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Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (63)
Nations, in order to provide themselves some unity and cohesion, manufacture myths which rapidly become dogma and provide a template from which public opinion is not allowed to vary. We can readily see this truism in action in the visceral reaction that Pat Buchanan has fostered simply by questioning America's role in WWII. He has violated one of the central myths of 20th Century America: "WWII was a good war, which we fought well, in order to stop Hitler and save the Jews, and we won it." To question these assumptions is to undermine the foundations of the American mythos; it is not allowed.
Okay, but that's a relatively minor instance. Assume Pat is right and the war failed horribly, sentencing several generations of Eastern Europeans to the Gulag. Big deal. It's over. The 40 or 50 million people who were murdered by the Soviet Union are long gone. If we want to delude ourselves about how great it was to stop Hitler and ignore the fact that we left an even worse regime in power, so be it. Noone is really hurt by it now. The damage has been done.
No, the real danger of this kind of myth making arises when we maintain myths about events and processes that are still going on--like those in Red China. For fifty years now, we have found it convenient to tell ourselves that Maoist China is a qualitatively different case than other totalitarian genocidal regimes. Whether we say that Maoism was a natural reaction to decades of exploitation by the West or a necessary corrective to centuries of inept rule, whether we pretend that the mammoth number of state sanctioned murders and human rights abuses are due to a uniquely Chinese xenophobia or are somehow the result of tension between the Chinese and the Russians, whether we accept the rampant infanticide of female babies and forced sterilizations and other barbaric population control methods because we'd like to do the same thing worldwide or because we think there are too damn many of them already, regardless of the specific reasons, the fact remains that we blithely accept and continually make excuses for all of these intolerable features of this inhuman system. This willful blindness on our parts makes the works of Anchee Min all the more important.
Anchee Min was born in Shanghai in 1957. As a youngster she became a leader in her school's Little Red Guard, even denouncing one of her teachers. At 17, she was sent to the Red Fire Farm, to become a peasant by working in one of the huge state collective farms. In her terrific memoir, Red Azalea, she recounted her experiences in this dehumanizing laboratory of social engineering. Now in her first novel, she tells the story of the effect that Katherine, a young American teacher of English in Shanghai, has on a class of Chinese students who were raised under Mao. As Zebra Wong, a 29 year old woman in the class with a life story pretty similar to Min's own, recalls:
As a teenager, my greatest wish was to die for him
[Chairman Mao]. All the children at school
Sixteen years after the revolution we had to ask
ourselves why, when we had worked so hard, so
We resented what Communism had done to our lives,
but we couldn't escape Mao. We couldn't
My generation had become disillusioned with the government.
Yesterday's glory and honor brought
My education from age seven to eighteen was spent
learning to be an honest Communist. We
We waited patiently until Mao died on September 9,
1976, only to discover that the pictures blurred
Katherine drops into this milieu and deepens their confusion. Smart, beautiful, funny and engaging, she is also impossibly naive. She does not understand China at all and is especially dense about the type of totalitarian government that has shaped her students. They in turn don't know what to make of her. She reaches out to them and they are strongly attracted to her, but a yawning cultural chasm separates them:
She laughed, then she told us about how her hometown
was 'surrounded by oak trees'. 'We sold
Her words were incomprehensible to us. We had
no notion of such phrases as 'preferred', 'chose',
As we learned about Katherine's life in Michigan,
America, we began to taste something that had a
Inevitably, of course, even as Katherine opens new vistas to her students, she runs afoul of the Chinese authorities with predictably ugly results.
Anchee Min is an extremely gifted writer and she has an important story to share. If the book is not quite the equal of Red Azalea, it is still very good. There are several points that she raises which are especially important. First is simply the fact that Communist China is no different than any of the other totalitarian states that have so horrified us in this century. Were we honest about China, she might be as well known as Solzenitsyn or Pasternak or Weisel or Anne Frank or any one of the myriad others whom we have honored for speaking truth to power in the politically unpopular cases of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Second, she makes clear the uncomfortable fact that regimes like this survive and thrive through the complicity of their citizens. There is a strong undercurrent that draws the students back to the government, even as they realize the damage it has done to them. Perhaps the most interesting corollary of this is the submerged but omnipresent that the students feel towards Katherine. Her very openness and her freedom seem to stand in condemnation of them for the collaborative actions that they have committed in the past for the repressive regime. Finally, the story confirms, once again, the indomitability of the human spirit as members of even this generation, which was spoon fed Maoist pabulum, yearn for, fight for and ultimately achieve freedom.
As I write this (October 6th, 1999), Red China has just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Revolution that brought the Communist Party to power. Many stupid and dishonest words have been spilled in commemoration of this achievement. Anchee Min reminds us that a half century of Maoism has been an unmitigated catastrophe for the people of China and that the regime's demise can not come quickly enough.
See also:Anchee Min (2 books reviewed)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels
-INTERVIEW: with Anchee Min (Powells.com)
-LECTURE: The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States (Ross Terrill, 5/14/03, Carnegie Foundation)
Book-related and General Links:
-REVIEW: of KATHERINE By Anchee Min (BERNARDINE CONNELLY, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of RED AZALEA By Anchee Min (Judith Shapiro, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of RED AZALEA By Anchee Min (MARGO JEFFERSON, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of Red Azalea Proper Passions (Gertrude Chock, Instructor: Andrew McCullough, PH.D., English 257M
-Nothing to Celebrate: China's wasted half-century (Jonathan Mirsky, New Republic)
If you like Anchee Min, try:
Wine (1957)(Ray Bradbury 1920-) (Grade: