Becoming Madame Mao (2000)
Side by side Mao Tse-tung and I stood, yet he is
considered a god while I am a demon.
As I've written here previously, I really like the prior work of Anchee Min [see Orrin's review of Katherine (1995)(Grade: A)]. In particular, I think her memoir, Red Azalea, is a book that can stand with the best of the great dissidents and prisoners of conscience like Solzenhitsyn and Weisel, and offers an important testament to the evil nature of Communist China. So I was very excited to receive this new novel, and Caprice Garvin, the FSB Associates' representative who sent us the book, could not possibly have been more helpful. I would like nothing better than to be able to praise the book as an unqualified success. However, while I did like the book, I have great reservations about it. I can't decide whether Ms Min has performed an act of astounding generosity of spirit in offering such a sentimental portrait of Madame Mao, under whose rule Min herself suffered, or whether this must be considered a woefully misguided act of irresponsibility.
Taken simply as a novel, I would have no qualms. Ms Min has taken the story of Jiang Qing, Madame Mao, and rendered it in lyrical prose. As always, Ms Min's background in theater and art is used to good effect as the story reads almost like a grand opera. The Madame Mao of the novel is an ambitious young woman who is captivated by Mao Zedong and gradually corrupted by her desire to please him. Eventually her role in the Cultural Revolution is depicted as her own tribute to Mao. The tragedy of her life is that once Mao falls, she is disposed of and demonized, while Mao remains a blameless godlike figure to the people of China. Were this purely fictional it would be a compelling tale.
The problem, of course, is that Jiang Qing and Mao Zedong were real people, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were actual events, and together they truly are responsible for the deaths of scores of millions of their countrymen and the imprisonment and torture of millions more. This is the central fact of Madame Mao's existence. Whatever else she may have been, she is first and foremost one of the most monstrous tyrants in human history and a mass murderess on an epic scale. Ms Min is right to point out the injustice of the fact that Madame Mao is referred to as the "White-Boned Demon" and is vilified (see Ross Terrill's Madame Mao : The White-Boned Demon), while Chairman Mao, whose guilt is certainly far greater, remains a hero, or at least a figure about whom history is ambivalent. Her mistake is to try to rehabilitate Madame Mao, rather than to demonize the Chairman.
This uneven assignment of blame is not unique to China. The most important moment in the collapse of the Soviet Union [even to someone who gives Ronald Reagan as much credit as I do, see Orrin's review of On the Brink; The Dramatic Saga of How the Reagan Administration Changed the Course of History and Won the Cold War (1996)(Jay Winik) (Grade: A+)] came when the relative loosening of Perestroika allowed Soviet historians and intellectuals to speak honestly about Russia's Communist past. As David Remnick shows in his terrific book Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, the Soviet leadership was totally unprepared for the torrent of criticism of Lenin that was unleashed. The Soviet Union had operated under a necessary delusion--that Lenin had lead a pure Communist revolution but that Stalin had corrupted it and was thus responsible for the failures of the USSR. The attacks on Lenin served to destroy the legitimacy of the entire Communist enterprise, demonstrating that the Revolution was corrupt from the beginning. With this last prop of legitimacy gone, the USSR was doomed.
Similarly, Chinese Communists and their fellow travelers in the West depend on the delusion that Mao lead a great movement but that it was later corrupted, in particular during the Cultural Revolution under Madame Mao (see Ross Terrill's White-Boned Demon). What is needed at this point, in order for China to move forward, is a recognition that Mao and the Communists were corrupt from day one. A great novel, rather than seeking to rehabilitate Madame Mao, would have implicated Chairman Mao.
As I read the novel I found myself plagued by one inescapable thought: can you imagine a novel that tried to humanize Hitler? I mean, someone must have loved Adolf Hitler. He must have loved someone too. He may have been nice to dogs and cats and little kids. He had dreams and aspirations. He even thought that his actions were in the best interest of his nation. So what? He was evil. I have no problem recognizing that he was a human being and that other human beings have the potential to be just as evil. Big deal. The fundamental, inescapable fact of Hitler in history is that he was a monster and a murderer. What would be the point of highlighting his more sympathetic side? Who cares if he and Eva Braun shared a love for the ages? If he was defined by the aspects of his personality that we all share, we'd never have heard of him. Instead, he must be defined by that which made him unusual: the capacity and the will to exterminate millions of people.
This too is how we must define the Maos. It is deeply disturbing to read the various encyclopedia entries (see below) and even the biographies (see especially Mao: A Life by Philip Short) about the Maos and to read the pusillanimous equivocations of authors trying to judge them. The typical conclusion goes something like this: "it is extremely difficult to arrive at a final judgment about the Maos and the Communist Revolution. Despite years of oppression and millions of dead which weight down one side of the scale, it must be acknowledged that they united a backwards agrarian China, rid it of foreign influence and corrupt Nationalist rule and made it a modern industrialized nation with atomic weapons." But assessments like this are based on a completely unexamined premise: that the accomplishments of the Communists were either unique or beneficial. The inadequacy of this assumption is amply demonstrated simply by looking at Nationalist China, Taiwan. Without the millions of dead and with a strict but hardly totalitarian government, Taiwan too became a modern nation. Ask the simple question, would the average Chinese citizen be better off today living in Taiwan or in the People's Republic? Well, of course, it's not even a close call, which begs the question, wouldn't China have been better off had Chiang Kai-shek won? And lest this seem an aberration, look at Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, etc. All of them have achieved far greater economic progress than Mainland China without anywhere near the same level of political brutality and bloodshed. Upon reflection, even the little the Maoists did achieve appears to have been a case of under achievement. Now how do those scales look when we try to balance their careers?
I very much wish that I had a more ringing endorsement of this novel to offer, but while I do recommend it, I do so with caution. By all means, read it for the quality of the writing and for the compelling tragic arc of the story line. However, be sure to read it in conjunction with a non-fiction treatment of the same story. I found Philip Short's book, Mao: A Life, to be especially well written and though even he hedges when he gets to a final assessment, the history he tells makes the unavoidable case that the Communist era has been an unmitigated disaster for China. In fact, be sure to read Anchee Min's own aforementioned memoir, Red Azalea. It too puts the lie to an over sympathetic view of the Maos and their political legacy.
-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:
-PROFILE: The Re-education of Anchee Min (A.O. Scott, NY Times Magazine)
-PROFILE: Anchee Min: A spirit transcends revolution (Tracey Wong Briggs, USA Today)
-AUDIO: Anchee Min reads from "Becoming Madame Mao"
-EXCERPT: First Chapter of Becoming Madame Mao
-Q&A with Anchee Min (provided by FSB Associates)
-INTERVIEW: Anchee Min: After the Revolution (Roxane Farmanfarmaian, Publishers Weekly)
-ARTICLE: Anchee Min's Passionate World (Chinese Culture Net Staff Writer Annie Wang)
-BOOK SITE: Becoming Madame Mao (FSB Associates)
-REVIEW: of Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min Sympathy for the Demon : Anchee Min's novel is about the actress who would marry Mao Zedong. (SHERYL WuDUNN, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min (Josephine Foo, Philadelphia Inquirer)
-REVIEW: of "Becoming Madame Mao" by Anchee Min (Gary Krist, Salon)
-REVIEW: of Becoming Madame Mao Red Perils: Madame Mao gets caught in history (Julia Hanna, Boston Phoenix)
-REVIEW : of Becoming Madame Mao (R. Erica Doyle, Ms)
-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)
MADAME MAO (1913-91):
CHAIRMAN MAO (1893-1976):