Set during the confusion of the Cultural Revolution in communist China; Red Azalea is the true story of the author's rise through the echelons of the Red Guard and Chinese society. Her story is one of deprivation, love and the dichotomy between feelings and duty in a politically charged environment of fear and paranoia difficult to perceive from the contemporary western experience.
Min's story begins in 1957 when she was born into the death throw years of Mao's 'Great Leap Forward'. The eldest of four children, Min learned the meaning of duty raising her brother and two sisters whilst her parents worked continually in a struggle to survive. This dedication to duty came to fruition when in her early years at school Min was made leader of the 'little red guard' and so began her love hate relationship with the communist party. Her journey takes her to the Red Fire Farm where she is assigned to life as a peasant. It is here that she enters a world of betrayal and awakening sexuality, which are the key themes of the book. Condemned to a enforced world of single sexed sterility, she witnesses a friends spiral into insanity and suicide, following her 'capture' in the act of love with a man. From this point Min struggles to juxtapose her sexual feelings with the demands of the party and it is these feelings that start to dismantle her political beliefs.
She finds solace in the arms of Yan, the Party secretary and commander of her work company and so begins a furtive lesbian relationship under the constant watch of Comrade Lu, who seeks Yan's position of power. The affair ends in tragedy and sacrifice when Min is awarded a chance to compete for the role of Red Azalea, a communist party film being produced in Shanghai. Believing this to be her ticket away from betrayal, Min finds herself in a microcosm of her life on the farm. As one of five young women competing for the role, Min spends every waking moment walking a political tightrope, whilst longing for her lost love on the farm. Min's journey finally takes her to within touching distance of Jian Qing (Madame Mao), but her story and the production are brought to an abrupt end with the death of Chairman Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four.
Red Azalea is an accessible book with wide appeal. The language used is simple as English is not the author's first language; this however gives the book a raw feel, helping to both capture the feel of the times and the author's stunted emotions during them. The affair with Yan is treated with a care and tenderness that belies the environment in which it took place. During the Cultural Revolution femininity was discouraged among women, thoughts were directed to the ongoing revolution and the overthrow of class enemies. This created what Jung Chang, in her book Wild Swans, calls 'Militant Puritans' (Chang, 1993, p422), young girls denouncing the interest of young men on purely political grounds. This gave rise to a proliferation of homosexuality both male and female in China, as same sex relationships provided the only sanctuary from political denunciation.
Anyone wishing to study gender issues in China could do a lot worse than start with Red Azalea. Though confined to a single era in the long history of China, it was however a formative one. Feelings of fear and eroticism are well conveyed through the simple dialect, as are power relations. The issue of power in the book highlights some of the contradictions of the Cultural Revolution and communism in general. The issue of equality is offset by peoples desire to obtain status within the society where power is the only currency. These contradictions are developed further when Min witnesses first hand the bourgeois lifestyle indulged by the staff of the Shanghai film studio. This causes the author much confusion, as do her feelings for a high-ranking male party official.
At times it appears that Min herself may have used her sexuality to better herself and work her way up the party and social ladder; at other times there is evidence of 'sour grapes' in the book when things don't work out for her with an undercurrent of denunciation of something she once believed in so heavily and her ethnicity. This emerges at the start of the book when she anglicises the names of her family and peers, this does not work, and results in a loss of ambience and credibility within the text. It would have been enough to explain their meanings initially and then continued using the Pinyin system. By doing this it seems Min is carrying out a betrayal of her own, whether this is intentional or not is for the reader to decide.
Red Azalea compares favourably with Jung Chang's epic Wild Swans; again though chronologically limited by comparison it is a useful insight into the female experience in China. Both books deal with issues of betrayal in the Cultural Revolution with an insiders view into the intricacies of the party mechanism. One criticism of Red Azalea is that Min fails to capitalise on her surroundings at the farm to enhance her writing. Her brief forays into the enormity and beauty surrounding her are screaming out to be expanded. On the few occasions this does happen you can almost smell the sea air blowing in from the west or hear the People's Daily slogans and the strains of revolutionary songs emanating from the loud speakers positioned around the farm. Another point is that the book ends too abruptly, leaving the remaining six years of her life in China condensed into a three quarter page epilogue. This leaves the reader feeling short changed and wanting more. This may be deliberate with a second part of her autobiography; however, with eight years having passed since publication of Red Azalea a sequel now seems unlikely.