Beyond the White Boned Demon

September 5, 2001

Anchee Min, Becoming Madame Mao, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2001

Reviewed by Neralie Hoadley

Becoming_Madame_MaoAmbitious both in its undertaking and its realisation, Becoming Madame Mao is a historical novel about the life of Mao Tse-tung’s last wife. By following Jiang Ching from her birth in 1919 to death in 1991, Min gives the reader a grand sweep through twentieth century Chinese history.  She also attempts to explain the apparently inexplicable: Jiang Ching’s role in the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution. This is a fearsome task but Min is not afraid.

In this book, Min is embarking on new territory as a writer. Min’s remarkable autobiography Red Azalea and her earlier novel Katherine both touch on the Cultural Revolution. They give powerful and disturbing insights into the experience of such social upheaval, but neither tries to make any sense of the events. In fact, in these two books Min is content to let the senselessness of her subject matter speak for itself. She resorts very little to editorialising. In Becoming Madame Mao, however, Min is forced to hypothesise about the motivation of one of the key players in the cataclysm, and thus explain, to some extent, why it erupted. In doing this she never resorts to glib labels of the ‘psychopath’ or ‘megalomaniac’. Rather, she creates a convincing portrait of a strong woman – who considers herself a worthy partner in her husband’s great endeavour – warped by years of frustration and exclusion.

Min does not accept the strangely bifocal vision that has allowed people, both in China and the West, to regard Mao as a creative giant with minor faults while his wife and partner is perceived as an irredeemably destructive upstart. Min depicts the remorseless cruelty of Jiang Ching’s role in the Cultural Revolution as an outgrowth of devotion to her husband and his policies. This understanding is grounded in Min’s belief that the marriage between Mao and Jiang Ching was a love match on both sides. Certainly, Min allows that there were elements of opportunism present both for Mao and for the young actress, Jiang Ching, at the time of their first meeting in 1938. Mao was taking advantage of the absence of his wife – the revolutionary heroine, Zi-zhen, who he had despatched to the Soviet Union – to capitalise on the attentions of a pretty devotee. Jiang Ching, for her part, engineered an introduction to Mao clearly with an eye to where it might lead for her own benefit. Nevertheless, Min paints the development of their relationship as one of love, with a passionate physical connection. This is the lynchpin on which she hangs her understanding of the obsessive behaviour and disregard for common sense that characterised Jiang Ching’s later life. Min convincingly depicts Jiang Ching’s violent extremism as the twisted progeny of a grand passion. In grand passions, obsessions are manifest. They rarely allow room for common sense.  It is trite to observe that people find their lives taking strange, sometimes quite crazy, turnings because of the passionate attachments they form, particularly sexual attachments. However, the power ordinary people have to spread their craziness around extends only to those in their own family or immediate vicinity. The power of Mao and Jiang Ching, by contrast, was unspeakably huge.

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