Red Azalea. Anchee Min.

Red Azalea

New York: Pantheon Books Inc., 1994. First Edition (stated). Hardcover. Signed by author on pre-title page. Used - Very good. Text box clean and unmarked, slightly toned. Edges foxed. Binding tight and square. Green paper boards with green cloth spine; author's initials and flower insignia in gilt on front board; gilt lettering on spine. Binding/hinge cracked at pre-title page and front fly leaf. 16 x 23 x 2.5 cm. 306 pp. / Good. Some scuffing. Toning and wear at edges. Some toning and foxing. Item #5611

Red Azalea reviewed in The New York Times by Judith Shapiro (Fe. 27, 1994):

EVEN in today's comparatively freewheeling China of discos and dating, Anchee Min's steamy memoir of two love affairs -- one with another woman, the other with a man -- would be unprintable "spiritual pollution." But during Ms. Min's coming of age in China during the Cultural Revolution, nonmarital sex could be punishable by death and homosexual love was an unthinkable counterrevolutionary crime. This memoir of sexual freedom is thus a powerful political as well as literary statement.

In some ways, the story Ms. Min tells in "Red Azalea" is typical. Born in Shanghai in 1957, she was "raised on the teachings of Mao and on the operas of Madame Mao, Comrade Jiang Qing." She won contests in reciting from the little red book and denounced her teacher at a political meeting. When the call came for young people to "volunteer" for work in the barren countryside, she was assigned to the Red Fire Farm, a 13,000-member collective near the East China Sea.

And here her story acquires its dramatic complexities, with her introduction to her future lover, Party Secretary Yan, a charismatic woman with "the shoulders of an ancient warlord." Under Yan's leadership, Ms. Min fights sharp reeds and leeches to bring wormy cotton from the salty earth. Farm life is desolate and regimented, filled with political competition and rigid surveillance.

Only one delicate woman, Little Green, provides color and grace. So fastidious that she spreads pig manure "as if she were organizing jewelry," Little Green cannot survive the tyranny of sexual repression. Comrade Lu, a vicious creature who sleeps nose-to-nose with a skull, which she claims belongs to a Red Army martyr, ferrets out Little Green's romance with a man from a neighboring company. One night Ms. Min and her comrades are summoned to bring their guns and flashlights, and the couple are found together, half-naked, in the fields. When the man is executed for rape, Little Green goes mad.

As if to atone for her failure to prevent Comrade Lu's persecution of Little Green, Party Secretary Yan stays close to this sad creature: "They were like two lost boats drifting over the sea in a dense fog." Yan's compassionate nature begins to warm Anchee Min's desolate world. When she discovers Yan playing forbidden tunes on a two-stringed banjo in an abandoned brickworks, a secret friendship blooms. Yan confides that like Little Green, she too is in love with a man -- and Anchee Min writes love letters on her behalf, stirring up her own erotic longings as well as Yan's. Soon the two women are sleeping in one bunk in a crowded room, their nakedness hidden by a mosquito net adorned with Mao buttons, while Lu studies the quotations of Mao nearby. Simple metaphors convey this dangerous passion: "A wild horse broke off its reins. . . . She was melting snow. I did not know what role I was playing anymore: her imagined man or myself. . . . I went where the sun rose. . . . My senses cheered frantically in a raging fire."

Their passionate and tender affair is interrupted when, in an extraordinary turn of events, Ms. Min is spotted by talent scouts from a Shanghai film studio. She is one of five women selected to compete for the title role in "Red Azalea," a film about the life of Jiang Qing.

IN Shanghai, Ms. Min is caught up in competition as vicious and hypocritical as any Hollywood intrigue. ("Firewood's singing was like a rooster under a blunt knife," she writes of one of her rivals.) And the political intrigues in the studio are only complicated further when she begins an affair with a mysterious, androgynous figure, close to Jiang Qing, who is known only as the Supervisor. This liaison puts her at the heart of a political plot typical of those in the "wild histories," a Chinese genre featuring embroidered exposes of the scandalous doings of top party leaders. The film is part of Jiang Qing's attempt to take power from a dying Mao by casting herself as a savior of the Chinese masses. "It must happen her way, for the people," the Supervisor tells Ms. Min. "Mao is over 83. The mud is reaching his neck."

In a macabre scene that conveys the connection between sexual and political repression that runs throughout Ms. Min's book, her affair with the Supervisor is consummated in a park that is near a crematorium. Dark and quiet, its groves are filled with lovers defying the "criminal-control patrols" that regularly sweep through with their flashlights. "The passion they had for the Great Helmsman has been betrayed," says the Supervisor, gloating over the couples rustling around them. "Oh, how grand a scene! I wish our greatest Chairman could see it. He would be shocked but impotent."

Ms. Min's fortunes are entwined with those of the Red Azalea she has never met, and her roller-coaster ride through Chinese art and politics is derailed by the downfall of Jiang Qing and the other members of the Gang of Four. Her entertaining, provocative and unusual account of those times concludes abruptly as she returns, with little but memories of Yan and the Supervisor to comfort her, to a drab and mundane life. In 1984, under circumstances she chooses not to describe, she found her way to the United States, gaining the freedom to write this extraordinary story.

Price: HK$185.00

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