Red Azalea provides further proof for an opinion I’ve long held: history can only be truly understood through personal narratives that vividly recreate the individual’s experience and place the reader inside the individual’s skin. Only this intimate style allows the reader to experience anything close to the events themselves. Where personal narratives (and fiction as well) succeed in giving us the experience of a particular time and place, retrospective history, with its stoic prose and supposed objectivity can, at times, only portray the statistics of a tumultuous past from a peaceful actuarial present, often putting an even greater distance between us and our ancestors. I know of Maoism in China through historical, cultural, and philosophical writing, but never from these perspectives did I understand this time period and this place as acutely as I did while reading this book. Anchee Min’s creative memoir of her life during the Cultural Revolution in China is a perfect history of Communist China; perfect because I never imagined I could come as close to feeling the oppression of a despotic and cruel government as I did while reading this book. It is not a book that explains why Mao did what he did, (though the reader does learn this in the end); rather, it’s a first hand account of the effects of Maoist China on a single person and her family. In experiencing the toll that Mao’s regime exacts on this single individual, we feel by extension the horrors endured by an entire society.
This book was recommended to me by my sister (in-law) Mariah. This was the first recommendation of the book project because Mariah told me to read it eight years ago when we first met and she was reading it for a class. Finally, I’ve read it, and of course, like every other book she’s told me to read, she was right – I think it’s excellent and extremely important.
Nothing about Mao is as horrifying as his ability to consistently turn the members of his society against one another. Red Azalea serves as a perfect study in group-fear tactics and the supportive role internecine suspicion and peer-pressure play in an oppressive society. While it lacks explicit theories of Governmentality, the memoir reads like a real life instantiation of Michel Foucault’s (a French philosopher who wrote extensively on power and control) models of normative Micropower and Systematic Oppression.
At nine years old, a proud patriotic Anchee Min is told that her loving and wonderful teacher is a spy and is coerced into telling a board of reviewers that she attempted to inflict ‘bourgeoisie intellectual’ ideas on the children by reading Western fairy tales to the class. Despite how much little Anchee adored her teacher, Mao – requiring all school children to recite patriotic vows of loyalty to Mao and China – had inculcated a perverse sense of duty in young Anchee and her peers. Her immature sense of dutifulness and her fear of doing wrong ultimately cause her to denounce her teacher before the board, thus casting her out. At sixteen, when Anchee is given the profession of peasant by the Chinese Labor Department and sent to work on a farm, we experience the vicious and despotic group-effects among the virtually imprisoned farming women. The women police one another, monitoring those whose revolutionary fervor is most exemplary and those whose ‘revisionist’ or ‘capitalist’ ideas or innuendos are most dangerous and unpatriotic. Perhaps strange to the Western reader, and fortunate for Mao, few of the Chinese depicted by Min are concerned with their own plights; instead, Min portrays them as brainwashed into thinking that the communal farm-life is good for China, (and only therefore good for themselves), and as conditioned into policing each other, thereby enforcing their own oppression. Even her parents, desperate to make their children’s lives as easy as possible, are forced to support their kids’ demonstrations of patriotism and ‘revolutionary’ spirit, despite the fact that they know the wretched state in which their countrymen are actually living.
Upon reaching a certain age under Mao’s regime, children were assigned professions based on quotas. Even though our heroine Anchee shows great intellectual talent, she is assigned to be a peasant working in rice patties thousands of miles from her home. The absurdity of this situation doesn’t end with the obvious. The book is most valuable in how it describes these years in exile during which Anchee works among large groups of women who grow up lacking the most basic understanding of themselves, their bodies, or their purposes. Our narrator aches with the awakening of her sexual desire, but assumes, having received no education beyond Mao’s party rhetoric, that these feelings are just restlessness or homesickness. Min documents the tragic consequences suffered by isolated and imprisoned young women, showing the consequences of their impermissible rage: girls who are too beautiful are ridiculed for being bourgeois and driven mad by societal judgment; girls who attempt to satisfy sexual urges with young soldiers are cast out of society and often executed.
And behind all this, woven perfectly into the narrative are Mao’s sayings and teachings. Everyone in the book knows Mao’s sayings, quoting them often to scorn others or to promote themselves. Characters’ sincere beliefs in Mao’s sayings inspire a paradoxical mood in the reader, and perhaps in any who look back on Mao’s China from a democratic state, a disconcerting and irresolvable feeling of the ridiculousness and yet lethality of Mao’s ideas. Min’s characters actually quote Mao’s doggerel and inane, facile sayings. These silly and ominous verses hover above the events of the memoir; their mendacious floweriness and verbosity starkly opposed by the terse, truthful prose of the memoirist. Min’s writing is rapid and rushed, as if she were whispering her story to us through a crack in a prison wall. She has no time not to be blunt. She can’t afford to hold anything back or to soften her language, and she doesn’t need adjectives to illuminate the pain. When, after five years away, she gets an opportunity to leave her farm, she describes seeing her parents for the first time:
“My parents in Shanghai were glad to have the chance to reunite with me for the weekend. My father warned me not to believe anything. My father was older than his age. As was my mother. They had no more courage left . . . . My father was crushed under the unit Part secretary’s feet, trampled upon. He was timid as a mouse in shock.”
That quick and sparse metaphor might be the only one in the entire narrative. She writes as if her story were too important to waste time on style. Her fierce, blunt, and meager prose reads like the breathless speech of one merely surviving beneath the leaden foot of an oppressive master.
Anchee Min’s story is more than her forced peasant labor. She escapes her fate, of course, gaining enough freedom to tell her story to us. Along the way we experience Communist Opera, a plethora of Mao quotes, a family ruined by the government they never asked for, and Mao’s widow’s evildoings and eventual arrest. At the end we are left wondering how anyone, having experienced this, could attain the perspective or could choose to revive and endure the memory long enough to retell such a story.
And Anchee’s story is more than her own memoir. It’s about individualism in a country where that very idea is abhorred. In composing the history of an individual in fiercely anti-individualistic Maoist China, she exemplifies the power and importance of a single mind’s artistic expression. Her writing the book itself is her revolt against this tragic history, against the stifling lethality that Mao and his followers stood for. Her style, her memory, her whole story as writer and Chinese woman, these are weapons of revolt. We are reading a protest in Red Azalea, experiencing rebellion itself in the form of the individual’s uncensored voice. In her small memoir Anchee Min launches a massive uprising against both Maoist China and the equally despotic China that still exists today.