Becoming Madame Mao

by Anchee Min
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1853


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Author and artist Anchee Min grew up in China during the fierce and tumultuous reign of Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Min’s two earlier books, Red Azalea (1994) and Katherine (1995), examine Chinese life during and after the chaotic Cultural Revolution, which was in part engineered by Mao’s wife Jiang Ching. A teenager during the Cultural Revolution, Min served as a Red Guard and was then exiled to a harsh life working among peasants in rural China. Min admired Jiang Ching; Mao’s wife seemed a great revolutionary heroine as she exhorted the teenage Red Guards to obliterate old habits, ways of thinking, and art forms. Jiang Ching enforced a cultural shift that transformed traditional Chinese arts into vehicles for Communist propaganda; a favorite project was the reworking of several traditional Chinese operas into new, filmed versions paying tribute to Chairman Mao and his political policies, and to Jiang Ching herself. Anchee Min was recruited to star in the last of these operas, The Red Azalea. Min’s fortunes fell when, upon Mao’s death in 1976, Madame Mao was discredited and jailed. Min lost her starring role and was forced to work as a cleaning woman until, with the help of another Chinese actress, Min left China and began a new life in the United States.

Min’s narrative of Jiang Ching’s life begins with a prologue set in 1991, as a defeated Madame Mao prepares to commit suicide in her prison cell. She tries unsuccessfully to convince her daughter Nah to write her biography. Nah refuses, and Jiang Ching’s disappointment is expressed in typical Chinese fashion: Nah is “a rotten piece of wood that can never be made into a beautiful piece of furniture.” Jiang Ching tries to inspire Nah by recounting an ancient tale that tells of a daughter’s loyalty to her mother. Jiang Ching’s language reveals a mind deeply rooted in Chinese cultural traditions, one that falls naturally back into old ways of thinking when this most radical engineer of the Cultural Revolution is faced with failure.

Jiang Ching is born Yun-he (Crane in the Clouds) in Shan-dong Province. Yun-he’s mother, a concubine to a violent alcoholic, tries to bind Yun-he’s feet to ensure the little girl’s prospects for a good marriage, but Yun-he defiantly removes the bindings. The little girl is left unfit for the role her mother had hoped she would play—the wife or concubine of an upper-class Chinese man. Although the child Yun-he rejects this role, as a young woman she will find herself struggling to play a series of roles imposed by her relationships with men.

Yun-he’s mother leaves her father and the two are for a time homeless; they eventually go to live with Yun-he’s grandparents. The little girl’s grandfather teaches her about art, opera, and poetry. When Yun-he reaches her early teens and her grandparents begin efforts to marry her off, she runs away and becomes an apprentice to an opera troupe. When the troupe disbands in 1930, seventeen-year-old Yun-he is unable to find acting jobs and returns to her grandparents’ home, agreeing to marry a businessman named Fei. A year later she leaves her husband and becomes a student at Shan-dong University, where she meets her first great love, Yu Qiwei, a student and radical Communist.

Yun-he begins an affair with Yu Qiwei, now having two new roles to play: She is both lover and political helpmeet to a powerful man. Her passionate sexual awakening coincides with her sense of being an important part of Yu Qiwei’s work. Yun-he is caught up in the political struggles of the young activist and his friends, and in a secret ceremony becomes a member of the Communist Party. However, Yu Qiwei is arrested for his Communist activities, and a depressed and frightened Yun-he takes up with a new boyfriend. Her relationship with Yu Qiwei is shattered. Feeling that she has misplayed her role, Yun-he moves to Shanghai to try once again to become an actress. Yun-he tries to keep her Communist associations a secret, but in Shanghai she is arrested as a Communist sympathizer. In jail she is tortured and, desperate to win her release, signs a statement denouncing the Communists.

After her release from prison Yun-he changes her name to Lan Ping (Blue Apple). She wins the part of Nora in a Shanghai production of the Henrik Ibsen play A Doll’s House. This performance will be Lan Ping’s only professional success; while she revels in the play’s positive reception and the glamour of appearing on stage, she pines in proximity to her more famous male costar, Zhao Dan. For a time Lan Ping is desperately in love with Dan, but he does not return her feelings.

A Doll’s House is viewed as an allegory of government oppression, and Lan Ping once again takes on a political role, as her portrayal of Nora becomes a symbolic representation of the Chinese people. Now a successful actress, Lan Ping meets Tang Nah, a critic and journalist. Tang Nah is close to Zhao Dan and to a prominent young film director, Junli. Lan Ping begins an affair with Tang Nah, in love with him but also hoping his connections will help her establish a career as a film actress. Success eludes the couple; Tang Nah’s writing career languishes, and Lan Ping is unable to win more acting roles. Although they marry, their relationship deteriorates under the financial strain, and Lan Ping finally leaves Tang Nah. He attempts suicide, and the resulting scandal effectively ends Lan Ping’s acting career in Shanghai.

Min shows how the young woman’s disappointments led Madame Mao to take certain actions when she came to power. Madame Mao’s memory would be selective; she would not recall renouncing Communism or betraying her lover Yu Qiwei, but those who had harmed the young Yun-he or Lan Ping—such as Zhao Dan, who did not return her affections, or Junli, who did not cast her in a film—would pay later with imprisonment or with their lives.

Professionally and personally defeated, Lan Ping travels to Yenan to join the Communist movement led by Mao Tse-tung. Min offers several versions of the first meeting between the young actress and Mao, stories that have become part of the lore of Mao’s revolution. One way or another Lan Ping’s personal style catches Mao’s eye, and the two become lovers. As Mao rises to power, however, Lan Ping’s efforts to assert herself politically at Mao’s side are opposed by other Communist Party leaders.

Mao is still married to his second wife, Zi-zhen, who is a heroine to his followers. The Communist Party will not give its permission for Mao to obtain a divorce from her and marry another unless Lan Ping agrees to remain in the background, never presenting herself as his wife and having no political rights. Mao seems distant and indifferent to this insult to his intended bride; Lan Ping has no choice and angrily agrees to the Party’s conditions. Mao gives Lan Ping a new name, Jiang Ching (River Green). Jiang Ching serves Mao for many years as wife and mother while Mao becomes the de facto emperor of a new China, and his sexual passion for Jiang Ching fades. Some historians question whether Mao ever truly divorced his second wife or formally married Jiang Ching. Mao’s relationship with Jiang Ching may not have been opposed by the Communist Party as much as downplayed by Mao himself to avoid establishing Lan Ping as a possible rival for power.

Jiang Ching tires of domestic life and grows jealous of Wang Guang-mei, the wife of the Communist Party’s vice chairman who is often introduced to foreign visitors while Madame Mao is not. Jiang Ching struggles to assert herself and attain a more influential political position. She makes allies of journalists and young people in the film industry, convincing Mao that film versions of her revolutionary productions will undermine his enemies and inspire the Chinese people to support him. She supports the Red Guards, gangs of young people authorized by Mao’s government to destroy the imagined enemies of the Party. Min does not address in detail the widespread persecution of innocent Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. The atrocities that characterized this period in Chinese history seem removed from Min’s Madame Mao, although Jiang Ching passionately supported Mao’s policies even when they clearly resulted in the deaths of millions.

Although Mao and Jiang Ching are no longer lovers and do not live as husband and wife, she is able to rebuild her relationship with him based on their common goal of keeping him in power. As Mao grows old and ill, Jiang Ching hopes to be named his political successor; however, after Mao’s death Jiang Ching discovers that Mao named a male confederate in the Party to succeed him. Further, the policies that threw China into chaos are now blamed on a “Gang of Four” Party leaders, including Jiang Ching, who are denounced and imprisoned.

Becoming Madame Mao is the first of Min’s works to require extensive research and has been praised for its historical accuracy; the novel incorporates excerpts from letters and poems written by Jiang Ching and Mao. Min’s narrative shifts in short segments between Jiang Ching’s first-person account of events and third-person narration. The third-person narrative might be Madame Mao’s view of herself, the words of an actress stepping back to imagine how she looks as she plays each scene. Although this technique fragments the narrative, creating distance between the reader and protagonist, it is an approach that echoes textually Min’s portrayal of Madame Mao as a woman forever trapped on a metaphorical stage.

Released one year after the fiftieth anniversary of Mao’s revolution,Becoming Madame Mao is Min’s attempt to vindicate the heroine she idolized in her youth—the woman whose cruelty earned her the nickname “white-boned demon.” Jiang Ching’s world is fraught with intrigue, disappointment, betrayal, and confusion, and her suffering makes a much greater impression here than her brief moments of heady triumph. Min portrays Jiang Ching as a woman of great power and charisma who is nonetheless a victim of circumstances, born in poverty, thwarted personally and professionally, cast aside by her famous and powerful husband, and finally reviled by the very people who had exalted her. Jiang Ching overcomes personal disappointments and political treachery to attain a well-deserved place in Mao’s inner circle; an actress in everything, she is always determined to successfully play her roles as lover, wife, actress, political leader, and equal partner to Chairman Mao. Min’s prose reflects Madame Mao’s personal anguish as she loses her hold on her lovers, husband, and children, and then is stripped of her political power.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (March 15, 2000): 1293.

Library Journal 125 (March 15, 2000): 128.

The New York Times Magazine 149 (June 18, 2000): 44.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (July 9, 2000): 16.

Publishers Weekly 247 (April 3, 2000): 60.

San Diego Union-Tribune, June 4, 2000, p. Books-1.

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