"Becoming Madame Mao"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUN 6, 2000)
Most novels begin with a disclaimer that the contents of the story are based on fictional characters and that it is an unintended coincidence if they reflect anyone real. With Becoming Madame Mao, Anchee Min states that she has tried her best to mirror the faces of history and that "every character in this book existed in real life." This seems odd, until one realizes that Min has had to dig facts out of the propaganda that she herself grew up with. Madame Mao craftily re-spun the facts of her life during the Cultural Revolution to serve her own end. It is Min's task to reveal the actual events and people and then to show how one thing leads to another until the "last concubine's daughter," Yunhe, becomes Madame Mao.
Becoming Madame Mao is a psychological study of a complex woman who became almost universally known as the "white boned demon" -- an ambitious, vindictive and cruel woman, whose bid to succeed her husband led to the death of millions. On her own death day, Min has her wondering why people would give her such a severe title when she sees herself as no different than her husband. He also had people killed at will and he also would do nothing to relinquish his own post once attained. Yet, the people considered Chairman Mao Buddha-like until his death. "Side by side Mao Tse-tung and I stood, yet he is considered a god while I am a demon," she laments while sitting in prison on her final day.
To understand this paradox, Min brings us face to face with the role of Chinese woman and their relationship with their mothers, fathers and husbands. "Females are like grass, born to be stepped on," teaches her mother, while her father beats both of them regularly and without provocation. So we see how Chinese woman are treated and we see the personal affect on Madame Mao. She believes it is her nature to rebel as shown when, at the age of four, she does not let her mother bind her feet. She believes she can overcome anything. To that end, she reinvents herself several times over during her life. She believes her cruel actions are mere rebelliousness against the bindings of her society.
While still a young girl, Madame Mao is introduced to theater by her grandfather, a natural vocation for an inventive and headstrong girl. Though backhanded, he tells her that he doesn't care she isn't a boy, she's "a peacock living among the hens." She believes him and we see the beginning of her ferocious ambition intermixed with a deep-seated insecurity. She marries twice before meeting Mao. Her will to overcome the pain caused by each relationship, propels her further into the woman she will be remembered by. When she does meet Mao Zedong, she believes it is a true love based on an equality, after all they are comrades. They marry and the bindings are slapped on again. The truth of it is, she is powerless in her marriage and this time it is takes much longer to remove the bindings.
Back to the question of reputation. Why is Chairman Mao forgiven and not her (even by her own daughter)? Could it be, as she says, that it is own husband's "trickery" that has hurt her? Madame Mao is not a nice woman, but certainly her husband had as much to do with her becoming the "white-boned demon" as anyone. Not only has he mistreated her for most their marriage, he is the first to provide the negative term "Gang of Four" in speaking of her and her political cohorts. Perhaps in the end, it is Chairman Mao who has invented the demon, for how else does one stay godlike?
Lest one questions if this is truly fiction when it is based on so much fact, remember that form follows function. Much of the Cultural Revolution, as led by Madame Mao, was a series of operas that would reinforce values and tell stories about Madame Mao's life as she bid to succeed Chairman Mao. These operas may have been based on a truth, but so strongly marked with propaganda that there was more of her life omitted than admitted. Who better to write about her real life than Anchee Min who once played the leading role in one of Madame Mao's operas? It is fitting that the style of the telling should take on the form of a fiction and one that imitates a poetical theatrical style, similar to opera. Basically, Min tells the story on Madame Mao's own turf. It will be all the more ironic if this novel is turned into a movie.
At first I liked the style of the novel which rocks back and forth between third person telling and first person experience. Yet, as the book went on, it became less compelling to read. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't recommend it. There is great value in reading this novel since it is a chance to learn more about China, Mao Tse-tung and the Communist revolution, the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four and of course, Madame Mao. I am embarrassed to say how little I knew of Communist China even though so much of it has had an affect on our own political agenda in the United States.
- Amazon reader rating: from 51 reviews
Read an excerpt from Becoming Madame Mao at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Katherine (1997)
- Becoming Madame Mao (2000)
- Wild Ginger (2002)
- Empress Orchid (2004)
- The Last Empress (2008)
- The Pearl of China (2010)
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- Official website for Anchee Min
- An interview with Anchee Min
- Reading Guide for Becoming Madame Mao
- The New York Times review of Becoming Madame Mao
- SF Gate review of Becoming Madame Mao
- BookReporter.com review of Wild Ginger
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About the Author:
Anchee Min was born in Shanghai in 1957. 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. Min came to the United States in 1984 and attended the Art Institute of Chicago. Her memoir, Red Azalea, was name a New York Times Notable Book of 1994 and was an international bestseller, with rights sold in twenty countries. Min is also noted painter, photographer and musician. She lives in California with her husband Lloyd Lofthouse and daughter Lauryann.
In Red Azalea, Anchee Min told the story of her childhood in the shadow of China's Cultural Revolution. Banned in her native country and lauded in the United States, the book told of her struggles growing up in a family ravaged by the physical and psychological brutality of Revolution-era Chinese life. Ms. Min's father was taken enough with Maoist oratory that he named her three siblings Blooming, Coral and Space Conqueror, while her mother was so exhausted by the daily tolls of her factory job that the children often had to revive her with cold washcloths and back massages. The young Min absorbed the meaning of the complex culture that surrounded her only after a series of painful childhood experiences, as a pre-teen star student, she was charged with a sense of mission - "Not for a day did I not feel heroic" - but at thirteen, she was forced to publicly denounce her favorite teacher, who had been accused of spying. At seventeen, she was chosen from the collective farm where she had been assigned to work to be an actress in government propaganda films. Soon after the death of Chairman Mao, she found herself sweeping theater floors. She escaped China only with the help of her actress friend, Joan Chen, who helped her immigrate to the United States.