The Boston Phoenix
June 22 - 29, 2000

[Book Reviews]

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Red perils

Madame Mao gets caught in history

by Julia Hanna

BECOMING MADAME MAO, By Anchee Min. Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages, $25.

"What does history recognize? A dish made of a hundred sparrows -- a plate of mouths." It's hard to imagine a more fitting image to open Anchee Min's novel about the life of Jiang Ching, a woman who (mostly) stood by her man Mao through one of China's most turbulent periods. Sure, the founding of the People's Republic was significant -- but the maw of time grinds away, making mincemeat of world events. Becoming Madame Mao is an extended argument for remembrance by Jiang Ching, a woman who acknowledges we have little reason to like her, much less hold her in our hearts. Her hope -- and the author's -- is that readers will be fascinated nonetheless by Madame Mao's insatiable ambition, thirst for revenge, and all-too-human bouts with heartbreak and jealousy.

With such juicy dramatic elements at hand, the odds for winning us over seem pretty good. A sinner, after all, is far better company than a saint. But Becoming Madame Mao captures the force and vitality of its subject only occasionally. "I have tried my best to mirror the facts of history," Min writes in the author's note. "Every character in this book existed in real life. The letters, poems, and extended quotations have been translated from original documents." When the narrative bogged down in awkward summary of movements like the Great Leap Forward, I wished Min hadn't done her research quite so thoroughly.

Historical fiction does require history, however, and Min experienced some of it firsthand. Born in Shanghai in 1957, she worked in a labor collective from the age of 17 and was eventually recruited as an actress for Madame Mao's Shanghai Film Studio. In 1984 she came to the United States with the help of actress Joan Chen; 10 years later she published Red Azalea, a well-received memoir that was set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. In Min's final role with the studio (it was closed after Mao's death and the subsequent arrest of his wife), she essentially played Madame Mao in a film based on Jiang Ching's life.

It's an interesting biographical aside, if only because Min's interpretation of Madame Mao on the page has the intense, intuitive quality of theater, with occasional bouts of stilted artifice as well. The narrative trades off between two modes. The first records observations in the brief, distanced tone of third-person stage directions: "The girl is interested but doesn't show it. She nods politely, sips her tea." The second voice, Madame Mao's own, plunges off the emotional high-dive at the slightest provocation. Raw, confessional, and demanding, it teeters between melodrama and exquisitely carved images of loss and heartache. Neglected by Mao, Jiang Ching dreams of an immense steamship leaving the harbor, cheered by thousands until it disappears in the distance: "The smell of stinking fish is in the air once again. The vast ocean, glittering under the sunlight. My heart's harbor vacant."

This moment of lyric clarity is welcome in the murk of abstractions and odd American colloquialisms that sometimes muddy the narrative waters. Grateful to be acknowledged by Mao once again, Jiang Ching weeps: "In her tears dawn comes to display its extraordinariness." In contrast to this hothouse poeticism, characters "take off," endure a "mindless crush," and "deal with" their jealousy. This pell-mell use of language would seem to be ideal for depicting a driven woman in her no-holds-barred pursuit of power. But rather than making Madame Mao's ambitions and fears a visceral experience, it keeps them at a bewildering, boring distance.

What drives Jiang Ching pre-Mao is more interesting. Her early marriages -- the first to a persecuted Communist leader, the second to a weak-willed arts critic -- possess a compelling physical and emotional reality that fades the moment she enters Mao's cave. Her early desire to be an actress is also convincing. Poor and lacking connections, she knocks on door after door, using good looks and sheer will to win the notice of directors. When another actress is given the lead role in an opera, she memorizes every aria anyway, and, sure enough, she gets to step in for the ailing lead. No believer in fairy tales, Jiang Ching sees it this way: "If one wants to get a boat ride, one must be near the river."

The anti-heroine of Becoming Madame Mao is most memorable in such small, human victories. But when her every movement is charted against the grand scale of history -- whether she's pining operatically after Mao or, in the end, plotting against him -- Jiang Ching loses the fight for immortality.

Anchee Min reads at Brookline Booksmith this Monday, June 26. Call 566-6660.