Min, Anchee 1957–
Min, Anchee 1957–
PERSONAL: Born January 14, 1957, in Shanghai, China; immigrated to the United States, 1984; daughter of Naishi (an astronomy instructor) and Dinyun (a teacher; maiden name, Dai) Min; married Qigu Jiang (a painter), 1991 (divorced, 1994); children: Lauryan (daughter). Education: Attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1985–91, received B.F.A., M.F.A. Hobbies and other interests: Promoting education in China.
ADDRESSES: Home—CA. Agent—Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, 1155 Camino del Mar, Ste. 515-C, Del Mar, CA 92014.
CAREER: Writer. Worked in China at Red Fire communal farm, near East China Sea, 1974–76; Shanghai Film Studio, Shanghai, actress, 1976–77, set clerk, 1977–84; worked in the United States as a waitress, messenger, gallery attendant, and babysitter.
Red Azalea (memoir), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1994.
Katherine (novel), Riverhead/Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.
Becoming Madame Mao (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
Wild Ginger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Empress Orchid, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Anchee Min, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, describes her personal experiences in the memoir Red Azalea, and also focuses on that period of history in several works of fiction, among them the novels Becoming Madame Mao and Wild Ginger. The Cultural Revolution, initiated by Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and lasting from 1966 until Mao's death in 1976, was a radical movement intended to revitalize devotion to the original Chinese Revolution. During this time, China's urban youths were organized into cadres of Red Guards and empowered to attack citizens, including party officials, who did not uphold the strict tenets of the Revolution. Recounting her participation in the Little Red Guards, a group of students selected for their fidelity to the Communist Party, Min tells of an attempt to prove her own loyalty to the Party by denouncing Autumn Leaves, a favorite teacher, and accusing her of imperialist activities. Before an assembly of two thousand people, Autumn Leaves was beaten and humiliated and pressured to confess that she was "an American spy." Min then writes, "Autumn Leaves called my name and asked if I really believed that she was an enemy of the country…. She asked me with the same exact tone she used when she helped me with my homework…. I could not bear looking at her eyes. They had looked at me when the magic of mathematics was explained…. When I was ill, they had looked at me with sympathy and love. I had not realized the true value of what all this meant to me until I lost it forever that day at the meeting."
At age seventeen, Min was sent to Red Fire Farm, a collective of some 13,000 workers near the East China Sea. She lived there for three years, enduring hardship, laboring to grow cotton in unyielding soil. Seeking solace from the deprivations, Min engaged in a love affair with a female platoon leader, although both could have easily been betrayed and condemned by other workers. Min eventually escaped Red Fire Farm when picked as a finalist—from a pool of twenty thousand candidates—for a film version of a political opera by Madame Mao, Red Azalea. But Min's success was short-lived: in September, 1976, Mao died, Madame Mao fell into disfavor, the political system was thrown into chaos, and the film was abandoned in mid-production. Min worked at the film studio as a set clerk for six years.
With the assistance of actress Joan Chen, a friend from acting school, Min came to the United States in 1984 as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She knew virtually no English when she arrived in the United States, and immersed herself in English studies. Min told Penelope Mesic of Chicago magazine that she forbade herself to speak any Chinese, "so I would learn the language." In a writing course at the institute, Min wrote about Red Fire Farm. She sent the story to the literary magazine Granta, where it was published in the spring of 1992. Based on this story, an agent sold Pantheon the rights to Min's autobiography for a large advance. Min finished writing Red Azalea on Christmas Day, 1992. "I was vomiting, my whole body was shaking after a year of living my past life and having to face myself," Min recounted to Mesic. "I was so driven and so glad to be given the opportunity." Min tells Red Azalea in uncomplicated declarative sentences, a style that reviewers noted for its effective rendering of the subject matter. According to a New York contributor, the writing "suits the brutality of Min's story as well as her own childlike frankness and ferocity." As Min once noted: "I write what I know. I write about what I can't escape from. I don't love writing, but I enjoy the mind battle. I fight with myself to be a winner."
Reviewers also appreciated Min's account of the Cultural Revolution, finding it a significant contribution to Chinese studies. In Publishers Weekly, a critic stated that Red Azalea "is earthy, frank, filled with stunning beauty and of enormous literary and historical interest." Describing the book as a "roller-coaster ride through Chinese art and politics," New York Times Book Review contributor Judith Shapiro remarked that Red Azalea, a "memoir of sexual freedom," exists as "a powerful political as well as literary statement."
Katherine, Min's "lyrical" debut novel, according to Bernadine Connelly of the New York Times Book Review, recounts the story of Katherine, an American teacher who travels to China to teach English. The novel, declared Connelly, is narrated by one of Katherine's students, who "uses the clash of their cultures to create a vivid portrait of life in contemporary China." New Statesman and Society's Sarah A. Smith observed, "The romantic sway of Min's language and the perniciously hopeful influence of Katherine wreck the novel's finer points." Smith assessed: "This is a guileless book about a far from guileless time, and a difficult story, too simply told."
Min's 1999 novel Becoming Madame Mao, traces the rise to power of Madame Mao in the years 1919 through 1991. Library Journal reviewer Shirley N. Quan observed that Min's "characterization of Madame Mao is so strong that one may tend to forget that this work is a novel and not a true biography." A Publishers Weekly critic praised Min's "complex psychological portrait of a driven, passionate woman and a period in history which she would suffer, rise and prosper, and then fall victim to her own insatiable thirst for power." The critic commented that "striking metaphors and vivid Chinese proverbs enhance Min's tensile prose." Kristine Huntley, writing in Booklist, called the novel "nothing less than brilliant."
Wild Ginger focuses on the later years of the Cultural Revolution in its focus on Maple and Wild Ginger, two teen girls who manage to navigate the difficulties of Mao's regime in different ways. Described as "both a tragic love story and a parable that illustrates the corruption caused by political and moral fanaticism" by Book reviewer Susan Tekulve, Wild Ginger finds Wild Ginger at first defending her more gentle schoolmate Maple from the attacks of Maoist zealots when both girls are branded suspicious by Maoist officials. While Maple attempts to distance herself from the political fight, the strong-willed Wild Ginger is determined to find acceptance, and she gradually adopts the repressive party line that helps her move up in the ranks of Mao's Red Guard until a love affair causes her to question her priorities. A Kirkus Reviews contributor described Wild Ginger as "a striking story of love and betrayal [that] recreates the terror and animosities that informed the Cultural Revolution," while in Library Journal Edward Cone praised Min for her "lean, expressive prose" and her "talent for mixing irony with humor." "Min continues her extraordinarily acute inquiry into the wounded psyches of martyrs to and survivors of China's horrific Cultural Revolution in her shattering third novel," added Donna Seaman in Booklist, writing that the author's "taut and compassionate tale of oppressed teenagers kept in ignorance of the wider world" holds a special relevance for modern teens.
A more historical novel, Min's Empress Orchid returns readers to the China of the mid-nineteenth century, and the life of Tsu Hsi, or "Orchid," a seventeen-year-old woman of a poor, rural family who becomes the Chinese emperor's seventh wife, bears the son that will become the "Last Emperor," and, after the emperor's death, rules the country as regent for over four decades. Based on an actual story, the novel follows Orchid's efforts to survive court life and gain the influence needed to ensure that her child will become heir to the dynasty, painting the woman as "a smart politician and demanding mother," according to People contributor John Freeman. "Min … brilliantly lifts the public mask of a celebrated woman to reveal a contradictory character," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor, comparing Empress Orchid favorably with Becoming Madame Mao. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman noted that with the novel the author "continues to fulfill her mission to tell the truth about her homeland, particularly China's long tradition of demonizing women," and praised the resulting novel as "insightful, magnetic," and "bewitching."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Min, Anchee, Red Azalea, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1994.
Book, May-June, 2002, Susan Tekulve, review of Wild Ginger, p. 81.
Booklist, April 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of Katherine, p. 1378; March 15, 2000, Kristine Huntley, review of Becoming Madame Mao, p. 1293; February 15, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Wild Ginger, p. 971; November 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Empress Orchid, p. 548.
Chicago, January, 1994, pp. 55-57, 13-14.
Differences, summer, 2002, Shu-Mei Shih, "Toward and Ethics of Transnational Encounter," p. 90.
Entertainment Weekly, March 25, 1994, p. 50.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2002, review of Wild Ginger, p. 214; December 1, 2003, review of Empress Orchid, p. 1376.
Kliatt, May, 2004, review of Wild Ginger, p. 21.
Library Journal, March 15, 2000, Shirley N. Quan, review of Becoming Madame Mao, p. 128; March 1, 2002, Edward Cone, review of Wild Ginger, p. 140; December, 2003, Edward Cone, review of Empress Orchid, p. 158.
New Statesman & Society, August 25, 1995, Sarah A. Smith, review of Katherine, p. 33.
New York, January 31, 1994, p. 63.
New Yorker, February 21, 1994, p. 119.
New York Times, January 26, 1994, p. C19.
New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, p. 11; September 10, 1995, Bernadine Connelly, review of Katherine.
People, February 16, 2004, review of Empress Orchid, p. 43.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993, p. 21; December 20, 1993, p. 57; March 13, 1995, review of Katherine, p. 58; April 3, 2000, review of Becoming Madame Mao, p. 60; June 5, 2000, Roxane Farmanfarmaian, "After the Revolution," pp. 66-67; March 4, 2002, review of Wild Ginger, p. 56; January 19, 2004, review of Empress Orchid, p. 53.
Chinese Culture Web site, http://www.chineseculture.net/ (December 2, 1999), "Anchee Min."
USA Today Online, http://www.usatoday.com/ (December 2, 1999), "Anchee Min."