BOOK REVIEW / Chinese Red: After Jung Chang's 'Wild Swans' comes 'Red Azalea' by Anchee Min, the story of a young woman's struggle in the Cultural Revolution. Michael Dibdin gives his verdict

Michael Dibdin
Saturday 16 October 1993 23:02

THE WELL-KNOWN Chinese curse wishes that the victim may live in 'interesting times'. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, initiated by Chairman Mao at the instigation of his wife Jiang Qing in September 1965, was a savagely turbulent episode even by the standards of a nation in whose recent history periods devoid of such 'interest' have been few and far between.

Anchee Min was eight when the Red Guards were unleashed, but had been looking after her three siblings from the age of five since her parents, like everyone else's, were out at work all day. Two years later the family were forced to move by their downstairs neighbours, who complained they were occupying too much space (four rooms between six people):

They said, 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 Guard had begun looting houses. No one answered our call for help. The neighbours just watched.

Min's family were relocated in a two-room apartment shared with two other families, above a cable and wire factory working night and day. Her parents, formerly teachers, were set to manual labour as part of the Party's

re-education programme. Her mother's crime had been to use a piece of newsprint as toilet paper. Everyone did this, but the page she chose unfortunately featured a picture of Mao.

The family's fortunes were saved to some extent by Anchee herself, who adapted with aplomb to the prevailing ethos, rising to be head of the local Little Red Guard and agreeing to denounce her inspirational schoolteacher as an American spy (see extract opposite). When she turned 17 her faith was put to the test when she was chosen to 'become a peasant'. Each family had to send at least one child to work on the collective farms. As a dedicated believer, Anchee accepted the sacrifice with pride and left her parents and the relative sophistication of Shanghai for an indefinite period at Red Fire Farm.

The main difference between the collective farms and labour camps would appear to be that the inmates of the camps did not have to pretend to enjoy the experience. After a gruelling dawn-to-dusk stint working in leech-infested rice paddies, the 13,000 'Soldiers' on Red Fire Farm returned to their sexually-segregated barracks for a strenuous evening of ideological indoctrination and 'self-confession and criticism' sessions, as well as intensive military training.

Min describes how, in the course of one night-time sortie, her company discover one of her closest friends in flagrante with a male colleague. The man is tortured and then hanged; the woman goes mad and commits suicide. For both Min and her 23-year-old commander, Yan, the episode marks a turning point. Trained to 'go where Chairman Mao's finger points', they now find that it has pointed them in a direction they are unable to follow. Neither, of course, can admit this, and the shared sense of guilt and oppression draws them together in an intimacy which gradually grows into a tentative love affair lived out under the eyes of Lu, Yan's fanatical deputy.

To aBritish reader, this section of the book is oddly reminiscent of girls' school sagas, featuring Best Friends, Bullies, Sneaks, Swots, Wizard Wheezes and Romps in the Dorm. Far from trivialising Min's account, this adds a rather touching universality to her situation. In the end our heroines prevail, only to be torn apart when Min is selected as one of 2,000 girls to be screen-tested for the role of Red Azalea, the mythologised version of Madame Mao in the eponymous propaganda film project.

Min is abruptly plucked from the pre-industrial drudgery of the Farm and sent to the film studios in her native Shanghai, where a different set of challenges awaits her - not as a lover but as a luvvy. None of the five shortlisted candidates for the role has any acting experience. The ideologues in charge are seeking not skill or experience but The Real Thing - a peasant imbued with the genuine spirit and authentic determination of the revolution. Despite this, the atmosphere is soon rife with bitchery and betrayal. Outwitted and outacted by another contender, Min's hopes of stardom fade, but she is consoled by the attention of the man in charge of the project, a figure of immense power known only as the Supervisor.

After the brutal simplicities of Min's life so far, this complex and elusive figure is a revelation to her. Although no less fanatical than Lu in his devotion to Jiang Qing and the Cultural Revolution, he is capable of great clarity and objectivity about himself, others and life in general. (This, one thinks, is what Lenin or Mao must have been like.) He is also desperately isolated, both personally and politically, and chooses to confide in Min. The account of their unconsummated affair - in particular the stunning scene of a meeting in a public park in Shanghai, the ground thick with copulating couples - is mysterious and moving, as is the episode when Yan suddenly reappears in Shanghai on a visit from Red Fire Farm and Min, renouncing her own feelings, offers her the use of a bedroom in her parent's house to meet her (male) lover.

Then History rolls thedice again. Mao dies, the Gang of Four are overthrown, Madame Mao and her associates imprisoned, and all those connected with the film disgraced. The end of the book is unsatisfyingly abrupt. Anchee Min tells us that after six years as a drudge at the film studios, a political pariah, she decided to emigrate to America, where she now lives. Given the knowledge of the system we have now acquired, it seems incredible that she would have been allowed to leave Shanghai, never mind the country. Did the Supervisor lend a hand? Perhaps the missing details are being reserved for a sequel.

Apart from this odd lacuna, the story Min has to tell isboth fascinating and edifying. About the telling itself there is little to say. Min's English is crude but correct, with a rough and ready finish which suits the content. Sometimes the proliferation of proverbial imagery, normal in Chinese, creates an unconsciously comic effect. Speaking of the hated Lu, Min warns Yan: 'Don't forget that a dog will jump over a wall if forced into a corner.' 'I won't allow a tiger to grow wings,' retorts Yan, 'I'll pick some bones out of her egg.' To which Min replies that she is tired of being a bullet lying in a rifle chamber.

The most telling touches in the book are often the quietest: a vignette of the Supervisor's terrible childhood providing a glimpse into the furnace where the revolutionary Tygers were forged; the revelation that when Min is given the film part her sickly sister Coral is sent to Red Fire Farm to replace her as the family's statutory peasant. 'Who do you think people are?' the Supervisor demands rhetorically at one point. 'They are walking corpses. The only thing they know is fear.' This brave and uplifting book proves him wrong.

(Photograph omitted)

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