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Review: Red Azalea, Anchee Min

Anchee Min grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution.  She was virtually responsible for her younger siblings since the age of six, as her parents both had to work all day and thus had no time to actually provide for the family.  Min grew up an ardent supporter and worshipper of Chairman Mao, even going off to become a peasant in relatively good spirits.  It was only love that made her realize there was something wrong with the way her society worked, and which would eventually propel her to leave China and make her home in the West instead.

Since I’ve enjoyed a few fiction books by Anchee Min, I thought I’d read her memoir and see what really happened to her in the midst of Mao’s China.  It was certainly a rewarding read, but since I’ve been quite obsessed with the period lately not much about it was actually new – it was just a new perspective on a similar story.  It’s always vastly interesting to realize how completely people bought into the Communist mindset, if hard to believe – Min freely admits that she fell a victim to the craziness of the culture as much as anyone else did.  It took her a long, long time to realize that life might be better elsewhere – so long that it’s not even in the scope of this book.

At the center of the book is a love story between Min and one of her Communist leaders.  While the details are never totally explicit, the eroticism of this bit startled me and a love affair wasn’t quite what I was expecting in the midst of all the strict farming and regulations.  She very eloquently demonstrates the fact that only this intense love can inspire minds – at least her mind – to break free of all the conditioning that had been forced into them throughout the years.  Anchee Min seized not only on this relationship but on others, feeling them all the more intensely for their forbidden nature.

What was most incredible to me is the fact that Min is precisely the same age as my parents, and that really brought home to me how recent this was.  Her life is so vastly different from my parents’ that it’s almost impossible to believe they lived in the same century.  Shortly after this I read Chinese Whispers by Jan Wong, which also gave wonderful perspective on this in the light of modern China and how everything has become vastly different again.  Min’s own story is set just in the right period to be an absolutely fascinating portrait of all that China was, no matter how brief that period was in their history.

This may not be my favorite account of life in China during the Cultural Revolution, but it was certainly an interesting one.  I’d recommend Red Azalea to anyone interested in the period or looking for more on Anchee Min’s life in comparison to her fiction.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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