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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
    wanted to do the same.  We hoped that we would be given the chance, whether it was in Viet Nam
    in battle against the USA, or on the Soviet border absorbing machine-gun fire in our hot-blooded
    chests, or even on the street saving a child from getting hit by a bus.  Anything.  We were willing
    to do anything to honor Mao.

    Sixteen years after the revolution we had to ask ourselves why, when we had worked so hard, so
    happily, were we now so miserable?

    We resented what Communism had done to our lives, but we couldn't escape Mao.  We couldn't
    escape his myth.  the only truth we knew was that he had created us.  We were his spiritual
    offspring; we carried his genes.  the blood that pumped through the chambers of our hearts was his
    blood.  Our brains were stuffed with his thoughts.  although we were furious with our inheritance,
    we couldn't change the fact that we would always be his children.

    My generation had become disillusioned with the government.  Yesterday's glory and honor brought
    us embarrassment in today's capitalistic world.  We did not have a proper education.  The Chinese
    we wrote read like Mao quotations, the characters we printed looked crabbed and ugly.  But how
    could we forget the thousands of bottles of black ink we used to make posters from Mao's Little
    Red Book?  Our entire youth was written across these posters.

    My education from age seven to eighteen was spent learning to be an honest Communist.  We
    worshipped Mao and his teachings.  He was like Buddha--we could not expect to understand
    everything immediately.  We believed that if we spent a lifetime studying, we would have a total
    awakening by the end.

    We waited patiently until Mao died on September 9, 1976, only to discover that the pictures blurred
    with passing time, that the ink on the posters dripped with the wash of each year's rain, that the
    paper peeled off and was blown away by the wind, that our youth had faded without a trace.  we
    'awakened' with horror, and our wounded souls screamed in devastation.  How am I to explain
    what I have become?

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
    our old house and bought a new one with a big backyard in the sixties.  My parents preferred the
    suburbs to the city..."  The lake, she said, was called Lake Michigan.  "The lake was the real reason
    our family chose to move there.  I love to smell the air and listen to the sound of waves at night...'

    Her words were incomprehensible to us.  We had no notion of such phrases as 'preferred', 'chose',
    or 'bought a house'.  We believed that we were wild seeds; we grew and died where the wind
    dropped us.  It never occurred to us that we had a choice in life, that one could do what one 'loved'
    to do.  We were never asked what we 'preferred' or what we would like to 'choose'.  We never
    thought that a house could be 'sold' and 'bought'.  We began to see what we had missed in our lives
    and understand what it meant to sacrifice individualism to serve the ideals of the group.

    As we learned about Katherine's life in Michigan, America, we began to taste something that had a
    sweet-sad taste.

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.


Grade: (A)


Anchee Min Links:

    -INTERVIEW: with Anchee Min (

    -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 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:

    Dandelion Wine (1957)(Ray Bradbury  1920-)   (Grade: A+)
    A Clockwork Orange (1962) (Anthony Burgess  1917-1993)  (Grade: A)
    Forever Flowing (1970)(Vasily Grossman 1905-64)    (Grade: A+)
  Brave New World (1932)(Aldous Huxley 1894-1963)   (Grade: A)
  Darkness at Noon  (1941)(Arthur Koestler  1905-1983) (Grade: A+)
  Animal Farm (1946) (George Orwell  1903-1949)   (Grade: A+)
    1984 (1949)(George Orwell 1903-1949)     (Grade: A+)
  Night (1958) (Elie Wiesel 1928-) (Grade: A)