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Confronting the Ghosts of Shanghai

For Anchee Min, a former Maoist and author of the new novel 'Becoming Madame Mao' the yearly trips to China remind her of who she is--and where she came from.


SHANGHAI — In the solitude of Hacienda Heights, she has found her sanctuary. An ocean of troubles away from the city that saw her grow up as a fanatical Red Guard, a faithful peasant and a fallen star during some of the most tumultuous years in modern Chinese history.

But Anchee Min keeps coming back. Year after year.

Back to the weather-beaten former French quarter where her family was banished during the Cultural Revolution. Back to the tiny second-floor apartment where her parents still live. Back to the view from the half-moon-shaped window with its frame painted the color of dried blood.

From there, the teenage Min saw a neighbor suffer a stroke while trying to save a cat that had been tossed into a well. From there, she saw his daughter run up to help, then stop and walk away. Later, Min found out what the daughter was thinking. The hospitals at the time would refuse to treat an anti-revolutionary. Trying to save him would only incriminate the living. So she left her father there, dying.

For Min, that memory epitomizes the insanity of the Cultural Revolution, Mao's 1966-1976 attempt to bring back China's revolutionary fervor. Unleashed by Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing, urban youths who called themselves Mao's Red Guards were given free rein to create chaos and turn the country upside down. It drove Min to chronicle that dark decade, both in her bestselling memoir, "Red Azalea," and a new novel, "Becoming Madame Mao."

Shanghai is full of those memories, yellowing like a storybook from the past.

"I don't question why I come back. It's like you don't question who your mother is," said Min, sitting next to the old window after a splendid late August thunderstorm.

As she spoke, the 43-year-old former Maoist crunched on raw lotus seeds like a very local Chinese. But her outfit--black cotton T-shirt, loose-fitting sweats and white tennis shoes--marked her as an easygoing suburban American mom. Her words were charged with memories and melodrama, flowing out in a medley of Mandarin, English and the Shanghai dialect.

Here, she is just another face in the crowd, one of millions who swam through the same political currents to finally catch their breath.

In her adopted country, she is a respected author who has made the speaking-engagement rounds with the likes of Frank McCourt and Michael Ondaatje.

Strangely, when "Red Azalea" came out in America a few years ago, she was given a hero's welcome in China. All the major media outlets interviewed her. She was touted as a role model for the country's massive laid-off work force. If a former farm laborer could reinvent herself as a successful writer in a foreign language, the thinking was, they too could do anything.

Then the government switched gears and gave Min the silent treatment. The book was never released in China. The Cultural Revolution remains a sensitive subject. Unflattering works on the topic are often criticized or shunned, including Ha Jin's National Book Award-winning "Waiting," a novel set during the Cultural Revolution about a man who goes back to the countryside every year to try to divorce his wife.

Min's new novel is a historic narrative mixed with the imaginary voice of Madame Mao. It too is unlikely to see the light of Chinese day. Min said she thinks the other book got a warm reception at first because the Chinese authorities hadn't read it.

She's used to being a political pingpong ball. As a teenager, she was sent to the countryside along with a whole generation of Red Guards who had outlived their usefulness in making chaos in the cities.

Then she was picked out, one in a million, to return to the city. Her facial features--large, thick-browed eyes and dark, peasant-like skin--resembled those of a classic proletariat. So she was chosen to portray Mao's wife in a movie commissioned by Madame Mao herself.

But before she could play the role, Madame Mao fell from power. And although Min had never met Jiang Qing, she was dragged down with her.

Min tells that tale in "Red Azalea." Although the book has been translated into 23 languages, there still is no version in Chinese, the language that Min uses to think out and structure all her writing.

Such irony has become commonplace to her. While most readers may suspect the Chinese authorities, Min confesses it is her loving father who is the strongest opponent against publishing her work in Chinese. She says she still gets offers to translate it but simply turns them down.

"My father's request is for safety," said the devoted daughter. "His peace of mind is important."

Ask the old man and he will say only: "I've never read it, so I have no comment."

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