Becoming Madame Mao
By Anchee Min

Published by Houghton Mifflin
June 2000;
0-618-00407-6; 320 pages

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Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee MinWhat does history recognize? A dish made of a hundred sparrows - a plate of mouths.

Fourteen years since her arrest. 1991. Madame Mao Jiang Ching is seventy-seven years old. She is on the death seat. The only reason the authorities keep postponing the execution is their hope of her repentance.

Well, I won't surrender. When I was a child my mother used to tell me that I should think of myself as grass - born to be stepped on. But I think of myself as a peacock among hens. I am not being judged fairly. Side by side Mao Tse-tung and I stood, yet he is considered a god while I am a demon. Mao Tse-tung and I were married for thirty-eight years. The number is thirty-eight.

I speak to my daughter Nah. I ask her to be my biographer. She is allowed to visit me once a month. She wears a peasant woman's hairstyle - a wok-lid-cut around the ears - and she is in a man's suit. She looks unbearably silly. She does that to hurt my eyes. She was divorced and remarried and now lives in Beijing. She has a son to whom my identity has been a secret.

No, Mother. The tone is firm and stubborn.

I can't describe my disappointment. I have expectations of Nah. Too many perhaps. Maybe that's what killed her spirit. Am I different from my mother who wanted the best for me by binding my feet? Nah picks what I dislike and drops what I like. It's been that way since she saw how her father treated me. How can one not wet one's shoes when walking along the seashore all the time? Nah doesn't see the whole picture. She doesn't know how her father once worshiped me. She can't imagine that I was Mao's sunshine. I don't blame her. There was no trace of that passion left on Mao's face after he entered the Forbidden City and became a modern emperor. No trace that Mao and I were once lovers unto death. The mother tells the daughter that both her father and she hate cowards. The words have no effect. Nah is too beaten. The mother thinks of her as a rotten piece of wood that can never be made into a beautiful piece of furniture. She is so afraid that her voice trembles when she speaks. The mother can't recognize any part of herself in the daughter.

The mother repeats the ancient story of Cima-Qinhua, the brave girl who saved her mother from a bloody riot. The model of piety. Nah listens but makes no response. Then she cries and says that she is not the mother. Can't do the things she does. And should not be requested to perform an impossible task.


Can't you lift a finger? the mother yells. It's my last wish, for heaven's sake!

Save me, Nah. Any day a bullet will be put into my head. Can you picture it? Don't you see that there has been a conspiracy against me? Do you remember the morning when Deng Xiao-ping came to your father's funeral and what he did? He just brushed fingers with me - didn't even bother to shake my hand. It was as if he questioned that I was Mao's widow. He was aware of the cameras - he purposely let the journalists catch the scene. And the other one, Marshal Ye Jian-ying. He walked past me wearing an expression as if I had murdered the Chairman myself!

Your father warned me about his comrades. But he didn't do anything to protect me. He could be heartless. His face had a vindictive glow when he made that prediction. He was jealous that I got to go on living. He would have liked to see me buried with him, like the old emperors did with their concubines. One should never have delusions about your father. It took me thirty-eight years to figure out that sly fox. He could never keep his hands away from deception. He couldn't survive a day without trickery. I had seen ghosts in his eyes stretching out their claws. A living god. The omniscient Mao. Full-of-mice-shit.

You are a historian, Nah. You should document my role in the revolution. I want you to demonstrate my sacrifices and contributions. Yes, you can do it. Forget about what your father will think about you. He is dead. I wonder what's happened to his ghost. I wonder if it rests in its grave. Watch out for his shadow.

The hands to strangle me are creeping up fast. I can feel them at my throat. That's why I am telling you this. I am not afraid of death if I know my spirit will live through the tip of your fountain pen to the lips of the people, generations to come. Tell the world the story of a heroine. If you can't print your manuscript in China, take it outside. Don't let me down. Please.

You are not a heroine, Mother! I hear my daughter fire back. You are a miserable, mad and sick woman. You can't stop spreading your disease. Like Father said, you have dug so many graves that you don't have enough bodies to lay in them!

Their dinner has turned cold. Nah stands up and kicks away her chair. Her elbow accidentally hits the table. A dish falls. Breaks. Pieces of ceramics scatter on the floor. Grease splatters on the mother's shoe. You have killed me, Nah. Madame Mao suddenly feels short of breath. Her hand grips the edge of the table to prevent herself from falling.

Pretend that you never had me, Mother.

You can't disown your mother!


Well, all my hope is gone. I am exhausted and ready to exit the stage for good. The last curtain time will be tomorrow morning at five-thirty when the guards change shift. They are usually dull at that time. The old guard will be yawning his way out while the new guard yawns his way in. 

It's dark outside. A beautiful black night without stars. The prison officials have put me on a suicide watch. But they cannot beat my will. I have saved enough handkerchiefs and socks to make a rope.

The rubber walls emit a terrible smell. But all is fine with me now. Tomorrow you will read about me in the news: Madame Mao Jiang Ching committed suicide by hanging. The day to mark is May 14, 1991. Am I sad? Not really. I have lived an extraordinary life. The great moments . . . Now as I think about them for the last time, they still make my heart hammer with excitement.

Copyright 2000 Anchee Min
Reprinted with permission.

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In a sweeping, erotically charged story that moves gracefully from the intimately personal to the great stage of world history, Anchee Min renders a powerful tale of passion, betrayal, and survival and creates a finely nuanced portrait of one of the most fascinating women of the twentieth century.

Madame Mao is almost universally known as the "white-boned demon" -- ambitious, vindictive, and cruel -- whose bid to succeed her husband led to the death of millions. But Min's story begins with a young girl named Yunhe, the unwanted daughter of a concubine who ignored her mother's pleas and refused to have her feet bound. It was the first act of rebellion for this headstrong, beautiful, and charismatic girl. She later fled the miseries of her family life, first to a provincial opera troupe, then to Shanghai and fame as an actress, and finally to the arid, mountainous regions of Yenan, where she fell in love with and married Mao Zedong. The great revolutionary leader proved to be an inattentive husband with a voracious appetite for infidelity, but the couple stayed together through the Communist victory, the disastrous Great Leap Forward, and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Min uses the facts of history and her lush, penetrating psychological imagination to take us beyond the myth of the person who so greatly influenced an entire generation of Chinese. The result is a complex portrait of a woman who railed against the confines of her culture, whose deep-seated insecurities propelled her to reinvent herself constantly, and whose ambition was matched only by her ferocious, never-to-be-fulfilled need to be loved. A daring narrative with all the compressed drama and high lyrical poetry of great opera, Becoming Madam Mao is the most ambitious and provocative work of Anchee Min's career.


"Anchee Min, in her brilliant, poetic novel, has personalized that mythical figure Madame Mao, and in the process has transformed both the woman and the myth, creating as if by magic a modern archetype with a concrete, lived existence here on earth. We will never imagine Madame Mao the same way again.  This is historical fiction of the first order." --Russell Banks, author of Cloudsplitter

"This is an audacious but balanced narrative of a mean-spirited woman's life, caught in desire, ambition, and political intrigues.  With vivid drama and keen psychological acumen, Anchee Min has rendered the White-Boned Demon human -- Madame Mao is finally given her own voice.  A remarkable accomplishment." --Ha Jin, author of Waiting

"Becoming Madame Mao is a riveting study in history and the imagination, and the ways in which we shape our destinies and are at the same time bound by them.  Anchee Min plays brilliantly with voices to give us new insight into the character of Madame Mao." --Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Sister of My Heart

"Anchee Min has created a fascinating portrait of one of the most important and powerful women of the twentieth century.  Becoming Madame Mao is a remarkable literary and historical achievement." --Lisa See, author of The Flower Net

"It is good to find a three-dimensional historic woman in a novel as finely wrought as this.  Rhapsodic pithiness throughout.  A lovely, brave book that deserves applause." --Paul West, author of The Tent of Orange Mist

Amazon readers rating: from 23 reviews

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Anchee MinAnchee Min has a personal connection to the story of Madame Mao. At seventeen, 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, with rights sold in twenty countries. Her first novel, Katherine, was published in 1997. She lives in California with her husband, Lloyd Lofthouse, and daughter, Lauryann.

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