Bride of Frankenstein

Anchee Min's novel Becoming Madame Mao puts a human face on a historical monster

The Chinese people called her the "White-Boned Demon," but the depths of savagery perpetrated in Maoist China suggest something darker inside Jiang Ching--better known to the world as Madame Mao. As leader of the Gang of Four, author and producer of one of history's most chillingly successful propaganda campaigns, and preternaturally adept despot, Madame Mao is the stuff of history. Now, author Anchee Min has combined the historical record, research into Madame Mao's early life, and bold psychological inference in a mesmerizing novel, Becoming Madame Mao (Houghton Mifflin).

Historical fiction necessarily relies on guesswork, an act for which Min is uniquely equipped. Removed from a Communist labor collective in rural China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, Min was handpicked by Madame Mao herself to star in Red Azalea, a 1976 film depicting Madame Mao's life and rise to power. As a result Min had unparalleled access to the monster at the moment when she wielded the most power. Becoming Madame Mao is the mature, lyrical examination of life in that crucible, a filling in of the lacunae around the legend. In Min's hands, the Madame Mao of political history emerges as only the last and most destructive in a string of names and identities, gambits and deceptions.

The strongest portions of the novel demonstrate that by the time of her ascent to international prominence, Jiang Ching had already lived a full life--or several lives--preparing for that role. She was born in Shandong province, an impoverished backwater, in 1915, and one early childhood incident there seems to have laid the foundation for Jiang's life of cruelty and revenge. Min depicts a scene in which the young Madame Mao is attacked by a male classmate while her female classmates cheer him on. "I would have endured as usual if it were just the boys taking advantage of the girls," she comments on the incident. "But it was the girls, the women, the grass, the worthless creatures themselves, laughing at their own kind that hurt, that opened and dipped my wounds in salt water."

One comfort during this period was her grandfather, who, unlike classmates, continually assured her she was superior to others in the village. "You are a peacock living among hens," he tells the girl then known as Yunhe--a description eerily prescient in linking her to a species known to be vicious toward its own kind. Another solace was her training in Chinese opera, which provided a passage out of Shandong. Though Madame Mao's hard-luck myth manufactured for the Communist Party included her family's selling her into an opera troupe, Min reveals that "the girl is not sold to the opera troupe as she later claims. She runs away from home and delivers herself....She begs to be accepted...she claims to be an orphan." Min continues: "She runs away before her grandparents get a chance to disown her. This becomes a pattern in her life. With her husbands and lovers...she abandons before being abandoned."

But Min's Madame Mao is just as able to abandon her own history as she is her husbands and lovers. We see this vividly in Jiang's early marriage to theater critic Tang Nah, whom she met while playing the role of Nora in a Shanghai production of Ibsen's A Doll's House. Her subsequent marriage to Mao was Jiang's third, after Tang Nah and a brief, arranged marriage in Shandong. But neither of these early foibles was consistent with the image of the almost nunlike "bride of the Party" that she wished to project in later years. Min shows us a Madame Mao who "wants to erase every face shown [in her wedding picture]. It is 1967 and she is on her way to becoming the ruler of China. The aging Mao is her ticket, and she has to prove to the nation that she had been Mao's love since her birth."

Min's narrative is as resistant to categorization as Madame Mao was to opposition. The author uses both the first and the third person, employing immediate interior monologues, Jiang's later reflections on events, and, on limited occasions, a more neutral historical narration. This narrative innovation is especially interesting given the fact that Min's tale, by her account, contains practically no historical invention. The fiction, then, comes solely from the speculative emotional and psychological trajectory Min creates from the record.

But this trajectory is extremely convincing--so convincing, in fact, as to be rather terrifying to the reader. The White-Boned Demon who emerges from Min's narrative has a profound internal logic; her character seems explicable, her actions almost justifiable. At no time does Min step back and show the Cultural Revolution from the workers' perspective, reminding us of the mass carnage perpetrated in the name of both the revolution and Mao himself. While critics could accuse Min of rehabilitating Jiang Ching--as the Maoist term for it went--the bravery and range of Anchee Min's imagination, coupled with the lushness and realism of her narrators' voices, illuminate this figure in a way that is ultimately horrifying.

The bitterness of Jiang's earliest years, and the desire to erase the life she had before marrying Mao, came together with their greatest ferocity during the Cultural Revolution. During these years, Madame Mao's official activities included establishing cultural troupes, opening propaganda-film studios, organizing university student demonstrations, and authoring the official handbook of the Communist Party. Her unofficial activities were more chilling, outgrowths of her long-nurtured vindictive spirit. Among those she condemned to torture and death were leaders of Chinese cinema and theater who had failed to cast her in their productions during her acting days.

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