Among the first generation born and raised in Mao's China, Anchee Min began her life a staunch party supporter. She recounts her early life in a celebrated memoir, Red Azalea, which includes a harrowing account of her life's lowest point: forced to choose between the will of the party and her own integrity, she publicly renounces a beloved teacher. Now fully committed, Min's party involvement eventually inspired her to audition for one of the many films made by Mao's wife, Jiang Ching, during her decade-long reign as orchestrator of the disastrous Cultural Revolution. When Min was awarded the lead part, she couldn't know that Mao's death, and therefore the end of Madame Mao's power base, was just a few short weeks away. Without Mao's support, Jiang Ching quickly fell from power, as did all associated with her. Min was demoted to a menial position and for several years lived a quiet life. In 1984, with the help of her friend, actress Joan Chen, she emigrated to the United States.
Though at the time she arrived in the US Min spoke no English, within ten years she had not only written a bestselling memoir in her adopted language, she had also published an excellent first novel, Katherine. Her second novel, Becoming Madame Mao, is a novelized biography of the woman who not only played a central role in Anchee Min's life, but for ten terrible years all but ruled the world's most populous nation. - Farley, Powells.com
Farley: Madame Mao is the most significant woman in twentieth century Chinese history. I thought we might begin by talking about how Chinese people today think of Madame Mao.
Anchee Min: She is the "White Boned Demon" - period. It's just a cliché, you know. Every time a dynasty falls a concubine has to be hung to appease the army. Otherwise, how do you explain Mao's mistake? Basically, the logic is that she seduced Mao, and that's why Mao failed China. If she is sentenced to death, China's problem will be solved. It's the tradition.
For me, I wonder how Mao is still considered a mighty god in China. How could a god be married to a demon for thirty-eight years? I say they both are responsible for millions of deaths. For me, that's the heartbreaking part. She let her personal frustration corrupt her soul. And then let her desire to please Mao, to get Mao's affection back, be the only ruling factor in her life - which led to China's destruction. I feel a strong desire to express that, that process: how a beautiful woman, who once possessed tremendous innocence, turned into a monster.
Farley: It's a very literary topic.
Min: Yes, and her life is very operatic. She has four husbands. Mao is the last one, and she worships Mao. I saw with my own eyes during the television broadcast of her trial. After filming days - months - of interrogating, they cut it down into about five minutes of t.v. footage in order to portray her as a demon. First she said, "All right, you call me a dog....I am a dog. But I am Mao's dog. Mao told me to bite, and I bit." Then the moment she was sentenced to death, which the crowd cheered at the top of their lungs, she yelled, "Long live Maoism!" She believed she was a martyr sacrificing for the cause.
Farley: Is there some truth to that?
Min: I think so. She did not know she was ruining China. That's the saddest part, isn't it, for a woman? So she is a victim, a seductress, and a lonely wife. Powerful and powerless at once.
Farley: But it seems to me that aside from your interest in Jiang Ching as an historical figure, or in this operatic figure who gets corrupted, you are also interested in her as a woman. If this is true, what in particular is your interest in Jiang Ching as a woman?
Min: Well, because my life as a woman is tied to hers. I am a product of her brainwashing. Ironically, because of the sad things in her life, she took opera as a fantasy, a hideout. She put everything she could not achieve in life in the opera. And for ten years she forbids the nation to watch anything else but her operas. Six of her eight operas portray very powerful women. It's almost ridiculous. They have no private lives and no relationships. They basically are leaders, but they are being pushed back. And they are all worshipping Mao. Then there comes a crisis, and the woman always says, with the music and the orchestra playing, "I am thinking of Chairman Mao." And then, boom! She has an idea and the problem's solved. For my formative years, from eight to eighteen, this was my mindset.
Farley: If you just think of Chairman Mao, all of your problems will be solved?
Min: Right. Just leave everything to god and you will be inspired and enlightened. A whole generation of Chinese women were programmed that way. So we come out and we say, "Okay, we have broken arms, but we are no longer going to hide them in our sleeves and make no noise. We're going to voice the hurting."
Farley: And do you think that has had an effect on the way women in China perceive themselves today?
Min: Yes, half of the businesses in China today are run by women.
Farley: So Jiang Ching had a private fantasy that she was expressing through these operas, which later became a culture-wide fantasy.
Min: Right. Exactly.
Farley: I would imagine that a Chinese audience would perceive this book very differently than an American audience because of all the baggage a Chinese reader would bring to it.
Min: Yes, and the fact that they do believe that she is responsible. Period. Not Mao.
Farley: Are there any plans to publish in China?
Min: No. And my father is very panicked. I said, "Don't worry, because every event is true."
It's all already been published, in a way. There are over fifty books on the couple published in China. But my father says that's different. That's within the family. Family ugliness is not supposed to be peddled on the street. For Chinese people, if you disgrace China, you have disgraced your country. He says, "You are in America. You don't have to read all these insulting articles that I have been crossing. Many of them say you are pulling down your pants."
Farley: This is a big difference in cultural fantasies. In this country, it is currently a virtue to reveal everything, to be painfully honest. It seems almost a compulsion.
Min: To me, it's all right to be human, a full human. It's a healing process for America. America is very much focused on its own problem, its own thing. And that's a good part. Of course, they get carried away, but it's healthy, in a way. And I don't know what to expect for this book. To me, it's a personal thing: I have to do it.
I had a problem in the beginning getting it published because this character is not like Kim Basinger in I Dreamed of Africa, a heroine who is very likable, lovable. Here I've got a heroine, a subject who by the end you want to applaud and spit at at the same time - a very complicated individual to embrace. For me, it's history; it needs to be learned; it's educational. And I'm presenting it in an entertaining way. Also, I'm presenting the sounds of the characters, which you don't get in the history books.
Farley: In histories, you are given a succession of facts and events. The characters are generally flat, black and white. Whereas in a novel, if it's good, the author makes the effort to portray the person as a complicated human being. When you do that, it is much more difficult to have an easy opinion about them.
Min: Right, and for me this character doesn't give me much choice. I'm not allowed to really manipulate much. All I delivered is from the historical research I did, and I am trying to forge the links between the characters and the events. For example, there is the Yenan cave, where she and Mao go in and shut the door. Here is where the historians are shut out. I tried to form their conversation based on the way I was raised, on their teachings, poems, letters, on her operas, and the way that Mao talks.
Farley: Why is the Yenan cave so important? You referred to it many times in the book as a significant point.
Min: It's where their passion begins. That's where they fall in love. It's an actual cave. She gave up Shanghai and went to Yenan where Mao was a guerilla leader.
Farley: Do Chinese historians in general think of that as an important point, or is this a point that you as a novelist fixed with significance?
Min: I did the research. To Chinese people it's the bad moment, the crucial moment for a god who would have been perfect if he had not been seduced. Chinese people have a hard time imagining them as a human couple. To them, this woman is evil. How could evil possibly be in love, or know love the way we humans do? To them, it's ridiculous. But I researched her psyche and Mao's psyche, and it's reality.
Farley: It seems more passion than love. In their relationship they were equally manipulative of each other. Mao seemed liked a master manipulator.
Min: And he loves women. I also wanted to bring out the charm of Mao. I really had a good time impersonating - or channeling - him. And I'm pleased with the outcome. When she says, "Let me go. You are a married man," and he grabs her and says, "I am not a stone Buddha..." See, he had to be a great lover, right? But Chinese people see him as a god. Can you imagine your god making love to a woman?
Mao was a conqueror. He conquered China. He must have been a man of great appetites. And he had to have charm to have all these women worship him, right? This woman says, "Let me go." And he responds, "I am not a stone Buddha without feelings. I'm sure my comrades would like me better if I were a eunuch. But I'm a tiger. Cannot be a vegetarian." You can't say no to that kind of man.
Farley: But he could have had any number of women. Why did he choose Jiang Ching?
Min: Because she was the prettiest.
Farley: I've seen pictures. She didn't seem that pretty to me.
Min: Oh yeah, you've seen the pictures of her at the worst time, where the nation wants to portray her as a demon. I will agree that she was not the most beautiful woman in China. But at that time Mao was in Yenan, in this place where Chiang Kai-shek didn't even bother to chase him because it was so desolate and so poor. Then this city girl came there with all her charm. Mao couldn't take his eyes off her. She is an opera actress, right? Mao just head-to-toe falls for her. Imagine: Mao has just finished this monumental work, and there's this beautiful girl from Shanghai sitting on his lap or working on something and humming, and Mao feels greatly relieved.
Farley: The peasant girls didn't know how to do that.
Min: Exactly. She was his fantasy.
Farley: And as we learned later, she was a master manipulator, as well. And smart, so she must have known how to be who he wanted her to be.
You chose as the epigraph for this book a quote from the Upanishads: "You are what your deep, driving desire is. / As your desire is, so is your will. / As your will is, so is your deed. / As your deed is, so is your destiny."
With this in mind, what do you think Jiang Ching's deep, driving desire was?
Min: Do you think I would be oversimplifying to say that she wanted attention, that she wanted to be loved? I mean, that's a cliché, but basically, she wanted Mao's attention. To be visible to him. Basically, I think that you are dealing with a damaged woman. She was not mentally healthy since she was young. When she was born, her father was sixty years old, so he was a stranger to her. Her father beat her mother, and she stood in between and tried to protect her mother. Her position in the family, the last daughter of the last concubine, is the most distant relative the family considers. And then she was raised by her grandparents because her mother dumped her. First you are abandoned by your father, then you are abandoned by your mother. In a way, she was looking for a father figure, so she married Mao. Then Mao dumps her in order to practice longevity. She resents it; she accepts it; and she takes it out on the nation for revenge.
Farley: It seems also like, by ignoring her for twenty years, Mao was essentially winding a rubber band. Her frustrations became so large and pent up, when he finally re-accepted her, she was willing to do anything to remain on the inside. Maybe if he hadn't abandoned her for so long, she wouldn't have had so much energy for the horrible things she did.
Min: And I think if she had had a college education, with her beauty, with her belief in communism, she might very well have done good for the country instead of evil.
Farley: That word evil has come up a couple of times. Do you think it is a useful word when describing someone like Jiang Ching?
Min: It's like if you grow up eating soy beans, it's your food, your soul food. It the same if you grow up with people saying Madame Mao is evil. But I didn't grow up with that. I grew up with the opposite. I'm very messed up in a way. I'm still not very comfortable when people relate her name to my name. I'm deeply uncomfortable. In my book I made her human, but deep down, you know? You want to relate your name with Jane Eyre, or with some heroine you like. But this one you want to avoid.
When I started the book, I could never get rid of this imprint. In my mind's map she is the "White Boned Demon," which, in a way, helped me because you can be very objective. So you start backwards. Usually, you write a positive heroine. You love her, and you have a passion for her. For me, it was hard. Especially at that moment at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution... she wants to please Mao so much that she is willing to kill. And she did murder. She knew that that would please Mao, so she just ruthlessly placed the orders. Mao gave the permission. And Mao gave her affection. And she went out and did more. So in a way she was Mao's dog. When the master said bite, she bit. So that's her.
In the middle of writing the book, though, I couldn't go on, because I thought, How could a person possibly be so heartless? I came to hate my character. But then I said to myself, "I have to come around. I have to find a reason to go on." Because you will fail as an author if you start to hate your character so much that you can't interpret her.
Farley: Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, you were chosen to star in one of Madame Mao's movies. Did you ever actually meet face to face?
Min: No. But when I was fourteen I was a head of the Red Guards, and I heard her give a public talk at the Cultural Square in Shanghai. She was so inspiring. She had that ability, stage presence, so the teenagers went after her. You know, like a rock and roll star. But I didn't personally deal with her. If I had met her personally I would probably be in jail now, if not executed. Even though I didn't know her that much, I was still considered her political debris.
Farley: You were, after all, starring in one of her films.
Min: Right. But I was not in so deep that I was barred from a passport. I was one step down.
Farley: You have stated elsewhere that you used this time, and the freedom granted you by your low position, to do some research on Madame Mao. Can you elaborate?
Min: Well, my life changed almost overnight. I was on the stage, and then all of a sudden I was kicked off the stage. And a bunch of people were released who were Madame Mao's enemies, released from jail. Among them, the actor Dan, who is a character in this book. And he came on the stage and told us, educated us, why he was jailed. The main reason was that he knew too much about Madame Mao and wouldn't be quiet about her past.
He and Junli, the Director, were Madame Mao's third husband's friends. They both think that she drove the husband to commit suicide. They never thought that she was any good. They thought she put them in jail out of fear, because to rule China after Mao she had to be politically pure, which means that she had to be a Mao devotee since birth. So she wanted to erase her history. And with these men on the scene she was in danger. That's why she had to castrate them. She basically ordered Junli's death, and Dan's because she had a crush on him and he wouldn't reciprocate.
Farley: So did you speak with them about Madame Mao?
Min: Yes. With Dan it's an interesting story. In China, if you are from the same town, you are considered very lucky. Dan and I are both from the same small town in Jiangxu province. And every year during my childhood I spent the whole summer in Nantung. So Dan and I felt very close; we felt like we could trust each other. I asked him questions and he gave me answers. This is the same as Jiang Ching's relationship with Kang Sheng, the KGB guy, the head of security. They are from the same town, so they immediately formed a bond.
During this time I read a lot of memoirs of people who were on the second line, which American historians won't use. Many of these people had personal connections to the couple and their associates, and they depicted them in their way. For example, few people know that Kang Sheng was a fine art collector. He had all these miniature carvings on rice. So on one hand, the man was very educated; on the other, he was so evil.
Farley: Yes, we've seen this before. Before W.W.II, Germany was one of the best educated countries in the world. Hitler himself was an artist. And yet still people often assume that education in itself develops character...
Min: ...and compassion. But it doesn't equal that. Kang Sheng had a great sensitivity to the arts. So how could he be so heartless? In exchange for her sweet talking and mentioning his name to Mao, he basically provided Madame Mao a list and said, "Okay, here are your enemies. I'll help you kill them." And the list included two thirds of congress!
Farley: How are your books received in China?
Min: There is no translation in China, but I am popular enough for Central TV to send a crew to America to do a magazine article on me.
Farley: So had they read Red Azalea?
Min: No, they read the reviews. It's a very interesting phenomenon that without people reading the books, I became famous. They filmed me and went home. Over thirty newspapers and magazines in China published on their title page, "Red Azalea by Anchee Min." And I would be recognized on the street. So this enabled me, I felt, to do what I wanted to do, which was to go back to China to promote education for women and children. I thought I would do it on a mass scale, in an entertaining way, like MTV, with music. I even started recording for Shanghai Records.
And then one day the head of the Culture Bureau had a meeting. All the key people were there. And he said, "I've been hearing about Anchee Min everywhere now. You have all been reviewing her. Have any of you read the original Red Azalea?" And the answer was no. And he says, "I just can't believe your lack of professionalism." So he banned my name from the media. And that killed it. I had to write a letter to the director of Shanghai Records and say I didn't think I could go on promoting this educational music thing because my name had been banned from being mentioned in the media. And without the media my program would die. And so I came back to America and started working on Becoming Madame Mao.
Farley: So none of your works have been translated?
Min: No. Underground probably. In the newspapers, maybe, bits here, bits there. And it was translated nicely. I mean, in China, if a person wants to insult you, it's one text. But if they really, really love you, it's a different text. So I think I am loved.
Farley: Is what you are saying in your work threatening at all to the Communist Party?
Min: As long as you don't say you are going to overthrow the party, that's fine. Actually, the problem is not the party. The Chinese Communist Party is doing a good job, in a way. It's the people who are decadent. I've been receiving requests from Chinese publishers for blurbs. The bestselling works in China... I mean, it just breaks my heart. I refuse to blurb these books. One is called Don't Call Me Human. It's about promoting the idea that it's all right to be a hooligan, to be irresponsible, to take one's outrage, one's anger out on the world, to make people pay. And the other one is called Shanghai Baby. The main character lives with an opium addict and is having an affair with a German married man. She has shiny, purple fingernails. She thinks it's fun to be decadent.
I think China is going through this yo-yo thing. You know, you go from one extreme to the other. It's like that farm in Red Azalea. I wrote about it like it was an animal situation. There were a hundred thousand youths camped on a desolated farm working a backbreaking job. They were from 17 to 25 years old, and they were not supposed to date or mate. If anyone did, the woman was brainwashed to denounce the man a rapist, and the man would be executed. And now it's the other extreme: anything goes. No morals. No nothing. I feel it's very harmful for the children. So I believe that's what is happening in China: people are disappointed with one extreme so they go to the other. Eventually they will find the balance in the middle, but it takes time. In the meantime, I feel that literary work has to promote goodness.
Anchee Min spoke with Farley on June 14th, just before her well attended reading at Powell's on Hawthorne.