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on 8 March 2003
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.
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on 19 March 2001
If you have read Wild Swans and enjoyed it, this is another must for you. It is a powerful personal account of how the Chinese repressed sexuality, and the desperate measures people went to to express their feelings. It is beautifully written, erotic but also an important historical testimony that should be heard. Throughout the author's courage and integrity shine through. Fascinating.
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on 24 November 2002
This is an enjoyable and unique true story of a girl's childhood, inprisonment on a farm commune and acting career. The passeges on Min's relationships both romantic and platonic are moving and never feel overly sentimental and her description of life in communist China is revealing without needing to go into facts and figures. What brings the book most to life is the illustrations of the people she has met (especially on the farm)- Min's descriptions of them are so life like we can see them as if we were there.
The only bad thing about this book is the slower pace of the second half- making it inadvertantly less exciting than what has come before. All in all a very rewarding read which is easy to get through and very touching.
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on 23 February 2010
If Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China is too thick (or too earnest) for you - pick up a copy of Red Azalea. It is another Mao-era autobiography, but here the pill is sugared with eroticism. For example the tragedy of feminine Little Green's rebellion.

It also sounds like Anchee Min is worked more brutally than Jung Chang. Her family does not have the same connections. But both women describe the secrecy and guile necessary to retain dignity under the totalitarian regime, and both ultimately escape to the West.

This book does not have the same sweep as Wild Swans but it better describes the hardships of the collective farms, and the complex characters and interrelationships of the women with whom she worked. By reading both books a clearer picture of Maoist China emerges. Ultimately though I'd reread this book for sheer pleasure.
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on 3 May 2003
For a start the book's jacket told me all that would happen, it just took a very long time to get there. Min is very fond of metaphors! Her metaphorical descriptions just were too many and too frequent for me. I know from the book jacket that she is going to have an affair with her commander at the farm she had been assigned to, Min built up and built up her feelings in the run up to the affair so much, that I had lost interest by the time it happened. There is a very interesting in-sight into the life of a peasant in Communist China, but it gets lost in the descriptive ramble.
I would have to say there are better books about this time in China, such as Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah, but if you go for this book, I suggest you don't read the synopsis first! It is one of the few books, that I was relieved to reach the end of.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 January 2006
Anchee Min's book about her life during and after the Cultural Revolution is rather naive. She doesn't even mention the real reason behind the CR, namely the fact that Mao lost the majority in the Central Committee and unleashed the youth in order to regain his power, causing millions of deaths (see Simon Leys: The new Clothes of Chairman Mao.)
The only comment on the CR in this book reads as follows:'Jiang Ching's unfulfilled desire ... that made ancient tragedies stir the souls and foster civilizations. And it was that very same desire that sparkled the flame of the Great Cultural Revolution.'(p.250)
This comment is also an extremely flattery (an euphemism) portrait of Mrs. Mao ('She was a heroine.' p. 243), while it was not a secret that she took control of the Cultural Ministry to take revenge (by tortures and assassinations) on all people (e.g. movie directors) who had refused to give her major roles in their movies.
As a member of the Gang of Four she tried to take Mao's place after his death. For a formidable portrait of Mrs. Mao I recommend Lucien Bodard's masterpiece 'Le Chien de Mao'.
The work camp scenes, the erotic encounters and the mass rally to insult a forged 'class enemy' are more convincing. They show us that each member of the Red Guard had to loose its individuality and privacy (no sex, no secrecy, no free speech, mass confessions) and had to be a 'cog in a big revolutionary machine'. It was a jail life under the iron fist of the proletarian revolution with the slogan 'killing the chickens to shock the monkeys'.
But underneath the 'purity' of the revolutionaries we discover jealousies, drive for power and dominance, manipulations, fierce competition, fear and lies. The author herself is far from innocent: 'I am my ambition.' (p. 245)
Overall, the atmosphere in this book is rather sentimental and not without a certain narcissism. Also, the sudden change in the character of one of the main players seems extraordinary.
This is certainly, and by far, not the best book on the Cultural Revolution or on the work camps.
Therefore I can recommend two masterpieces: Nieng Cheng's 'Life and Death in Shanghai' ( a moving and inhumanly biting biography of an innocent woman caught in a political quagmire) and Xianliang Zhang's 'Half Man is Woman' (a formidable tale about work camp inmates and an in depth analysis of the gender battle).
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on 21 December 2001
I am 14 years old and have read this book for a high school project on china i was assigned. The book was discriptive and extremelly well written. I would recomend it for people of all ages.
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on 13 October 2014
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. I'd never before read a book by someone who experienced the Cultural Revolution, and, while I knew generalities about it, was stunned by the stark and concise descriptions written by Anchee. If you've ever wondered what the CR was like for the average Chinese person, this book will tell you, no holds barred. You will feel yourself, alongside her, kneeling in the mud on horribly hot and humid days, planting rice plants amidst swamps with snakes and vermin slithering all around, all the while knowing that there is little chance that the plants will survive. Excruciating lessons in futility.

Some reviewers have complained about the graphic depiction of sex in the book. First, it isn't very graphic, nor do those scenes dominate the book in any way. While I find no use for gratuitous sex scenes, the ones in this book are far from it. This is a coming of age story as much as it is a story about the CR. During the CR, people were taught that love was a fake, bourgeois construct, and that sex outside of marriage was punishable by death in many cases. Discussing the topic was utterly taboo. What this book explores is how adolescents and young adults, with absolutely no framework into which to place their burgeoning desires, stumble and fumble in confusion while trying to figure it all out. The sex scenes are placed within that context. Not gratuitous at all.
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on 25 August 2000
I was given this book for Christmas and ended up reading it through the after dinner lull, through the night and for part of Boxing Day. I would never have dreamed that a story of oppression in Communist China could be exciting and thrilling to the point of erotically charged.. but it is. The solidarities and alienations.. you can pick them out of the page almost. Reading the book left me feeling that I had.. almost... touched something. It's funny, sad.. all those thing. Ace.
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on 21 June 2014
I'm not sure I've just finished reading the same book as the other critics. I have read this author's other books, which were wonderfully descriptive, but this? It's been reviewed as being akin to Wild Swans. The only relation I can see is that the authors were both Chinese!
It's disjointed, rambling, and basic editing would have helped the reader to understand who's thoughts were being discussed. Lack of structure and punctuation meant it was difficult to separate protagonist from incidental characters. I didn't feel the chaos and fears supposedly endowed on the author. The death and disasters appear to have been casual observations by a third party, as she marched her way through some damned tough times, obsessed by her sexual longings.
I'm sorry. This left me cold, and I feel that most of the other reviewers were assigned this book by a reading circle, and wished to appear intellectual.A bit like those movie critics that nominate the most boring 'arty farty' films as worthy of Oscars.
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