted when, in an extraordinary turn of events, Ms. Min is spotted by talent scouts from a Shanghai film studio. She is one of five women selected to compete for the title role in Red Azalea, a film about the life of Jiang Qing.
In Shanghai, Ms. Min is caught up in competition as vicious and hypocritical as any Hollywood intrigue. ("Firewood's singing was like a rooster under a blunt knife," she writes of one of her rivals.) And the political intrigues in the studio are only complicated further when she begins an affair with a mysterious, androgynous figure, close to Jiang Qing, who is known only as the Supervisor. This liaison puts her at the heart of a political plot typical of those in the "wild histories," a Chinese genre featuring embroidered exposés of the scandalous doings of top party leaders. The film is part of Jiang Qing's attempt to take power from a dying Mao by casting herself as a savior of the Chinese masses. "It must happen her way, for the people," the Supervisor tells Ms. Min. "Mao is over 83. The mud is reaching his neck."
In a macabre scene that conveys the connection between sexual and political repression that runs throughout Ms. Min's book, her affair with the Supervisor is consummated in a park that is near a crematorium. Dark and quiet, its groves are filled with lovers defying the "criminal-control patrols" that regularly sweep through with their flashlights. "The passion they had for the Great Helmsman has been betrayed," says the Supervisor, gloating over the couples rustling around them. "Oh, how grand a scene! I wish our greatest Chairman could see it. He would be shocked but impotent."
Ms. Min's fortunes are entwined with those of the Red Azalea she has never met, and her roller-coaster ride through Chinese art and politics is derailed by the downfall of Jiang Qing and the other members of the Gang of Four. Her entertaining, provocative and unusual account of those times concludes abruptly as she returns, with little but memories of Yan and the Supervisor to comfort her, to a drab and mundane life. In 1984, under circumstances she chooses not to describe, she found her way to the United States, gaining the freedom to write this extraordinary story.
Orville Schell (review date March 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2954
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 fearful of love."
—Anchee Min, Chicago, 1993
Anchee Min learned about the politically subversive power of love in the People's Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution in a place where neither she nor the Party expected her to find it, with another woman, who was Party secretary and commander of her work company at a forced-labor camp. Her wrenching new book, Red Azalea, chronicles two simultaneous odysseys: from Shanghai to Chicago, through the travails of both brute physical labor in the countryside and work as a janitor at the Shanghai Film Studio; and from the suffocating confinement of puritanical Maoism to sexual awakening.
Like other members of her generation, Min grew up believing that the self must always be sacrificed to the commonweal and that any deviation from wholehearted service to "the people" was tantamount to opposing Mao's revolutionary line. She lived in constant fear of being "murdered by bourgeois evil spirits," which Mao warned "were everywhere, hiding, waiting for the right time to get us."
Born in 1957, Min struggled diligently as a young girl to become a model student and Red Guard, but at thirteen she was forced to denounce one of her favorite teachers as a U.S. spy. "It was at that meeting I learned the meaning of the word betrayal as well as punishment," she writes. The Party's kafkaesque response was always the same: "Our Party never accuses anyone who is innocent." The incident left Min wracked with a sense of guilt that not even an apology delivered 20 years later was able to erase.
In 1974 she was shipped off to do manual labor on Red Fire Farm, where any manifestations of individualism, much less physical intimacy, were enough to get inmates denounced. In one of the most evocative sections of her book, Min describes the irresistible physical attraction of an artistic and sensual young woman, Little Green, who dared to violate this code of militant puritanism. Even as they derided her, "the half-man, half-monkey male soldiers stared at her as she passed," writes Min of Little Green's sexual magnetism. "The good-for-nothings could not take their eyes off her, of that creature full of bourgeois allure…. I envied and adored her. In June she dared to go without a bra. I hated my bra when I saw her, saw her walking toward me, bosoms bouncing. She made me feel withered without ever having bloomed."
But like everyone who resisted surrendering the self, Little Green's fate was nightmarish. One night after being tipped off by a spiteful camp informer, a squad of camp "militia" caught Little Green making love in a wheat field. "About thirty other flashlights, including mine, were switched on at the same time," writes Min. "Little Green screamed. It broke the night. She was in her favorite shirt—the one embroidered with pink plum flowers. The lights shone on her naked buttocks. Her scream pierced me to the core…. It was as if a bomb exploded next to me."
Just as Min had been forced to denounce her teacher as a spy, Little Green was forced to condemn her lover as a rapist. After a hasty mock trial he was executed, and Little Green went mad with grief. "She took a pair of scissors and cut [her underwear] into strips. She chopped off her long braids and stopped combing her hair. Mucus dripped from her lips." She was finally taken to the hospital, held by four camp mates "as if carrying an animal to a slaughterer's shop," writes Min. "We strangled her into madness."
In spite of knowing that as a proletarian she did not "belong" to herself and that yielding to the temptations of the flesh meant almost certain damnation, Min increasingly felt herself "invaded" by "a nameless anxiety." "It felt like a sweating summer afternoon. Irritatingly hot. The air felt creamy. It was the ripeness of the body." Like Little Green's, Min's body "demanded to break away from its ruler, the mind." Despite being "chewed by shame," she was so starved for human contact and affection that she fell in love with Yan, the commander of her work team. Behind a flimsy mosquito net in their crowded bunk room, they sought furtive comfort in each other's arms.
But always under the scrutiny of others, particularly their politically correct and vindictive bunkmate, comrade Lu, who "sensed my intimacy with Yan immediately, like a dog to a smell," Min and Yan knew they could be destroyed by a single "ambiguous word" dropped into their dossiers.
Far from being a brief for homosexuality or hedonism, Red Azalea is an impassioned plea for privacy, for oases where intimacy and human closeness are allowed to exist uninvaded by politics. It is also a testament to how, even when "castrated" by an ideology as constricting and defoliating as Maoism, the human urge to love still somehow manages to express itself.
After two years laboring on Red Fire Farm, Min was unexpectedly chosen to try out for a role in one of Madame Mao's "revolutionary model operas," Red Azalea. "I knew nothing of acting but was made an actress," writes Min. At the Shanghai Film Studio, one of China's most famous filmmaking centers, she finds the attentions of the supervisor, an enigmatic but powerful cultural czar from Beijing, directed toward her. "Romantic love does not exist among proletarians," the supervisor insists. "It is a bourgeois fantasy." But Min soon discovers that the supervisor is not only penetrated by sadness but also possessed by an irrepressible appetite for intimacy. Despite the danger of being found out, he arranges a rendezvous with her one night at Peace Park, one of the few trysting places in Mao's China with any modicum of privacy. There, behind a public toilet, the supervisor and Min consummate their twisted quest to banish loneliness. All around them are other "moaners," who "masturbate and ejaculate their passion with a criminal guilt … their fronts and rears exposed like animals in mating season begging for penetration …" as patrols of police shout, "Beware of reactionary activities!" and rake the bushes with flashlights.
No Chinese, much less a Chinese woman, has written more honestly and poignantly than Anchee Min about the desert of solitude and human alienation at the center of the Chinese Communist revolution. Although others have written about the scars left by all the Party's campaigns of political persecution, Min is the first to plumb the depths of this benighted revolution's sexually repressive side. "I tried to stop my desire, [but] my lust was irresistible," she unabashedly writes of watching from behind a curtain as her ex-lover Yan finally gave herself to a man.
By daring to break the long-standing Chinese taboo against discussing sexual feelings in explicit terms and by delving so fearlessly into the ways the Party has intruded upon private life and destroyed the emotional basis of human relations, Min has given the frontiers of Chinese literature a giant push forward. But by imbuing her characters with an erotic as well as a political dimension, she has also created one of the few works of contemporary Chinese fiction that has truly universal relevance and appeal.
Red Azalea was written by Min in English, which she began learning in 1984, and as a result her language is sometimes imprecise and confusing. Although such roughness conveys a certain authentic rawness, one nonetheless wishes that her editors had been more helpful in smoothing out some of the clunky phrases and sentences that keep appearing. However, despite this shortcoming, the book sings. It is a small masterpiece that tells as much about the Chinese revolution as volumes of other political accounts.
Curious to know more about this spirited and resourceful young woman, I went to Chicago, where Min lives with her painter husband and two-year-old daughter. I was met at the door of a ramshackle South Side duplex by a woman in her late thirties whose broad, striking features and jet black hair make her look as much like an American Indian as a Chinese. Dressed in faded Levi's, a gray sweater, and socks with holes in the heels, she settled herself on a bedspread-covered couch that looked as if it had come from a thrift shop and began telling me about her life.
"As a girl in Shanghai, I hated how crowded it was, how we had to wait for the other families to use the toilet," she told me. "My biggest dream was to work hard and someday have a room of my own." It was with great pleasure that she later showed me around her new abode, a once burned-out building she and her husband have renovated, doing the plumbing and carpentry themselves.
Her dream of owning her own house did not come easily. After the production of the opera Red Azalea was canceled following the arrest of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four, Min was demoted from an actress to a janitor and forced to mop floors. Only when film star Joan Chen (whom Min had met at the Shanghai Film Studio before falling from favor) helped enroll her in the Art Institute of Chicago was she able to get a passport and a visa. But upon arrival in Chicago, because she was unable to speak English, she was promptly kicked out of the school. For several years she worked at menial jobs, including stints as a waitress, a messenger, a baby-sitter, and hand painting Chinese peonies on women's underwear. At the same time she studied art, photography, and English. As a project for one language class, she began writing about her experiences in China. The first essay was about denouncing her old teacher. "From there I just kept going, laying out my story as straight as I could," she explained. It took her eight years. "The hardest thing was to face myself honestly," she said. "In China everything is so repressed that for a Chinese to overcome this inborn sense of shame is very difficult. The last thing I wanted to do, however, was to portray myself simply as a victim."
Despite her painful experiences growing up in China, it is with tristesse rather than bitterness that Min now looks back on her past life, "We were taught to sacrifice everything in order to serve others. It became a kind of an addiction. As a little girl I used to go down to the street corner hoping for an accident so that I could rescue someone and then maybe go and see Chairman Mao. We thought that if we were hard enough on ourselves we could even save the world." She paused reflectively. "I know it's good to share and serve others, but I wanted to sacrifice and die not because of selflessness but because of my own vanity."
When I asked Min how her mother, a retired teacher, and her father, an astronomer who organized exhibitions at the Shanghai Planetarium, took to her Maoist zealousness, she laughed sardonically. "At one point I almost disowned my father for not allowing me to have a Maoist study session in our home. At the time I actually thought he might be a reactionary."
Are the years of the Cultural Revolution still having an effect on her generation in this new Deng era of high-speed economic reform? She weighed my question for a moment and then said, "The same people who made the Cultural Revolution are now launching the Four Modernizations. They have forgotten what we did to each other. There is not much difference between the Red Guards, who thought that making revolution meant doing whatever they wanted, and the money worshipers of today, who feel so disillusioned that all they want to do is to get rich. They don't care about each other. When one generation is abused, it is easy for that generation to abuse the next."
At one point Min mentioned that her school in Shanghai had once collected pennies to donate to the "starving children of America." When I noted the irony of her now living here, she laughed. "Left in China I would have killed myself, turned into a mental patient, or become a self-hating person able to do nothing for anyone. America saved my life. Even when I was struggling to learn English and working three jobs at once for $3 an hour, I felt happy here. Why? Because I was working for myself and, at least, I could quit if I wanted."
As we picked up her daughter at the day-care center, I asked how she reconciles her residual guilty feelings about the past with her new life. "America makes me forgive myself by allowing me to believe that I can improve my life," she said. "I love it here because I have human dignity and the choice of being moral. In China, no one wants to talk about morality now, just money."
However, when I agreed that commercial culture has indeed become a Faustian wager in Deng's New China, she protestingly interrupted. "But I am still very Chinese! My father believes China can't be changed, but I think it can. The Chinese government may not want to hear it, but I'd like to be a kind of missionary, someone who reminds Chinese of their past as a way of saying that one does not have to live in such darkness forever."
Despite all her disillusionment, Min still retains more than a little of that old Maoist conviction that every person must find some way to serve society. Even though the Translation Publishing House in Shanghai has rejected Red Azalea as a "bad influence" and "too controversial" for publication in China, Min has not only been able to return to Shanghai to hold shows of her artwork and photography and to appear on television but to buy an apartment. In fact, she intends to spend part of each year there. "I want to do what I can for China, to give it my best," she says passionately. "Red Azalea is an attempt to confront my own guilt and also to remind us all of our past and that in the future we have the choice to be moral."
Laura Shapiro and Karen Springen (review date 11 April 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515
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 Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and sang them all day. But her faith was tested when she was told to denounce a beloved teacher, who had been accused of spying. Sobbing, Min spat criticisms into a microphone. She still feels the agonizing guilt.
At 17 Min was ordered to the countryside to work at a collective farm, and although she tried to muster the appropriate zeal, she and her family grieved as she boarded the truck. "My family stood in front of me, as if taking a dull picture," she writes. "It was a picture of sadness, a picture of never the same." Red Fire Farm was a desolate place, but Min was quickly drawn to the commander of her unit, Yan. "She had weather-beaten skin [and] a full mouth, in the shape of a water chestnut … She burned me with the sun in her eyes. I felt bare." Eventually the two shared a bed, although four other women slept in the room. "I told her not to wash the mosquito net because the dirt made it less transparent," writes Min.
On the basis of her looks and political reliability, Min was plucked from the farm to star in a movie called Red Azalea, one of Madame Mao's projects. At the film studio she fell in love with a mysterious man she calls "the Supervisor," a powerful ally of Madame Mao's. But before the movie was finished, Mao died, his wife was denounced and the Supervisor's fortunes collapsed. Min spent the next six years washing the studio's floors. In 1983 she received a letter from a friend in the United States, the actress Joan Chen. Would Min like to leave? "My despair made me fearless," she writes. The book ends with her arrival in Chicago in 1984.
Today the harsh scenes of China that Min conjures so vividly seem distant indeed. Min, 37, lives with her Chinese émigré husband and their 2-year-old daughter in Chicago, where she and her husband paint and Min writes. During her first years in this country she worked at numerous jobs—waitressing, fixing toilets, painting fabrics—while studying English and art. "I didn't even bother to take off my clothes at night," she says. Red Azalea began as an assignment for her English class; the book has 40,000 copies in print, and Min is at work on a sequel. That's happy news for readers who turned the last page of Red Azalea slowly—longing to know what happened next.
Anchee Min with Kathleen Wilson, CLC Yearbook (interview date 14 November 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3922
[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 same tone and style?
My only experience in writing Chinese was writing essays on Mao studies and the Cultural Revolution. I'm a product of that period, so I think subconsciously that influenced me. I'd say that my writing in Chinese wouldn't be too different because I can't escape my character and memory even if I want to.
Did you find it difficult to find the right English translation for certain ideas, or were there concepts you tried to express that had no English equivalent?
It's not a matter of translation. When I was writing, I was emotional. Sometimes I had no way to express things. I tried to sound precise. For example, when I described my parents' relationship, in English I would say, "Although we were poor, my parents loved each other." But that's not precise; the picture didn't come alive. This book took me eight years to complete, and most of the time I spent trying to be precise. Finally, I came up with an equivalent description; I said, "My parents lived like a pair of chopsticks—one cannot function without the other." As chopsticks, they are in conflict and incorporated at the same time. Both chopsticks have to work against each other in order to pick things up. To me that's precise. This kind of task carried me throughout the book.
The Revolution claimed that what was good for the people wasn't necessarily the same thing that was good for individuals or families. Did this idea originate with communism in China, or did it have its roots in Chinese culture?
Yes, it had its roots in the culture. It formed the mentality. The Confucian influence was deep—"Young generations must obey the elder"—people were taught to obey the system. It was not about good or bad, but the "father figure"—it's about obeying—respect suppression. The communist idea was to beat the feudalists but they ended up doing the same thing. Mao was the "father figure." He got what he wanted under the heroic political projection "saving the world."
Did you have any desire to be a writer before you began Red Azalea?
No. In China it's not the way of thinking. I never thought that I would be anything, because I didn't belong to myself. You just don't think that you belong to yourself. It's not the right question to even ask yourself: "What would I like to do?" The school constantly convinced the children that we were "screws" fixed on the giant communist machine. We lived to serve the Party. I wrote Red Azalea because I had to express myself. Writing was a way to escape the pain.
Does the Red Fire Farm still exist?
Yes. It's a wasteland.
Are there still as many people on it?
No. In China there were 200,000 sent to those farms from 1966 to 1976. Now most of the people are back in the cities, except the ones who got married. A lot of sad stories.
The farm almost seemed to be a military-style outpost. Why were you armed with rifles?
It's a kind of system that Chairman Mao set up to control the youth. It's called jun-keng-nong-chang. It's a military-system camp. (Nong-chang is a regular farm). We all wanted to be soldiers. At that time, to be accepted as a soldier was the highest honor. If you got lucky, you would get sent to Vietnam to fight with Americans; you would really be considered honored. So in our high school, we all wanted to be selected by the army people, but only probably one or two out of fifty high school students in the class would be sent. When it came down to the farm, we liked to be militarily trained. It was an honor—an honorable thing to have the skill and be able to fight.
So you weren't part of the army. Did you have guns because you thought you were going to be invaded?
We thought we were going to be invaded all the time. Every five years, there would be something; either we were having problems with the Russian border in the northern part of China, or we were having emergency assignments. Even in the schools, at midnight the school would call an "emergency gathering." We'd get up and go to school together and do military exercises. The whole school—two thousand people. When we came to the farm, we were "on" all the time. We were afraid of American attacks. So Mao had this famous teaching: "Dig hole deep, collect the rice, and not be aggressors." We were mentally prepared for war at anytime.
In the early 1970s, every family was assigned to make bricks with mud. The government would come in to collect these dried mud bricks and bake them. There was no play time for children, or for parents and family. No, you just continue and keep up with the government's assignments. And to answer your question before, when you asked me if I wanted to be a writer—I never thought my story was ever special. My story is so ordinary. And lots of Chinese students in America wrote me after they read Red Azalea and said "It's my story. It's our story."
You spent three years at Red Fire Farm before you were discovered by the movie studio executives. What happened to the other peasants? Did people frequently find ways out of the farm or did most end up staying there indefinitely?
Most people stayed there until Mao died in 1976. The current leader, Deng Xio Ping, established a national examination test where one can apply for school. Another way was to get one's parents to retire; you could go back to the city to replace them [in the workforce]. My little sister, who was assigned to the farm after me, was one of the final people to get on the "last train." She wrote home and said, "Mom, you must retire, or I will end up in Red Fire Farm forever." Her body was deteriorating. Many of the people in the farm were very sick. My mother had high blood pressure, but she couldn't get sick enough to have the doctor write a proof that she was definitely, permanently damaged and had to retire. So my mother would go out and run and do dangerous things and just faint, so she could be sent "emergency" and get the letter from the doctor saying she couldn't work anymore. My little sister finally got off the farm by "replacing" mother.
Once a parent retired a child could come home?
Yes, but if the family had three children at the farm the parents had to make a choice to desert one. The one that's left feels very abandoned.
It seems that the Cultural Revolution did not discriminate against women. They were expected to work as hard as the men and suffer just as many physical hardships. Did you sometimes feel that women actually suffered more than the men and received less respect, or was it a fairly equal system?
Fairly equal system. That's probably the only positive thing about the Cultural Revolution. In mainland China, women nowadays are in economic power. My generation was raised to be equal; we never thought that we were less than men. Of course, we have to work harder to physically compete with men.
You wrote about how dangerous it was to become involved in a sexual relationship at both the farm and in the city. But what about friendship? Was friendship also discouraged, or was it dangerous?
We don't talk about friendship; it's comradeship. I don't know—that's a very good question. From my own experience, I didn't really have friends. I grew up seeing sons and daughters denounce their parents, so that basic trust was destroyed among people. I witnessed how terrible my mother was treated by being kind and honest. I basically thought that people were pretty evil, and I was scared of people.
Do you still think people are evil?
Not today in America. In the past we [in China] were not properly educated. From when I was eight years old until I was twenty years old, children were encouraged to denounce their parents. You lived only to love Mao. It was a good lesson; Chinese people paid a high price to learn about themselves.
You had some guilt when you were forced to denounce your teacher in elementary school. That affected you greatly; I imagine that other people also had experiences in which they felt bad about what they were forced to do.
My guilt made me suffer; in pain I learned shame. Knowing shame taught me to be a good person. I credit my mother, although she's considered a "society idiot." She basically believes in kindness, and it's very, very different from Mao's teaching. In a way I was torn in between: I admire my mother because she would rather stick to her principles than to denounce anybody—"to smell her party secretary's fart"—according to her little saying. But her whole life is a "failure" according to my revolutionary standards. My mother is always assigned to the worst jobs. I didn't want to be her; I went the opposite way. I wanted to be the head of the Red Guards. I wanted capital respect. But I'm my mother's daughter. So it's a conscious act—you just don't be a bad person. My mother beat that into my head. Home and society carried very different rules. It was mixed messages in education.
Everything you say about growing up during the Cultural Revolution suggests that it was dehumanizing. Were there any positive aspects at all?
Yes. It's so odd that the result is dehumanizing, but we were taught the basic slogan: "Sacrifice yourself for the people with heart and soul." You just forget about your own vacation and think about taking care of America's starving children. We spent all our holidays on the streets collecting pennies. I felt good when I was doing something for other people—and for children I didn't even know. When I knew I was helping them, I felt good. So that's part of the thing in our generation that's so ironic.
You renounced your teacher when you were in elementary school, and then you were forced to ambush Little Green in the middle of the night at Red Fire Farm. Was it a compilation of all these things that made you turn against communism and Chairman Mao, or was there one particular moment that really stands out?
Both. In those circumstances, I guess falling in love changed me. We had no choice. Love is so beautiful, and it made you stop hating. But, of course, the accumulation of these events that you pointed out, with my teacher, with Little Green, I hated to see my best friends destroyed. The torture, the distortion—deep down I knew that it didn't feel right.
So you changed when you learned what love was?
Right. It made me think: "This feels right, feels good, and this is what I want. No more, no more slogans. No more Mao teachings." But these changes were bit by bit and yet so powerful because it's so secretive. My affair [with Yan]—we shared part of the guilt; it felt criminal.
At the film studio, you were accused by Soviet Wong of being a bourgeois individualist. At the time did you agree with her—did you think you were an individualist?
I don't even think Soviet Wong understands what "bourgeois individual" means. All she had was the anger, because she was a beauty and she was in her thirties. She had quite a bit of former education in filmmaking, and she didn't get to be what she wanted to be. So she had anger she had to shed on somebody else—she just could not see a younger person selected. It's like jealousy between concubines. The empress picks the new concubine, and the old concubine is deserted if she doesn't poison her. So Soviet Wong had to "poison" me, put me to death. I only had to raise her anger to give her a little chance. That's a life and death thing. If there wasn't the title of "capitalist" or "bourgeois," she would have invented something else. The meaning of the words was really not important.
Did you have a sense that you were different from other people because you wanted to be your own person?
I didn't know how other people thought in order to know that I was different. Even with Yan—she's savage, she's a warlord. We were from different family backgrounds. We didn't discuss private subjects much because it would be dangerous. At that time anybody could report anybody else to get promoted or to be considered a revolutionary activist, or to be accepted as a party member. That's how Mao controlled and programmed the Chinese people. You can't really trust each other to share these secret thoughts. You can only share your belief in communism. What made me different was that I acted. I refused to stay in the dark. I constantly search for light, for air.
How did you develop your talents in photography and art while you lived in China?
My painting was basically brush painting, because brush painting was a very regular thing. I started at six years old, and every week I had a calligraphy class. We learned the nature of brush painting, and because in school I was in charge of the large blackboard, I had to paint really big posters. In America you have Jackson Pollock and de Kooning and all these big, giant paintings. But for me it was very natural, so I painted in a big size and my strokes were firm and determined. Photography, I started in America.
The school you found here, the Art Institute of Chicago, didn't have an English language requirement. Is that more or less why you started studying art seriously?
I couldn't express myself except through art. You don't really have to speak regular English; if there's an assignment, you just show your photography or your paintings and it tells all about you. I had a lot of anger when I came, also a lot of passion toward life, so I produced things that had strong statements. They were really the screams of a wounded soul.
There's one scene in the book where you go to a Buddhist temple. Was religion tolerated under Chairman Mao?
No. There's no religion, but people did it secretly anyway. Temples in China now that weren't destroyed by the Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution weren't destroyed for a reason. For example, a hundred-year-old temple in Shanghai was taken as a headquarters of peasant rebels, thus it had a "revolutionary meaning." The one I mention in the book was built in 960 A.D. and had stone statues. The good guy was a patriotic general who later was murdered by a traitor. Behind that temple is a statue of these two figures. To learn patriotism from that hero was the reason that temple was preserved. Also the bad guy's statue was put in front of the hero in a cage so everyone can go there and spit—literally spit—on the statue to learn that you're going to be spit on for thousands and thousands of years if you betray the country.
So the temples that existed were only for communist purposes and had nothing to do with religion?
In remote places, in southwest China, the temples are so high you have to walk the whole day to get there. The Red Guards could not even reach there, so it carried on its activities. But the religion remains in the people's hearts. One just didn't talk about it. When you talk about it—you say the opposite. For example, you say: "Oh, I go there to criticize religion, to criticize all these people who created these statues."
Towards the end of the book, you write that being asked to come to America was like being asked to live on the moon. Was this because you didn't know much about the country, or because you were told that it was an unbearable place to live?
I was taught to shoot the Americans. I didn't start using a rifle at the farm, I started when I was fourteen years old. I was one of the activists sent to the army to learn how to shoot, so when we came back we could teach our fellow teenagers and tell them about combat. It's called "spreading revolution." The target we used to practice aiming was always a U.S. soldier's head, with the blue/brown eyes. But I thought if communism was a lie, those pictures I was shown of America could be a lie too. So I decided to take a chance.
The foundation of your education during the Cultural Revolution was Mao's Little Red Book. Is it still taught in China today?
No. The Communist Party doesn't want anybody to remember the revolution. They simply "shut the lid." The party collected the Mao buttons, Mao books, and nobody mentions it anymore. And people feel good about it nowadays, they use Mao as kind of a superstitious figure, and they play with him. The taxi drivers will put Mao pictures on the driver's seat and say, "nobody would dare hit Mao, so I'll be safe." You get to play with your "god" a little bit and put him down. Put him in a car. Make fun of him a bit. Kind of Chinese revenge in a little way.
What's taken the place of all that?
Speeding up of capitalism. People are convinced that communism doesn't work. Unless you get rich, you won't have a better life. People in China right now believe nothing except material stuff. You go to China, first thing people would ask is, "Are you from America? Are you interested in doing business with me?"
How has the push towards the free enterprise system changed the lives of ordinary citizens in China?
What I can see is that they're divided into two groups. One's called "survival of the fittest"—people that are capable of following the change. And the other group is people who have spent all their lives obeying one order and they are lost in the change. In America, you have a company, for example, you're in computers, and then tomorrow the company's no longer in business and the computer is replaced by something else. Then you're willing to go back to school, to learn, to change, to survive. But Chinese people don't know what to do. So they get angry; they are in a very poor situation. It's not just the skill, it's a way of thinking. For thirty or forty years, you're not used to change, and all of a sudden you must change or you are abandoned and your family goes starving. Especially in northern parts of China where there are miners and peasants. These people are not educated. They stick to their land. So that's the potential turmoil that the government's facing—people's inability to cope with change.
Would you say that the people who are adapting the best are the younger people?
Yes. People like me who went to the farm, and have seen the worst and know that if you don't move, you're going to freeze to death in winter. You better get moving, get exercise, buy some coats, and warm yourself up and survive. We try everything. If the way were to go to the moon, we'd go.
In another interview, you mentioned that "lack of self-examination led to the Cultural Revolution." As China becomes less isolated in the world community, are people starting to become more self-aware?
Yes. In China part of the news is international news. We see a lot about America in China, more than you see here about China. You don't see much about China here at all. But China sees the world. You know, we just jumped to the opposite. It's like a love affair; your parents say, "Don't date that boy." And you just go nuts for him. So China's like that. All those years the communists say Americans are dangerous. Now people have fallen in love with America.
Are people starting to develop a better sense of themselves and more individuality?
I think so, yes. When you have all this information, you learn how things work outside of China and you start to think, "Hey—what about my life?" You start to pay attention to your existence. You think, life is short—you start to think about how to live a beautiful life.
How did your parents react when you told them you were going to the United States?
Oh, they just said it's impossible. They were scared, although they wanted me to leave badly.
They didn't think you'd be able to get here?
No. They secretly prayed for me. It's a miracle. I'm glad I was young enough to have the guts. Now I think, "God, I made it that far." It's unthinkable.
Would you like Red Azalea to be published in China?
Yes. I tried, but it was rejected.
You said earlier that your story is more or less typical—it wasn't extraordinary at all, so it's not like the book would be any revelation to people.
The only revelation about it is the way I wrote it. I'm in America, and I consider myself American-educated. By that I mean that I was able to look at myself in a humanistic way. So I was not afraid of the "Chinese shame," and I think the contribution the book would make to China is that I am honest to the core. I'm opening something that the Chinese would feel too shameful to expose, because I think it's important to examine ourselves in an honest way. It's very painful but necessary. It's very simple. To re-learn to love each other. People see themselves in my book, in me. It's the process of admitting one's faults that becomes a way of enlightening. It's the education we should have had but didn't.
Can you say anything about your next book?
It will be out in June 1995. It's called Katherine. If Red Azalea is about how the Chinese minds were constructed and deconstructed, the new book is about the reconstruction of the minds. It has two major elements. One is China's flirtation with the West. And the second is the turning inward toward the ancient school of thought with a modern twist. It's like cooking, like fried rice, it's got all these different ingredients and you're trying to make a dish with what you have available. China's psyche is very interesting at this moment. It's a novel, but all the events are based in real life.