Synopses & Reviews
Red Azalea is Anchee Mins celebrated memoir of growing up in the last years of Maos China. As a child, she was asked to publicly humiliate a teacher; at seventeen, she was sent to work at a labor collective. Forbidden to speak, dress, read, write, or love as she pleased, she found a lifeline in a secret love affair with another woman. Miraculously selected for the film version of one of Madame Maos political operas, Mins life changed overnight. Then Chairman Mao suddenly died, taking with him an entire world. A revelatory and disturbing portrait of China, Anchee Mins memoir is exceptional for its candor, its poignancy, its courage, and for its prose which Newsweek calls "as delicate and evocative as a traditional Chinese brush painting."
Winner of the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, this national bestseller tells the true story of Min's life in Mao's China, where the soul was secondary to the state, beauty was mistrusted, and love could be punishable by death.
Hailed by People Magazine as achingly beautiful, this New York Times Notable Book tells the extraordinary story of China under Mao, revealing both the brutality of oppression and the resilience of the human heart.
About the Author
Born in Shanghai in 1957, Anchee Min came to American in 1984. While attending English as a Second Language classes, she worked as a waitress, a house cleaner, a fabric painter, and a model. In 1990 she received a Masters of Fine Arts Degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. Min wrote Red Azalea in English over an eight-year period. It won the Carl Sandburg LIterary Award in 1993 and was a New York Times Notable Book.
Reading Group Guide
“[An] extraordinary story. . . . This memoir of sexual freedom is [both] a powerful political as well as literary statement.” —The New York Times Book Review
We hope the introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow enhance your groups reading of the evocative and awe-inspiring Red Azalea.
1. How does Mins family life shape her personality and affect her future? What does Min learn from her mother [see, for example, pp. 12-15, 124-6, and 190-2] and her father [see, for example, p. 11]?
2. What are Mins obligations to her parents and siblings? How are these obligations and expectations affected by the Cultural Revolution?
3. Min writes of her early years in school, “To me, history meant how proletarians won over their reactionaries. Western history was a history of capitalist exploitation” [p. 25]. What are Min and her peers taught to feel about Chairman Mao? How do Mins parents feel about Mao?
4. Min recalls yelling at her mother: “I said, I dont want to inherit your life. It is a terrible, terrible and terrible life. I yelled at her. My mother went to take pills. I said, Dont you see? Cant you see its not working? Your philosophy does not work for me. My mother refused to give up. She said she didnt believe that evilness should rule. I said, Its ruling. She said, Its impossible” [p. 233]. Does this exchange represent a typical intergenerational conflict, or is their conflict unique because of the unusual and strong control the Communist Party and the Cultural Revolution had on their lives? Can Min or her mother exercise any control over their own lives? What choices do they each make about their life vis-à-vis the Party?
5. Why does Min select the story of Big Beard to include in her memoir as a pivotal event from her childhood?
6. What does the story of Little Green illustrate about the Communist Partys attitude toward women in China during the Cultural Revolution? How was Mins life shaped by the Little Green episode? Does the Little Green episode recall shades of the Big Beard episode in its effect on Min?
7. How did Lus and Yans respective upbringings shape their personalities, and, ultimately, their destinies within the Party? How do Yan and Min each relate to Lu?
8. Is there a message in the following poem by Mao that Yan and Min recite while traveling back to the farm?
The wind and the rain sent the spring away
But the snow has brought it back.
There are ice columns a hundred feet long
Hanging dangerously down from cliffs.
There is a little plum flower blooming.
The flower has no intention
To compete with the spring.
She is here only to announce
The coming of the spring.
By the time the flowers bloom
All over the mountains,
She will be hiding among the flowers
And she will smile with great delight. [p. 144]
9. Min writes: “Soviet Wong walked a half step behind Sound of Rain, never overtaking him or lagging behind him one step. They both wore blue Mao jackets with collars buttoned tightly at the neck. They nodded, Sound of Rain first, then Soviet Wong, at the workers who passed by. They paid the workers full-scale smiles. The smile made me nervous, although it was the most admired smile in the country. It was the smile that Mao had been promoting with the slogan: ‘One must treat his comrades with the warmth of spring. Lu at Red Fire Farm was an expert at that type of smile” [pp 163]. What does this smile represent to Min, and why does it make her nervous?
10. At what point in Mins life do her views begin to change about the Party and why? [See, for example, p. 122]
11. Despite her realization that she was working for little reward, Min took pride in the bridge she helped to build at the farm [p. 120]. Does this personal pride conflict with the message preached by the Party and Mao during the Cultural Revolution? Does her pride symbolize Mins unique strength of character, or is it also a universally human character trait?
12. What is Mins sexual orientation? How does Yans relationship with Leopard affect Mins emotional development? How does Mins affair with the Supervisor differ from Mins affair with Yan?
13. Why does Yan bring Leopard to Mins home when she knows Mins feelings [pp. 215-23]?
14. Min said the following in an interview: “My life as a woman is tied to hers [i.e., Madam Maos]. I am a product of her brainwashing. Ironically, because of the sad things in her life, she took opera as a fantasy, a hideout. She put everything she could not achieve in life in the opera. And for ten years she forbids the nation to watch anything else but her operas. Six of her eight operas portray very powerful women. Its almost ridiculous. They have no private lives and no relationships. They basically are leaders, but they are being pushed back. And they are all worshipping Mao. Then there comes a crisis, and the woman always says, with the music and the orchestra playing, ‘I am thinking of Chairman Mao. And then, boom! She has an idea and the problems solved. For my formative years, from eight to eighteen, this was my mindset” [Powells.com interview, June 14th, 2000].
As a girl, why is Min attracted to the operas of Jiang Ching? [See pp. 15-6] At what point does her attraction to the operas become more objective and critical? How does her opinion of the operas, as she explains it to the Supervisor [pp. 237-8], differ from her childhood opinion? Does Min agree with the Supervisors view of Jiangs operas? [See pp. 238, and p. 301] Can the reader perceive in Min a woman who was influenced by these operas, as Min describes them in the quotation above?
15. Is the Supervisors revolutionary ideal truer than that of the other Party figures that Min encounters in her life, such as Lu [see pp. 91-92], Secretary Chain [see pp. 29-38], or Soviet Wong [see pp. 164-5]? Is the Supervisors character in any way superior to these other Party figures, or is Min just lucky that he takes a liking to her? What does the Supervisor hope to accomplish by casting Min for the part of Red Azalea? [See, pp. 277-8 and p. 294]
16. In a memoir, the author can select whatever he or she wants to tell about her or his own history. What does Min seem to have omitted from her history, and what effect do these omissions have on the reader? Is there anything the reader might want to know in order to better understand Min?
17. Is it accurate to describe Mins tone throughout her memoir as conveying emotion without being emotional? How does she achieve this? Does Min allow the reader to feel sorry for her?
18. In an interview, Min describes her own writing style as analogous to Henri Matisses painting style. She says, “I love Henri Matisse, the painter. . . . [His] naïve style is also my writing style” [“Anchee Mins Passionate World,” by Annie Wang, www.chineseculture.net/ancheemin.html]. If you are familiar with Henri Matisse, how is Mins writing style like Henri Matisses paintings?
19. If you were familiar with the Cultural Revolution before reading Red Azalea, did Mins memoir have any effect on your understanding of, or your views regarding, the Cultural Revolution?
20. How might a Chinese reader perceive Red Azalea differently than an American reader?