Red Azalea [NOOK Book]


Red Azalea is Anchee Min’s celebrated memoir of growing up in the last years of Mao’s China. As a child, she was asked to publicly humiliate a teacher; at seventeen, she was sent to work at a labor collective. Forbidden to speak, dress, read, write, or love as she pleased, she found a lifeline in a secret love affair with another woman. Miraculously selected for the film version of one of Madame Mao’s political operas, Min’s life changed overnight. Then Chairman Mao suddenly died, taking with him an entire world....
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Red Azalea

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Red Azalea is Anchee Min’s celebrated memoir of growing up in the last years of Mao’s China. As a child, she was asked to publicly humiliate a teacher; at seventeen, she was sent to work at a labor collective. Forbidden to speak, dress, read, write, or love as she pleased, she found a lifeline in a secret love affair with another woman. Miraculously selected for the film version of one of Madame Mao’s political operas, Min’s life changed overnight. Then Chairman Mao suddenly died, taking with him an entire world. A revelatory and disturbing portrait of China, Anchee Min’s memoir is exceptional for its candor, its poignancy, its courage, and for its prose which Newsweek calls "as delicate and evocative as a traditional Chinese brush painting."
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[An] extraordinary story. . . . This memoir of sexual freedom is [both] a powerful political as well as literary statement."
The New York Times Book Review

"The book sings. It is a small masterpiece. . . [No one] 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." —Vogue

"Gripping. . . .reads like raw testimony. . .epic drama, and. . .poetic incantation. . . . It was passion and despair that made [Min] fearless; it was fearlessness that made her a writer."
The New York Times

"Stunning. . . . Min's is a distinct and moving voice speaking out of a cauldron of history."
Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Brave and heartbreaking."
The Miami Herald

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307781024
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/23/2011
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 126,859
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Anchee Min
Born in Shanghai in 1957, Anchee Min came to American in 1984. While attending English as a Second Language classes, she worked as a waitress, a house cleaner, a fabric painter, and a model. In 1990 she received a Masters of Fine Arts Degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. Min wrote Red Azalea in English over an eight-year period. It won the Carl Sandburg LIterary Award in 1993 and was a New York Times Notable Book.
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Read an Excerpt

Part OneI was raised on the teachings of Mao and on the operas of Madam Mao, Comrade Jiang Ching. I became a leader of the Little Red Guards in elementary school. This was during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution when red was my color. My parents lived like--as the neighbors described them--a pair of chopsticks: always in harmony My father was an instructor of industrial technique drawing at Shanghai Textile Institute, although his true love was astronomy. My mother was a teacher at a Shanghai middle school. She taught whatever the Party asked, one semester in Chinese and the next in Russian. My parents both believed in Mao and the Communist Party, just like everybody else in the neighborhood. They had four children, each one a year apart. I was born in 1957. We lived in the city, on South Luxuriant Road in a small two-story townhouse occupied by two families. The house was left by my grandfather, who had died of tuberculosis right before I was born.I was an adult since the age of five. That was nothing unusual. The kids I played with all carried their family's little ones on their backs, tied with a piece of cloth. The little ones played with their own snot while we played hide-and-seek. I was put in charge of managing the family because my parents were in their working units all day, just like everyone else's parents.I called my sisters and brother my children because I had to pick each one of them up from kindergarten and nursery school while I myself was only a kindergartner. I was six when my sister Blooming was five, my second sister Coral was four and my brother Space Conqueror was three. My parents made careful choices in the names they gave us, They were considered eccentric because the neighbors named their children Guard of Red, Big Leap, Long March, Red Star, Liberation, Revolution, New China, Road of Russia, Resist U.S., Patriotic Forerunner, Matchless Red Soldier, etc. My parents had their own ideas. First they called me Lin-Shuan--Rising Sun at a Mountain. They dropped it because Mao was considered the only sun. After further contemplation, they named me Anchee--Jade of Peace. Also, it sounded like the Chinese pronunciation of the English word "angel." They registered me with it. Blooming and Coral were named after the sound of chee (jade). There were two reasons why my parents named my brother Space Conqueror: one was that my father loved astronomy; the second was to respond to Mao's call that China would soon build its own spaceship.As I understood it, my parents were doing work that was saving the world. Every evening I would pick up the children and fight with the kids on the block all the way home. It was like eating a regular meal that I got a purple cheek or a bloody nose. It did not bother me too much. Although I was scared of crossing at traffic lights and dark alleys, I learned to not show my fear, because I had to be a model for the children, to show them what bravery meant. After I arranged for the children to play by themselves in the living room, I went to set up the stove to cook dinner. It always took me a long time to light the stove, because I did not understand that wood and coals needed air to burn. I stuffed the stove as I sang songs of Mao quotations. One time, when I tried many times and the stove would not light, I lost my patience. I went out to play, thinking that the stove was not burning. Then a kid came and told me that there was smoke coming out of our house window. This happened three times.I tried to put the children to sleep while the sky was still bright. The children's little feet kicked the cotton blankets and made new holes over the old. The blankets soon became rags. When the room quieted down, I would lean on the windowsill staring at the entrance to the lane, waiting for my parents to appear. I watched the sky turn deep blue, Venus rising, and I would fall asleep by the window.In 1967, when I was ten years old, we moved. It was because our downstairs neighbor accused us of having a bigger space than they had. They said, How can a family of six occupy four rooms while a family of eleven has only one? The revolution is about fairness. They came up with chamber pots and poured shit on our blankets. There were no police. The police station was called a revisionist mechanism and had been shut down by the revolutionaries. The Red Guards had begun looting houses. No one answered our call for help. The neighbors just watched.The downstairs neighbor kept bothering us. We cleaned the shit night after night, swallowed insults in meek submission. The downstairs family became uncontrollable. They threatened to harm us children when our parents were not at home. They said their second daughter had a history of mental illness. Therefore, they could not be responsible for what she was going to do. The second daughter came up and showed me an ax that she had just sharpened. She said she could chop my head in two like chopping a watermelon. She asked me if I would like her to do it. I said, You wait here and I'll tell you whether I would like it or not later. I grabbed my sisters and brother and we ran and squeezed ourselves in a closet all day.One day when my mother stepped into the door after work, the second daughter jumped on her. I saw them wrestle into the stairwell. Mother was pushed, crushed on the floor, and was slashed with the scissors. I was in shock. I stood right next to my mother and saw blood pouring down her face and wrists. I wanted to scream but I had no voice. The second daughter went downstairs and cut her own wrists with the scissors. She then rushed to a curious crowd outside the door, bloody hands raised high in the air. She shouted, Look at me. I am a worker who was attacked by a bourgeois intellectual. Comrades, this is a political murder. Her family members came out. They shouted, A debt of blood must be paid by blood.My father said we must move. We must escape. He wrote little notes describing our house and what he would like in exchange. He stuck the notes on the tree trunks by the streets. The next day a truck arrived by our door loaded full with furniture. Five men got out of the truck and said they came to exchange their house with ours. My father said we hadn't looked around for our choice yet. The men said, Our house is a perfect one for you and it's ready for you to move in. My father said we didn't know what it looked like. The men said, Go and take a look at it now, you will like it. My father asked how many rooms. They said three, very nice, Shanghai standard. My mother said, Do you know that our downstairs neighbor's second daughter is mentally ill? The men said it would not be a problem. They said that they had just beaten the second daughter, and she confessed that she was normal and that her family just wanted to have more rooms. She had promised to cause no trouble in the future. The men said they were a father and sons, all workers at a Shanghai steel factory. The sons needed rooms to get married. They wanted the rooms in a hurry. My father said, Please let us think about it. The men said, We'll wait outside your door while you make up your mind. My father said, You can't do that. The men said, No problem. My parents decided to take a look at the men's house on Shanxi Road.I was asked to guard the house while my parents were gone. I was doing my homework when I saw the men start to unload their furniture. After that they began to move our furniture. I went up to them and said, My parents aren't back yet. The men said they would like to help us while they still had the truck. There's nowhere you can borrow such a truck by the time you think you're ready to move, they said. Are you going to move all this stuff with your bare little hands?When my parents got back, most of our furniture was packed on their truck. My mother said, This is not what I want, you can't force us to move. The men said, We're workers, we don't play mind games. You advertised, we came with a good offer. It's Sunday, our only day off. We don't like to be fooled. We beat the second daughter downstairs because she fooled us.My father took my mother and the children aside. He said, We must get away. Let's move, forget about fairness. So we did. We moved to Shanxi Road in the Xu-Hui district. It was a row of townhouses. Our floor was a two-room apartment shared by three families. The apartment was owned by the government. The three families had to share one toilet. We occupied the front of the floor. Besides a drawing room, we had a porch and a kitchen. The family who occupied the back of the floor had five members. They lived in one room and their stove was right next to the toilet. I did not like it because it often happened that when I took a shit they would be cooking. The third family on the floor lived in a back-porch-converted space. They were very quiet people.My father said, Let's settle down. Think of it this way, things could be worse, we could have been killed. At least it's safe here. We all agreed and felt better. Upstairs was a big family with six children. Their third daughter was my age. Her official name was Sun Flower but she was called Little Coffin at home, because she was as thin as a skeleton. She came down and asked me if I would like to join her family's Mao study seminar every evening after dinner. I said I had to ask my father. My father said no. He said he did not want to have a revolution at home. It surprised me. I spent a night thinking whether my father was a hidden counterrevolutionary and whether or not I should report him.Little Coffin was disappointed when she heard that I would not attend their family's Mao study seminar. She went back upstairs and I heard her family begin singing "Red in the East rises the sun, China has brought forth a Mao Tse-tung . . ." I admired her family. I wished we could do the same thing.We girls were arranged to sleep on the porch while my brother slept in the kitchen. My mother missed our old house terribly. She missed having a toilet of our own.The morning after we had moved, Monday, I remember, I was waked by a loud electric bell. I leaned out the window and looked down. Our downstairs apartment was a cable and wire hardware workshop. When the loud electric bell rang at seven-thirty, a crowd of women would rush in. Heads were moving like bees crowding into a nest. There were about two hundred women working downstairs and in the back lane under a roof shed that covered one-third of the back lane. The women used to be housewives. They had no education but were good at working with their hands. Here they wired and welded all day. They brought their own lunches and ate them in the yard. From my window I could see what they ate, mostly preserved salty fish and tofu. Some of them were given milk coupons because the wires they were welding carried poisonous chemicals. The smell of these chemicals came upstairs when they laid the wires out in the yard.The women downstairs liked to chat, quarrel and sing Comrade Jiang Ching, Madam Mao's operas. The neighbor described the women as Big Fight Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays, Small Quarrel Tuesdays Thursdays and Saturdays. They had loudspeakers in each room. In the afternoon there was a voice reading from Mao's works, from articles in the People's Daily and Red Flag magazine. By three-thirty when we got back from school, we would hear an exercise-music tape being played. The women would get out, rank themselves and occupy the whole lane doing ten minutes of stretching. I often leaned on the windowsill with my sisters and brother watching them. We started to know the women's nicknames, such as Chow-Di--Draw a Brother; Lai-Di--Gain a Boy, Shuang-Di--Double Boy; Yin-Di--Win a Boy; and Bao-Di--Guarantee a Boy. The names disturbed me. Though I could not link myself to those names, the idea began to sink into my mind that to be born as a girl was a sad thing. The workshop ran three shifts. The wiring machine was on day and night. My father had a hard time bearing the noise. He could not sleep. He went down to complain but it was useless. The women needed to work, the boss said. It was a revolutionary task.The children of the lane often went to watch the women wiring. The women sanded the wires before molding them. They gave us sandpaper and we sanded the wires. We had fun. The women told us that the wires would be shipped to Vietnam. What we were doing was a national secret. The women won award certificates from the government. They framed the biggest certificate on the wall. It said, "Honor and Glory to Wu-Lee Hardware Workshop."I went to Long Happiness Elementary School. The school was six blocks away from where we lived. My new classmates laughed at me because I always wore the same jacket with holes everywhere. I wore it all seasons. It was my cousin's old clothes. Blooming usually wore the clothes after I grew out of them. With patches at the collars and elbows, Coral took over. More patches. The clothes melted, though she was careful. She knew Space Conqueror was waiting for his turn. Space Conqueror always wore rags. It made me feel very guilty.The kids in the new neighborhood were unfriendly. They attacked us often. We were called "Rags" and "Fleas." My father said to us, I can't afford to buy you new clothes to make you look respectable, but if you do well in school you will be respected. The bad kids can take away your school bag but they can't take away your intelligence. I followed my father's teaching and it worked. I was soon accepted as a member of the Little Red Guard and was appointed as a head of the Little Red Guard because of my good grades. I was a natural leader. I had early practice at home. In those years, learning to be a revolutionary was everything. The Red Guards showed us how to destroy, how to worship. They jumped off buildings to show their loyalty to Mao. It was said that physical death was nothing. It was light as a feather. Only when one died for the people would one's death be heavier than a mountain.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Reading Group Guide

“[An] extraordinary story. . . . This memoir of sexual freedom is [both] a powerful political as well as literary statement.” —The New York Times Book Review

We hope the introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow enhance your group’s reading of the evocative and awe-inspiring Red Azalea.

1. How does Min’s family life shape her personality and affect her future? What does Min learn from her mother [see, for example, pp. 12–15, 124–6, and 190–2] and her father [see, for example, p. 11]?

2. What are Min’s obligations to her parents and siblings? How are these obligations and expectations affected by the Cultural Revolution?

3. Min writes of her early years in school, “To me, history meant how proletarians won over their reactionaries. Western history was a history of capitalist exploitation” [p. 25]. What are Min and her peers taught to feel about Chairman Mao? How do Min’s parents feel about Mao?

4. Min recalls yelling at her mother: “I said, I don’t want to inherit your life. It is a terrible, terrible and terrible life. I yelled at her. My mother went to take pills. I said, Don’t you see? Can’t you see it’s not working? Your philosophy does not work for me. My mother refused to give up. She said she didn’t believe that evilness should rule. I said, It’s ruling. She said, It’s impossible” [p. 233]. Does this exchange represent a typical intergenerational conflict, or is their conflict unique because of the unusual and strong control the Communist Party and the Cultural Revolution had on their lives? Can Min or her mother exercise any control over their own lives? What choices do they each make about their life vis-à-vis the Party?

5. Why does Min select the story of Big Beard to include in her memoir as a pivotal event from her childhood?

6. What does the story of Little Green illustrate about the Communist Party’s attitude toward women in China during the Cultural Revolution? How was Min’s life shaped by the Little Green episode? Does the Little Green episode recall shades of the Big Beard episode in its effect on Min?

7. How did Lu’s and Yan’s respective upbringings shape their personalities, and, ultimately, their destinies within the Party? How do Yan and Min each relate to Lu?

8. Is there a message in the following poem by Mao that Yan and Min recite while traveling back to the farm?

The wind and the rain sent the spring away
But the snow has brought it back.
There are ice columns a hundred feet long
Hanging dangerously down from cliffs.
There is a little plum flower blooming.
The flower has no intention
To compete with the spring.
She is here only to announce
The coming of the spring.
By the time the flowers bloom
All over the mountains,
She will be hiding among the flowers
And she will smile with great delight. [p. 144]

9. Min writes: “Soviet Wong walked a half step behind Sound of Rain, never overtaking him or lagging behind him one step. They both wore blue Mao jackets with collars buttoned tightly at the neck. They nodded, Sound of Rain first, then Soviet Wong, at the workers who passed by. They paid the workers full-scale smiles. The smile made me nervous, although it was the most admired smile in the country. It was the smile that Mao had been promoting with the slogan: ‘One must treat his comrades with the warmth of spring.’ Lu at Red Fire Farm was an expert at that type of smile” [pp 163]. What does this smile represent to Min, and why does it make her nervous?

10. At what point in Min’s life do her views begin to change about the Party and why? [See, for example, p. 122]

11. Despite her realization that she was working for little reward, Min took pride in the bridge she helped to build at the farm [p. 120]. Does this personal pride conflict with the message preached by the Party and Mao during the Cultural Revolution? Does her pride symbolize Min’s unique strength of character, or is it also a universally human character trait?

12. What is Min’s sexual orientation? How does Yan’s relationship with Leopard affect Min’s emotional development? How does Min’s affair with the Supervisor differ from Min’s affair with Yan?

13. Why does Yan bring Leopard to Min’s home when she knows Min’s feelings [pp. 215–23]?

14. Min said the following in an interview: “My life as a woman is tied to hers [i.e., Madam Mao’s]. 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” [ interview, June 14th, 2000].

As a girl, why is Min attracted to the operas of Jiang Ching? [See pp. 15–6] At what point does her attraction to the operas become more objective and critical? How does her opinion of the operas, as she explains it to the Supervisor [pp. 237–8], differ from her childhood opinion? Does Min agree with the Supervisor’s view of Jiang’s operas? [See pp. 238, and p. 301] Can the reader perceive in Min a woman who was influenced by these operas, as Min describes them in the quotation above?

15. Is the Supervisor’s revolutionary ideal truer than that of the other Party figures that Min encounters in her life, such as Lu [see pp. 91–92], Secretary Chain [see pp. 29–38], or Soviet Wong [see pp. 164–5]? Is the Supervisor’s character in any way superior to these other Party figures, or is Min just lucky that he takes a liking to her? What does the Supervisor hope to accomplish by casting Min for the part of Red Azalea? [See, pp. 277–8 and p. 294]

16. In a memoir, the author can select whatever he or she wants to tell about her or his own history. What does Min seem to have omitted from her history, and what effect do these omissions have on the reader? Is there anything the reader might want to know in order to better understand Min?

17. Is it accurate to describe Min’s tone throughout her memoir as conveying emotion without being emotional? How does she achieve this? Does Min allow the reader to feel sorry for her?

18. In an interview, Min describes her own writing style as analogous to Henri Matisse’s painting style. She says, “I love Henri Matisse, the painter. . . . [His] naïve style is also my writing style” [“Anchee Min’s Passionate World,” by Annie Wang,]. If you are familiar with Henri Matisse, how is Min’s writing style like Henri Matisse’s paintings?

19. If you were familiar with the Cultural Revolution before reading Red Azalea, did Min’s memoir have any effect on your understanding of, or your views regarding, the Cultural Revolution?

20. How might a Chinese reader perceive Red Azalea differently than an American reader?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 27 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 27 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 1, 2012

    Living in Mao’s time In novel, Red Azalea, Anchee Min exp

    Living in Mao’s time
    In novel, Red Azalea, Anchee Min explains the experiences she went through growing up when China was under rule of Mao. She writes how her family was forced out of their home to live, in a very small house with other families. She made evident that she had to group up fast because her parents were gone for most of the day and she had to take care of two younger sisters and brother. She did very well in school and in her time at school, her teacher was accused of being an American spy. Min was told to humiliate her teacher in front of a crowd because what people thought of her and how she should be treated. Through her writing, I could feel Anchee’s emotions of love for her teacher and what others were telling her to do. I liked how you could feel the pull and confusion she was going through because it became retable to the audience on hard decisions they have to make and having to deal with the consequences. She was sent off to work on a farm called “Red Fire Farm” which she had say goodbye to her family and her home for a very long time. She writes a great description of what type of labor she went through and strictness of the farm. She ends up falling in love with Yan, one the leaders of the farm and has to deal with hiding up the love she feels. She is picked for consideration in being in a political opera which she finds herself trying to compete for the role as the Red Azalea. I liked this book because she is very open and honest on her past and she went through, which became appealing because she wants others to know her story. I think others would like this story, because it is very interesting and her most vulnerable emotions are shared which comes off very human like. Also I liked reading about this subject because I had only read about this time in history in class but to read a life story about this period of time was intriguing.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Good read

    I couldn't put the book down, I thought "whatever next ?". The book details the first hand experience of a woman born & living in China during the Cultural Revolution and how she survived it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2011

    Very Interesting

    Anchee Min writes in a no frills, but absorbing style that brings the reader into her experiences. The story is a glimpse into a life few non-Chinese could imagine on their own.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2015

    Great parts and not-so-great parts

    This story had many positives, but many negatives. The extreme hardships of experiencing the "peasant farms" was very powerful, but the story included many private intimacies that were too prevalent and unnecessarily relevant to the story. The ending was abrupt and disappointing after the book related some prominent details of her struggle during the cultural revolution. I would have preferred more history, less sexual revelations.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2014


    Min sets up her story quite nicely, her book just starts right into it. I was at first not expecting to like it (since I had to read it for class, and I've never liked memoirs), but by pretty much 2 chapters in and I was hooked. Her continuation (The Cooked Seed) is out, for those who think the ending isn't gratifying.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2014

    Red Azalea

    Unbelievable. I only kept rrading because it HAD to come together and not be the colossal waste of tme it seemed to be. No such luck.

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  • Posted August 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    An O.K read.

    I like the book but thought that at times it was a bit wordy. Despite this I would read her other books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2006

    Great Book

    Great book with insight into the cultural revolution and the hardships of living in China during that time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2004

    Beautiful Chinese Memoir

    Anchee Min¿s book, Red Azalea, is an astonishing account of how her life was as a young girl growing up in Communist China. She was raised on the teachings of Mao and Comrade Jiang Ching. At seventeen, Anchee was transferred from her home to Red Fire Farm where she would stay and work as a rice/cotton picker for many years. While on Red Fire Farm, she met a woman, Yan Sheng, who became her best friend, teacher, lover, and soul reason to survive. After two years of working on the farm, Anchee tried out for a role in Comrade Jiang Ching¿s new movie, the Red Azalea, and was swept back to her hometown Shanghai as one of two finalists. After a few failed attempts at messing Anchee up, her rival, Cheering Spear, finally passed her up and got the lead role. Min faced a great many more trials and tribulations while working at the studio as a janitor and servant. The thought I liked most about this book was Anchee¿s determination in not letting the odds get the best of her. While she played mother to her 3 siblings and to her own mother and father, she never let fatigue and frustration overwhelm her and took care of her family in the best ways possible. Most children who got picked as workers instantly gave their lives up to disaster and misfortune, but Min looked at it as a way of helping Mao. Yan gave Anchee the desire to want to do her best and to always overachieve. At the studio, her cigarettes and the warm voice of an unknown man, who was also a janitor, willed Anchee Min to keep going. The factor that I disliked in Red Azalea was the fact that everywhere she went, someone was always there to give Anchee trouble and make life harder than it already was. Anchee missed out on all of life¿s many adventures while being held prisoner under Communist rule. In her family¿s neighborhood, she and her siblings were unaccepted by other children and had to play by themselves with whatever they could find. Comrade Lu at Red Fire Farm lived her life making sure that Yan and Anchee¿s lives were more miserable than her own. Lastly, at the studio Anchee was constantly berated by Cheering Spear and her advisor Soviet Wong. Anchee Min did the world a favor by writing this book because it allows us a little insight as to what goes on in China and the hardships that people still face today.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2002

    Couldn't put it down

    I could not put this book down. It's so simply written, yet so interesting and absorbing. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

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