During the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Tse-tung instructed his acolytes to denounce “reactionaries,” Anchee Min dutifully obeyed. Heading the Little Red Guards at her elementary school in Shanghai, Min once led a mass rally against one of her favorite teachers, who’d been branded an “American spy” for teaching the fairy tales “The Little Mermaid” and “Snow White.” After Mao’s death, Min tracked down her teacher, named Autumn Leaves, and tried to apologize. Autumn Leaves acted as if they had never met.
Min came to Chicago in 1984 to attend the School of the Art Institute. But she wasn’t allowed to enroll until she learned English. Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and Oprah became her tutors. After three months, Min began to understand what Oprah’s guests were talking about. The emphasis on confession inspired Min to confront her own past and purge the guilt she felt for turning on Autumn Leaves. While taking a writing class at SAIC, Min began keeping a journal, revisiting her political and sexual exploits during those tumultuous years in China.
In 1974, she was sent to Red Fire Farm, in the countryside. “I planted cotton every day for three months from dawn to dark,” she says. “I couldn’t bend my back or move on my knees.” In the midst of the back-breaking labor and harsh conditions, Min and the camp’s female commander, Yan Sheng, fell in love. They broke up after talent scouts from Shanghai Film Studios deemed Min the quintessential Chinese peasant. She was to play the lead in a movie of Red Azalea, one of the Cultural Revolution’s officially sanctioned operas. But during the filming Mao died, and his wife Jiang Ching and her Gang of Four were overthrown. Min, considered an ally of Madame Mao, was denounced. For six years she worked as a set clerk at the studio. “At the film studio, I saw that the whole propaganda machine was a lie. When I was young, I believed what Mao and these heroes created. I wanted to model myself after them,” she says.
All of this became material for her memoir, Red Azalea, published last year by Pantheon, and her first novel, Katherine, published this year by Riverhead Books. Min wrote both books in English because she was unable to express her emotions in Chinese, she says. As Zebra, one of the protagonists in Katherine, says, “The word “passion’ in our dictionary meant devotion and loyalty toward Communism. Emotion was considered poisonous.”
While airing dirty laundry has become standard fare in America, Min says it is still taboo in China. “In a way I touched on so-called Chinese shame. I learned from American TV, especially Oprah, that it’s all right to share these experiences,” says Min from her home in Los Angeles, where she moved in February with her daughter after divorcing her Chinese husband, a painter. “Not everything’s Mao’s fault. We Chinese have cancer. The best treatment is to open our own chests to cut off all these bad parts. It makes you a better person afterward.”
The Chinese authorities disagree. Both of her books have been banned and so have a couple of interviews she’s given to the Chinese media. “It took my parents a long time to get a copy of Red Azalea,” she says. “My father wrote me a long letter a few months ago after reading it and said he cried for the first time in his life and now knew how his daughter viewed his life.”
In Min’s novel Katherine, an American graduate student goes to China in 1982 to teach English and research her dissertation on Chinese women. Katherine, “a lynx-eyed, snake-bodied, beautiful foreign devil,” brings along “spiritual pollution”–candidness, makeup, sexual awareness, and rock ‘n’ roll. “Katherine is a symbol of how I was liberated by being in Chicago for ten years,” says Min.
Ironically, Oprah has become more than Min’s figurehead. Just last month, Harpo Films optioned the rights for Katherine. Red Azalea is also being developed by another studio.
Ten years ago, Min could only find work at a Chinese restaurant in Libertyville, where she “earned $29 a night and paid $10 for round-trip train fare to Chicago.” Her success, she says, “can only happen in America.”
Anchee Min will give free readings at 7:30 PM Wednesday at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells, and at 7 PM next Thursday, June 15, at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th. Call 642-5047 or 684-1300 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Chen.