Red Azalea, by Anchee Min
Red Azalea is a memoir which reads like a novel. So much so that I was genuinely shocked to learn that it wasn’t fiction. It flows like one, and is absolutely riveting.
Anchee Min grew up in Shanghai under Mao, and was the perfect daughter of the revolution. She was an incredibly precocious child, master of rhetoric and head of the Little Red Guards at a very young age. She had complete faith in her leaders and committed herself entirely to them and their agendas. One of her first real moments of doubt in the system came when, at the age of 13 in the year 1970, she was made to publicly denounce her teacher, whom she loved, as an American spy. For this she never forgave herself, and faced harsh reprimands from her family, for her mother was a teacher and feared a similar fate.
Anchee Min’s story really picks up when she is sent to Red Fire Farm at the age of 17. There she meets Yan, her commanding officer, a woman for whom she develops a deep admiration and, eventually, love and desire. Min moves steadily up in rank and comes to share a position–and a bed–with Yan. Their affair makes life in the fields (leeches, fungicide, hunger and injury) bearable, even enjoyable. Through each other, they were restored to a life of wonder they didn’t know they were missing. But of course, their actions place them in direct opposition to the Party for whom they’d done so much, and that Party has prying eyes that never rest. Their lives are at risk, and the suspense is truly, nail-bitingly nerve-wracking.
In the third section of the book, after narrowly dodging a serious threat to her safety, Min makes her way off the farm through no real intention of her own. She is picked by talent scouts to star in an opera for Madame Jiang Ching, Mao’s wife, who wishes her characters to be played by real communists. She packs up and is taken to an actor’s studio to train. During the next few years, Min and Yan’s relationship is steadily dissolved, but the memory of it will continue forever to play a central role in the development of Min’s identity and ever-growing disillusionment with the Party. The book ends abruptly with her departure for the United States in 1984.
I must say that I was less engaged by the last third of the book than the first two, which had me totally hooked. The setting of the communist work farm itself was just much more interesting to me than that of the actor’s studio. Throughout, though, the book was a thrilling and revelatory look at one woman’s sexual coming-of-age under a brutally repressive regime, and it will not easily be forgotten.
Nor will the tale she tells of Big Beard, the hen she shares with her brother and sisters as children. *sob* But I’m not going to go into all that here, so to learn more about that one, you’ll just have to read the book.