Red Azalea

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, like many autobiographical narratives, is her coming-of-age story. She writes of her struggles with issues of identity and sexuality within the repressive environment of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). With this focus she differs from other Chinese men and women writing about their lives in the same period in two ways: in the intensely personal journey she relates and in the simple but powerful prose she writes.

Others recounting their lives during the Cultural Revolution focus primarily on the historical and political forces shaking up their lives. These well-educated writers for the most part are teachers falsely accused and severely punished by Red Guard students for antirevolutionary ideology. Thus Wu Ninghkin’s A Single Tear (1993) recounts his leaving American university studies to join with enthusiasm in the building of the new China, only to find himself banished to a rural prison farm for many years, his family scattered, his hopes destroyed. Similar political events and their consequences on intellectual victims are covered in Jung Ch’eng’s The Wild Swans (1991), Tai-yun Yueh’s To the Storm (1985), and Nien Chang’s Life and Death in Shanghai (1986). From these narratives, all well written, the reader gains a clear understanding of the historical forces of the period, feels compassion for the sufferings of its victims, and admires the heroism of many Chinese intellectuals.

One wonders, however, about those within the ranks of the Cultural Revolution, in particular its leading perpetrators, the young Red Guards. One such writer, Gao Yuan, in Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution (1987), recounts his life as a middle-school student and fervent Red Guard (1966-1969) and exposes with brutal honesty his acts on behalf of his faith. As a Red Guard, Yuan condemned his father and his teachers, watched the torture of intellectuals, and battled with his unconverted schoolmates. Yuan’s tone is one of guilt and revulsion for his misplaced belief in Mao and his cohorts.

Anchee Min, author of Red Azalea, is also a Red Guard schoolgirl, and she too puts her schoolgirl faith in Mao. For example, in obedience to her school’s principal she publicly condemns a favorite teacher, but only after extraordinary pressure. Min struggles with this prescribed role. She has a stubborn individualism, a revolutionary bent, and a drive to choose her own identity, despite the Party control that monitors her every breath. In telling her story she has overcome her oppressors, first of all by finding her voice for telling her story, a voice of intense honesty and stylistic power.

In narrating part 1, the story of her childhood and adolescence, Min’s voice is both direct and simple, with short declarative sentences, vivid concrete detail, and sparse figurative imagery. This style fits well her clear but limited experience and perceptions of the Cultural Revolution. In the later sections, when she is in her late teens and early twenties, Min maintains her simple sentence style but adds figurative language that expresses powerfully her deepening understanding of the ambiguity she experiences in both her inner self and her external world. In the text the reader hears only Min’s voice; other speakers’ words are given in indirect discourse.

Also found in the text are words from Madame Mao’s operas and quotations from Chairman Mao. These are at first recited with a child’s acceptance and a rote tone, yet are often poetic. Later, these quotations of official propaganda take on an ironic significance. Interestingly, sayings from the Confucian tradition, though outlawed, enter the text, as do references to fables. The reader senses the fitness of this stylistic mix for Min’s story of the ambiguities at the psychological level of one of the Cultural Revolution’s brightest and most sensitive members. Finally, one must remember that the entire text is the retrospective voice of Anchee Min; it is the voice of her maturity as a person and as a writer.

The narrative structure of Min’s tale is also her own; indeed, she subverts the Party’s master narrative, as an examination of the motif of opera in Red Azalea reveals. Reading Min’s story against the background of Madame Mao’s simplistic and propagandistic national operas heightens the reader’s awareness of the complexity of life in China during the Cultural Revolution. Min is determined to be herself in a state that has the power to exact a high price for any bits of self-respect and love she might achieve. Her autobiography is written as her life was...

(The entire section is 1916 words.)