Red Azalea, 1994
Becoming Madame Mao, 1999
Wild Ginger, 2002
Anchee Min is noted for her versatility as a writer. Although she was born in China after Mao Zedong’s ascension to power, Min’s early years were still comparatively middle-class. Her father, Naishi Min, worked as an astronomy lecturer until he was fired for discussing sunspots; because Chairman Mao was likened to the sun, anything implying solar imperfection was not permitted to be mentioned. Min’s mother, Dinyun (born Dai) Min, worked as a teacher.
When Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing, launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Mins were ordered to live in a run-down communal house in Shanghai. As a teenager, Min witnessed the daily humiliation and occasional killing of adults who became victimized by the Communist authorities and the youthful Red Guards, children used by Mao to terrorize Chinese society. She also observed the daily infighting among her fellow schoolmates.
At age seventeen, Min was sent to work in the countryside. At the remote Red Fire Farm, near the East China Sea, Min labored from 1974 to 1976 under prisonlike conditions. She witnessed the suicide of a young woman who had been caught having sex with a man, and she herself had a brief lesbian affair with a Communist cadre. In 1976 Min was selected out of twenty thousand applicants to star in a revolutionary propaganda film commissioned by Jiang Qing. Shooting had hardly started at Shanghai Film Studio when Mao died in September, 1976, and his widow and her fellow Communist hardliners were deposed. In 1977 Min was demoted from actress to set clerk and even contemplated suicide.
In 1984, Joan Chen, a Chinese American actress and director who had known Min from acting school, together with Min’s aunt in Singapore, helped her to obtain a passport and leave China to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Min had chosen the school because it did not require proof of what she said she possessed but actually totally lacked: knowledge of the English language. After arriving in Chicago, she was given six months to learn English.
By 1991 Min had received her bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees from the school. That year, she married the painter Qigu Jiang. In 1992 their daughter, Lauryan, was born. Min’s break as a writer occurred when, in spring of 1992, the British literary magazine Granta published a story she had written as a paper, based on her experience at the Red Fire Farm. The rights to her autobiography sold for a substantial advance, which sustained her writing. On Christmas day, 1992, Min finished work on Red Azalea.
Drawing on her life in China and ending with her departure for the United States in 1984, Red Azalea became a huge critical success. The book won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award for 1993 (advance copies came out in December, 1993), and it was named Notable Book of the Year 1994 by The New York Times. Critics praised Min’s ability to relate the horrors of her youth in clear, unsentimental prose and offer keen psychological insights. In 1994 Min filed for divorce from her first husband, and their marriage was dissolved by 1995. By 2000 she had married an American high school teacher who fought as a Marine in Vietnam in the late 1960’s; she identifies him only as Lloyd.
Min’s first novel, Katherine, came out in 1995. Set in the post-Mao years, it tells the story of an American English teacher, Katherine, who falls in love with a female Chinese student. The novel’s implicit equation of the Chinese woman’s parallel discovery of Western literature and a new, forbidden form of love contributed to the book’s literary success. Becoming Madame Mao reflects Min’s fascination with history and the woman who wanted her to star in her movies. Based on the life of Jiang Qing, the book uses fiction to allow Min to relate the thoughts of her torn, multidimensional antiheroine.
In White Ginger, Min tells of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of teenagers. White Ginger is as fearless and headstrong as many of Min’s previous characters. Ostracized for being half French, she gains Communist favor, only to experience a tragic fate. The themes of violence, jealousy, and betrayal battling feelings of friendship and love are key ingredients of the world described by Anchee Min. By 2002, she was busy on a novel about yet another powerful, complex woman, the last empress dowager of China.