Anchee Min was born in Shanghai in 1957, the eldest of four children. Growing up, she learned to write Chairman Mao’s name before she learned to write her own. At the age of 17, Min was sent to work at a collective farm. Three years later, she was discovered by a talent scout and was asked to join Madame Mao’s Shanghai Film Studio because of her “proletarian look.” After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, Madame Mao was arrested and fell from power. Consequently, Min and other supporters of Madame Mao were politically discredited. Min was demoted to a menial position at the film studio, working fourteen-hour days as a set hand. At the end of eight years, Min’s health began to fail and she contracted tuberculosis.
But at the studio, she befriended an actress, who helped her fill out an application for the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was accepted. Min emigrated to the United States in 1984 knowing only a few words of English, which she had memorized for the immigration officials. When the university discovered that she did not speak English, they sent her to a language program at the University of Illinois. Min recalls that she also learned to speak English by watching “Sesame Street” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
She began to write in her English language classes, where many of her exercises focused on writing about experiences from her past. For Min, writing in English was liberating, as Chinese had become so loaded with the language of Maoist propaganda that the words had become drained of real meaning. She recalls, “The Chinese language for me was taken over by Mao and Jiang Ching.” Anchee Min’s first book, Red Azalea (1994), a memoir, began as essays and compositions she wrote for class, as she learned English. It chronicles Min’s experiences growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Russell Banks described Min’s second novel, Becoming Madame Mao (2000) as, “historical fiction of the first order.” Becoming Madame Mao is a powerful reimagination of the life of Madame Mao, the daughter of a concubine who was determined to make her mark on the world, to be “a peacock among hens.” The novel describes her rise from a small-time actress to the wife of Mao and a woman of infamous cruelty.
Min is also a noted painter, musician, and photographer. The cover of Becoming Madame Mao is one of Min’s own photographs. It depicts a woman draped in the bright red Communist national flag, covered with Mao buttons. Min remembers of the buttons, “At the time, I wanted to paint them on my flesh, so deep was my worship of Mao.”
Excerpt from Becoming Madame Mao (2000)She learns pain early. When she is four, her mother comes to bind her feet. The mother tells the child that she cannot afford to wait any longer. She promises that afterwards, after the pain, the girl will be beautiful. She will get to marry into a rich family where she doesn’t have to walk but will be carried around in a sedan chair. The three-inch lotus feet are a symbol of prestige and class.
The girl is curious. She sits on a stool barefoot. She plays with the pile of cloth with her toes, picks up a strip, then drops it. Mother is stirring a jar of sticky rice porridge. The girl learns that the porridge will be used as glue. Good glue, strong, won’t tear, Mother says. It seals out the air. The ancient mummies were preserved in the same way. The mother is in her late twenties. She is a pretty woman, long slanting almond-shaped eyes, which the girl inherited. The mother hardly smiles. She describes herself as a radish pickled in the sauce of misery. The girl is used to her mother’s sadness, to her silence during family meals. And she is used to her own position — the last concubine’s daughter, the most distant relative the family considers. Her father was sixty years old when she was born. He has been a stranger to her.
The mother’s hair is lacquer black, wrapped in a bun and fixed with a bamboo pin. She asks the girl to sit still as she begins. She looks solemn as if she is in front of an altar. She takes the girl’s right foot, washes it and wipes it dry with her blouse. She doesn’t tell the girl that this is the last time she will see her feet as she knows them. The mother doesn’t tell her that by the time her feet are released they will look like triangle-shaped rice cakes with toenails curled under the sole. The mother tries to concentrate on the girl’s future. A future that will be better than her own.
The mother begins wrapping. The girl watches with interest. The mother applies the paste in between each layer of cloth. It is a summer noon. Outside the window are climbing little bell flowers, small and red like dripping blood. The girl sees herself, her feet being bound, in her mother’s dressing mirror. Also in the frame, a delicately carved ancient vase on the table with a bunch of fresh jasmine in it. The scent is strong. The pendulum of an old clock on the wall swings with a rustic sound. The house is quiet. The other concubines are napping and the servants are sitting in the kitchen quietly peeling beans.
Sweat gathers on her mother’s forehead and begins to drip like broken beads down her cheeks. The girl asks if her mother should take a break. The woman shakes her head and says that she is finishing the task. The girl looks at her feet. They are as thick as elephant legs. The girl finds it amusing. She moves her toes inside the cocoon. Is that it? she asks. When her mother moves away the jar, the girl jumps on the floor and plays.
Stay in bed from now on, her mother says, the pain will take a while.
Selected WorkWild Ginger (2002)Becoming Madame Mao (2000)Katherine (1995)Red Azalea (1994)