If you are at all curious about what happened in China during the Cultural Revolution, I strongly recommend reading this book: “Red Azalea” by Anchee Min.
I am not going to lie to you: I had NO IDEA what happened during the Cultural Revolution or that it was even a thing until ohhh idk, maybe a few months before I left for China. I just knew that it happened and existed, but I had no idea what that meant. And as for Mao Zedong, I also had NO idea who he was until like, a year after I started studying Chinese. Someone showed me a picture during Chinese class and I was like “who is that?!” and everyone kind of looked at me in disbelief. I guarantee you that I’m not the worst American out there, but especially since coming to China I’ve realized how important it is to educate yourself on these issues, especially before making sweeping generalizations about a country as a whole. Not just that, but also because coming from an American educational background, here is what we are taught about in school (more or less): 1) The discovery of America 2) The American Revolution and Civil War, 3) America’s role in WWI and WWII, and 4) the American Democracy. Do you note a trend here?? It’s all about AMERICA. So yes, it’s important to know about those things, but when do we EVER hear about China? All we really hear is that it’s communist and then all the awful news that comes out of mainstream media about how China is either too backwards or too forwards but never ever very good. So there’s that.
Basically what I’m trying to say is this: not knowing about what happened in China in the 1960s is probably on the same level of not knowing that the Holocaust happened and existed (aka, not knowing that 6 million Jews were killed and imprisoned in concentration or forced labor camps). Not quite, but kiiiind of like not knowing about that.
So if you’re even vaguely interested in Chinese history or want a good, quick way to learn about this incredibly interesting and important time in history, I definitely recommend picking up Anchee Min’s book “Red Azalea.”
Anchee Min was born in 1957, so if you’re my age, she’s probably about your mom’s age, give or take a few years. “Red Azalea” is the memoir of her life growing up during the height of the Cultural Revolution. She wrote the book during her first eight years living in America, finally being published in 1992. The book in and of itself is relatively simple, as Min hadn’t spoken any English prior to coming to the States. Despite that, I think the simplicity adds to the story. It’s simple, but direct. Easy to understand, yet the things she writes about feel three worlds away, almost difficult to comprehend. While reading it, I almost felt like I wasn’t reading a memoir as much as I was reading a distopian novel about an alternate society. Except that this actually happened.
Her story is simply amazing. It starts from some of her earliest memories growing up in Shanghai–the oldest of four, taking care of her younger siblings while her parents were working long hours in factories, living in close proximity with her family and neighbors (sharing only one toilet), being forced to publicly disown her teacher and proclaim her as a traitor, but ultimately succeeding in school by becoming well-versed in Mao Zedong’s little red book and his policies and ideologies.
Much in part to her success in school, she was given the “honorable” opportunity of serving as a peasant at the age of 17. She worked at a forced labor camp for many years, developing an incredibly interesting, vivid, and intense relationship with one of her dear friends from the camp. This part of the story is incredibly heartbreaking, as it depicts the life that literally hundreds of thousands of young Chinese people were forced and more or less brainwashed to do during that time, for the so-called betterment of their country. In reality, they worked at growing food in harsh conditions and yielded very poor crops, barely able to feed themselves, much less the rest of China.
One day, Min was discovered by a propaganda film studio. She was recruited to become the possible lead role for Madame Mao’s propaganda movie, called “Red Azalea”. The movie was essentially a parallel to Madame Mao’s life, and after the end of the Cultural Revolution (after Mao Zedong passed away), Madame Mao was considered to be against the communist party as it was said she wanted the power of China for her own. She and three others (known as the “gang of four”) were persecuted and executed for this.
I accept that this book probably isn’t for everyone, especially if you don’t like books that are kind of sad and/or you like books with lots of long, fluffy details; but if you genuinely like good books you’ll probably like this. It’s informative, poignant, simple, and honest. And gives you SO much perspective on China’s history and culture. I can easily say my world view and perspective towards China as a whole was changed from reading this book. Read it read it read it.
“Red Azalea” ends somewhat abruptly, and all we know is that she eventually makes it to the United States to write said book. Just earlier this year she released a follow-up memoir, “The Cooked Seed”, documenting her experience as an immigrant to the United States. Again, a truly amazing story. Not knowing a single word of English, she manages to somehow infiltrate the system and take advantage of the huge influx of Chinese people who were invited to study in the United States in the 1980s. She sees no other choice than this for her future because since she had worked on the propaganda team for Madame Mao, she was considered “Madame Mao’s trash”, the lowliest of the low. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, worked as many as four jobs at a time, and managed to teach herself English. Equally as compelling, it documents many of her struggles – including finding employment, the up’s and down’s of her relationships, stories of how she felt very naiive in the beginning, struggling to make ends meet, and finding some way to stay in the United States after she graduated from the Art Institute.
The ending, of course, is happy and optimistic, and gives a really satisfying ending to the legacy that was started with “Red Azalea”. I learned a lot about the Cultural Revolution in China from “Red Azalea”, but a lot more about the experience of being an immigrant and what goes along with that in “The Cooked Seed”. Her prose is much less simple here (you can clearly tell her English has progressed from the 20+ year gap in time between the books), and we learn that despite what happened to her, she still has passion and love in her heart for China, as well as the United States.
As a whole, I feel that Anchee Min is an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary story, well worth the read. I learned so much from her experiences and it really contextualized a lot of what I had been learning in classes about China, its history, and US-China relations 1950s and onwards.
If there’s one person I’d be interested in sitting down and having a conversation with, it would certainly be her. So many interesting stories to tell, and she seems to be the kind of person who truly knows how to persevere. I’m certainly not doing the books enough justice here, so just stop reading right now and go read the books instead. 🙂
More updates soon! CIAO