Becoming Madame Mao

Anchee Min, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $25 (320p) ISBN 978-0-618-00407-2
Historical fiction acquires new luster and credibility in Min's brilliant evocation of the woman who married Mao and fought to succeed him. As she proved in her memoir, Red Azalea, Min is a forceful writer, but her first novel, Katherine, did not prepare us for the highly dramatic, psychologically penetrating and provocative narrative she presents here. A girl called Yunhe is born to a rural concubine in 1919; she renames herself Lan Ping when, in 1934, she runs away to Shanghai with ambitions to be an actress, and later joins the Red Army; and finally, she is dubbed Jiang Ching by the man she marries, Mao Zedong. Madame Mao has become a myth, but Min has the background and the insight to imagine her afresh, and to create a complex psychological portrait of a driven, passionate woman and a period of history in which she would suffer, rise and prosper, and then fall victim to her own insatiable thirst for power. Min draws Madame Mao with bold, arresting strokes, gives her a fierce, imperious voice and a personality devoid of humility or self-knowledge. Lan Ping sets out to seduce the charismatic Mao, and wins him--for a time--until her jealousy, the machinations of his trusted aides, and Mao's own loss of interest cast her into limbo. By then a veteran of the inner circle betrayals that Mao encouraged, Jiang Ching's attempts to wrest personal power, but that becomes her undoing. As with a fine ink brush, Min details her heroine's series of love affairs and marriages, divorces and acrimonious partings, roles in Chinese opera and movies, endurance in the shadow of Mao's disfavor, desperate ploys to regain his attention, and brief time in the limelight during the Cultural Revolution. As a chronicle of ambition, betrayal, murder, revenge, barbaric cruelty, paranoia and internecine rivalry, the narrative speeds through its turbulent time frame: 1919-1991. But it is foremost a character study of a determined, vindictive, rage-filled, cruel and emotionally needy woman who flourished because she reinvented herself as an actress in different, self-defined roles-- and because China was ready for her. Min uses several effective prose devices to spin her narrative at top speed. Short first- and third-person vignettes juxtapose Madame Mao's early experience with the comments of an omniciscient narrator who relates pivotal circumstances to events that will grow from their consequences. Such foreshadowing not only raises tension, it also helps readers construct a mental chart of historical figures and events. Striking metaphors and vivid Chinese proverbs enhance Min's tensile prose, but it is her trenchant comments about the ways in which powerful individuals can paint bold colors on the panorama of history that distinguishes her spellbinding novel. Agent, Sandra Dijkstra. 10-city author tour. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/29/2000
Release date: 06/01/2000
Paperback - 330 pages - 978-0-618-12700-9
Paperback - 340 pages - 978-0-7490-0502-3
Hardcover - 336 pages - 978-0-7490-0488-0
Open Ebook - 184 pages - 978-0-7490-4050-5
Open Ebook - 352 pages - 978-0-547-34701-1
MP3 CD - 978-1-5226-7521-1
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