The year is 1991, and in the bowels of a rubber-walled Chinese prison, an elderly woman pleads with her daughter to spare her life, to stop the execution that has been her destiny for 14 years. The daughter, a shadow of her mother, repeats her trembling answer, no. Seventy-seven years old and perfectly capable of taking her own life as a final act of defiance, the mother changes tack, imploring, "Document my role in the revolution. Demonstrate my sacrifices and contributions. The hands to strangle me are creeping up fast. I can feel them at my throat. Tell the world the story of a heroine."
Her daughter, gutsier now, fires back, "You are not a heroine, Mother. You are a miserable, mad and sick woman. Like Father said, you have dug so many graves that you don't have enough bodies to lay in them!"
Who is this iron-willed yet unredeemable woman? No less a villain than Jiang Ching, the infamous "white-boned demon," the leader of the Gang of Four, China's "whore," the woman who fought side by side with and shared the bed of Mao Zedong. Her daughter? Nah, the only child of Madame and Chairman Mao, a character who slips quickly from the pages of the fascinating and bold new novel, Becoming Madame Mao, where only the title character herself can hold center stage for long. Author Anchee Min replaces Nah with herself -- not as a fictional character inserted into history but as the biographer Madame Mao wished her daughter to become.
Taking up Madame Mao's pen for her, Min opens her story with this question in the balance: Was Jiang Ching, Madame Mao, the female face of evil? Or was she more properly what she called herself, a heroine? Was she quite simply a ruthless torturer with the blood of millions on her hands? Or was she a more complex woman, ill served by history, the victim of both political conspiracies and the collective need of a country to blame its darkest hour on someone other than themselves?
To Min's credit, the answer to this question does not arise easily from Becoming Madame Mao's 300-plus pages. Alternately lyrical and journalistic, in a prose style that demonstrates the split nature of its subject, the novel paints a harrowing portrait of a woman driven by a thousand different passions. She's a photographer, an opera singer, a "blade of grass to be trampled," a sensual partner, a helpless child, a "peacock among hens," a stand-by-your-man wife, a faithless lover who can find comfort in the bed of a man she doesn't love. To underline the push-pull nature of Madame Mao's motivations, Min switches back and forth between first- and third-person points of view:
My lover continues to see me regardless of the pressure. I am a monk without hair (I am the law), he says. Our affair is fueled by the force to break us. Mao is a rebel by nature. In me he finds his role. Nevertheless I know what I am risking. I am nobody in Yenan. I could be removed any time in the name of the revolution.... The riverbank path leads them into deep reeds. After a half mile she suddenly pivots, says that she can't go on, that she has to leave. Like a lion to a deer he catches her and picks her up from the ground. She struggles to free herself. He becomes intense. His hands tear at her uniform. Everyone expects me to be a stone Buddha without desire or feelings, he gasps on top of her.
The bitter prisoner at the book's opening has come a long way from days of wild love-on-the-run with the leader of the Chinese revolution. Madame Mao results from three different identities she has fashioned for herself.
As Yunhe, a ragamuffin schoolgirl, she sees her father strike her mother with a shovel and escapes with her grandfather to watch operettas performed in whorehouses. Yunhe rejects foot binding by ripping off the bandages in the middle of the night. As Lan Ping, she becomes an opera singer, fiercely ambitious and desperate to rid herself of country-girl ignorance. She marries men for love and then finds herself unbound from them, too, in the middle of the night, ripped from their sides by ambition. Never as successful as she dreams, as Jiang Ching she abandons her leading woman costumes and flees to the countryside to don the uniform of a soldier. She falls in love with the savage warrior-poet Mao. They couple to the sound of shelling; he studies maps with his hands up her shirt.
When she marries Mao and takes on the title role of a lifetime, Madame Mao is oddly devoid of any power. This is when the novel hits its stride, pushing and probing to understand her response to enforced weakness. Inside the Forbidden City at last, she is shut away from the public and Mao's bed and sinks into despondency. Madame Mao devises the Cultural Revolution to regain his affection and reenter the world of art and opera; she stages denouncements and orders imprisonment the way other women play coy on the telephone and take up tennis. This novel could be her revenge were it not so clear-eyed on the matter of history and consequence.
Author of the 1997 novel Katherine, Anchee Min's connection to her material is personal. Her bestselling memoir's title, Red Azalea, comes from the film in which she was cast as the lead in the late 1970s. Based on the life of Madame Mao and funded by her Cultural Revolution movement, the film was never completed, and Min escaped to this country to become a writer of stunning lyrical power. Becoming Madame Mao is a compelling addition to Min's chronicle of a bloody time locked away by secrecy and death. It is that rare thing, a necessary work of fiction.
Elizabeth Haas is a writer and critic living in Annapolis, Maryland.
About the Author
Born in Shanghai in 1957, Anchee Min has a personal connection to the story of Madame Mao. At 17, she was sent to a labor collective, where after a number of years a talent scout recruited her for Madame Mao's Shanghai Film Studio. There she was trained to play the protagonists in Madame Mao's propaganda films and personally met Jiang Ching and others in her circle, who later provided Min with stories and insights. Min came to the United States in 1984 with the help of the actress Joan Chen. Her memoir, Red Azalea, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 1994 and was an international bestseller. Her first novel, Katherine, was published in 1997. She resides in New York.