The cultural revolutions of Anchee Min: She was a film-star protegee of Madame Mao, but then came disgrace. She tells Raymond Whitaker of her turbulent life

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Anchee Min is a successful painter and photographer who lives in Chicago with her husband, also a Chinese-born artist, and their baby daughter. Her American-accented English is adequate, and her clothes are expensive - nothing here to tell of the extraordinary reversals of fortune to which her life has been prone. Something about the set of her features, however, betrays her readiness to make the kind of choices, and take the kind of risks, that most of us will never face.

The art and prestige of this 35-year- old woman have enabled her to return to China a celebrity, and have given the rest of her family undreamt of opportunities. But if it were not for the random chance that led to her becoming a film actress at the height of the Cultural Revolution, risking death to have an affair with a senior Communist Party cadre, she might still be a peasant on a communal farm.

Her publishers no doubt hope that her book about her experiences, Red Azalea, will prove as popular as Wild Swans, Jung Chang's account of recent Chinese history through the lives of her grandmother, her mother and herself. Although they are close in age, however, Chang was the daughter of prominent party officials, while Min's parents were Shanghai teachers who were forced to take factory jobs as 're- education'.

In Shanghai in her teens Min was a fanatical Red Guard, one of the millions who helped Chairman Mao turn China upside down between 1966 and 1976. She was among those sent to the countryside to become 'true proletarians'. There she was spotted by a film unit sent by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, to find suitably revolutionary women who could set a new standard of 'proletarian beauty'. A former film actress, Madame Mao had seized control of the arts and wanted a new face to play the title role in her most ambitious propaganda exercise - a film, based on an idealised version of her own life, to be called Red Azalea. Min was chosen from among 20,000 candidates.

'I felt so fortunate,' she says. 'It gave me great confidence, and I wanted to be a big star. I was sad to leave the people of Red Fire Farm behind, but I thought that if I became famous, I might be in a position to help them. As soon as they knew I was leaving, however, they avoided me, because I reminded them of their misery.'

At the Shanghai studios she found herself at the centre of professional jealousy and political intrigue. 'The established actors and actresses were still young, but the party had no use for them. Their only role was to train people like me, who had been chosen for their political reliability rather than acting talent. I can see now why they hated me. It was more a political assignment than a chance for great glamour. They kept saying I was helping to change China's ideology. It felt glamorous when I was in make-up, with the lights on me and the whole crew working for me, but as soon as the lights were turned off they would remind me that I was a servant of the people.'

Min and the film's director, a close associate of Madame Mao who had been sent from Peking to oversee the ideological correctness of the production, were drawn together by the resentment around them. They embarked on an affair whose passion was heightened, she says, by the knowledge that 'if we had been caught, they would have executed us'. A male colleague on her communal farm had paid with his life after being caught having sex with one of her friends, who went mad and committed suicide.

'I lost my innocence on Red Fire Farm,' says Min, referring to her political beliefs, but she might have been speaking of her sexual awakening as well. She learnt that the fate of the two lovers had also shaken the faith of Yan, her admired company commander, and the two began an intense lesbian affair which came perilously close to discovery before Min's departure for the film set. Why were they so reckless? 'Humans are humans,' she says. 'They are ready to risk everything for passion and love.'

Her heterosexual relationship with the director ended equally abruptly. The making of Red Azalea was increasingly disrupted by power struggles in Peking. The director, whom she names only as the Supervisor, had to make endless revisions of the script at the behest of someone higher up. But in September 1976 Mao died, his widow was jailed with the rest of the 'Gang of Four' for attempting to seize power, and all those connected with Red Azalea were in disgrace.

While the victims of the Cultural Revolution were rehabilitated, Min endured years of ostracism and drudgery in the studios, aggravated by tuberculosis. 'My dossier was black,' she says. 'Whenever a production wanted to hire me as a set clerk, one party secretary would speak to another, and people would be warned about me.'

The arbitrary nature of life in revolutionary China was brought home early to Min, the eldest of four children. She was five when her parents were assigned to factory work. She was left for much of the day to look after her two sisters, Blooming and Coral, and their baby brother, Space Conqueror, so called because their father was a keen amateur astronomer. Most other parents were giving their children names such as Long March, Red Star or New China.

'I called my sisters and brother my children,' Min says. She had to bear the knowledge that her good fortune in leaving the farm was disastrous for Coral, who had to replace her - the revolution demanded that every family should have a peasant. 'She was only able to come back to Shanghai when our mother retired early through ill health, and Coral could apply to fill her place as a factory worker. At least our mother did not have to choose which child could return, as happened in families where more than one had been sent away.'

Today her sisters and brother are all studying abroad, thanks to help from Min. She owes her own departure to Joan Chen, a friend from the Shanghai studios who had emigrated earlier, and became a star in America thanks to her roles in Twin Peaks and The Last Emperor. She backed Min's application to leave. 'If they had refused, it would have put China in a bad light,' Min says wryly.

She arrived in the United States in 1984 without a word of English. She worked as a waitress and theatre attendant, but was far from fluent when she won a place at the Art Institute of Chicago. 'They used to shout at me: 'This isn't a language school]' ' Qigu Jiang, to whom she is now married, was one of her instructors, continuing a pattern in her life. 'It's true: I am attracted to people I consider better than me, from whom I can learn. Once it was Chairman Mao - now it's my husband.'

Since 1989 Min has made three visits to China, where she was reunited with girls who had worked in the rice paddies with her. 'Many cried for their lost youth,' she said. 'Some were 30 when they came back to the city, which is considered too old to marry. Others married simply to regain city residence. When it was all over, people would do anything to leave the farms, even injuring themselves. They bribed doctors to get invalided out, or simply went to live in the cities without permission. A small number are left behind, but nobody seems to care about them.'

Min now hopes to divide her time equally between the US and China. But despite the many changes since the Cultural Revolution, it remains authoritarian enough for her to have altered or suppressed many names in her book. She does not know what happened to the Supervisor or to Yan, and has taken care not to ask. She withholds her parents' names as well. 'I haven't sent them the book,' she says. 'I leave them a space in which they can deny responsibility for me.'

Her caution may be wise. When we met she had just learnt that Red Azalea had been banned by the Chinese authorities, because 'they don't like the eroticism, and any mention of Madame Mao is still taboo'.

Min insists she feels 'very hopeful' about China's future, but she of all people should know how suddenly black can become white. When she was 13 she denounced her favourite teacher in front of 20,000 people as an American spy. Now she lives in America herself. For anyone who has suffered the horror of the Cultural Revolution, the main lesson is to take nothing for granted.

'Red Azalea: Life and Love in China' is published by Gollancz at pounds 16.99.

(Photograph omitted)