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Becoming Madame Mao

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This is an evocation of the woman who married Chairman Mao and fought to succeed him. The unwanted daughter of a concubine, she refused to have her feet bound, ran away to join an opera troupe and eventually met Mao Zedong in the mountains of Yenan.

306 pages, Paperback

First published June 1, 2000

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About the author

Anchee Min

21 books810 followers
Anchee Min was born in Shanghai in 1957. At seventeen she was sent to a labor collective, where a talent scout for Madame Mao's Shanghai Film Studio recruited her to work as a movie actress. She moved to the United States in 1984. Her first memoir, Red Azalea, was an international bestseller, published in twenty countries. She has since published six novels, including Pearl of China and the forthcoming memoir The Cooked Seed (Bloomsbury, May 7 2013).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 420 reviews
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,162 reviews9,042 followers
May 13, 2022
Anyone needing instruction on how to turn a fascinating dramatic story into something paintdryingly boring and tedious need look no further, this is how you do it. And I would also say that paint itself could pick up a few tips on how to dry less interestingly and more slowly.
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,041 followers
September 15, 2011
Who knew Chairman Mao was so hot?

Oh that was shameless, Mariel. Way to start off a book review! With sex! Bad, bad, bad. Historical figures shouldn't be used to write cheesey love scenes. They should be used to advertise products on tv and that's it! Anchee Min, you're shameless. Have you no shame?

I don't feel like writing two Madam Mao book reviews so I'm going to shamelessly combine reviews of this chick lit book with a review of a biography written by an Australian guy that could have been the Jim Cazaviel character in the film version of The Stoning of Soraya M.
Madame Mao: The White-Boned Demon He's super proud of himself because he's not as sexist as the men he confronts in his investigation of blatant sexism for a book that he'll be paid for writing. The men are like "Oh, why write a book about such a bad woman?" and in the movie it's like "Don't listen to that silly woman! She's a woman!" He's like, "Yes, I know. Women!" They were just as bad she was (the white-boned demon, I mean). And they are hypocrites because nothing the sexy stud muffin Mao did was bad. The men are still oh, women should have been gentle judge-y in tone. I picture a smug Jim Cazaviel face behind the pen. They were both cruel and both made lives of Chinese people more miserable than they had could have been. But why do they have to demonize the woman and erect the memory of the man as a hero? Why did the woman have to be good and it was okay for the man to be a total dick? Both authors come from a place of wanting to find out what happened and then ultimately shy away from how gross of a woman she was with the distance of evil! Get behind me, white boned demon! Why did a woman get to do this to people because Chairman Mao wanted to bone her? Was it that sly of a move to demand marriage? Isn't there an old Chinese proverb about not buying the cow when you can get the sex for free? (I was impressed how she tried to use their fear of women against them, such as removing her clothes to avoid interrogation. At least she wasn't afraid to use both sides of the sex coin. Historically it was a dull sided coin, as far as I'm concerned. Not boring to those who suffer but boring to me sitting here right now.)

Min apparently had a crush on Madam Mao aka the white-boned demon aka Jiang Ching aka Li Runqing. I had wanted to read this book because I was curious why the author had had a crush on their first lady of communism while growing up in China. I guess it was an excuse to put herself in the place of someone who had hot sex with Chairman Mao. I'm so confused! She must have made a list of everyone she didn't like, any slight or fuck over and then when she got a bit of power from the Chairman Mao sex she used it to do them in. Or she did what a lot of assholes did when communism gave them their tiny bit of evil power. Maybe the young Min had fantasies about the bitch girl who had a nicer regulation something or other than she had? Or it could have been her glamorous film career and looks before she took on the guise of a comrade. I don't know. This book doesn't have it. Why was Madam Mao interesting to Anchee Min?

What this book has is first person perspective of the lady. Self serving perspective. It was oh so romantic, this and that person fucked me over, I was the only little girl to suffer from feet binding in China (that was nasty). Maybe it was the thing about serial killers becoming serial killers become their mom was a prostitute. The perspective switches to what really happened in a regurgitation of the first. It wasn't juxtaposed reality enough to warrant the constant back and forth. The prose was cheesey as fuck either way.

I thought that Chairman Mao was hot in the sack.
Chairman Mao was hot in the sack.
It's really frustrating to read a whole book like that! (I'm going to go take a shower.)

I didn't think that her old love affairs or supposed crush on Mao made it okay. It wasn't okay that she "loved" her daughter when she wanted something from her. What was the motive to get closer to a woman like this? I think it had more to do with her notoriety, or Min wasn't good enough of a writer to express her own feelings about the maligned woman. I liked Terrill's book a bit more because at least he got that Qing was pretty much a bad actress in her own life. She'd quote lines from plays she had performed in. Maybe she didn't remember they were even plays. It was all a big lie to her to get what she wanted. Applause, money or position. She thought she identified with Ibson's A Doll's House and the world denied her her spoils. Or it was a line she repeated a lot when she didn't get anything she wanted. It sounded good the first time excuse. Chairman Mao was a position. Wouldn't most who lived in China "love" him? My father used to say to "deny, deny, deny" when confronted with a lie.It was safer (emphasis on er rather than safe) to. Qing had that part down. Never break out of character, even if it means having no character.
Or the bad writing was a demonstration of bad acting... I'm confused!
Profile Image for Tessa Nadir.
Author 3 books222 followers
February 11, 2022
"Poti sa ma tai bucati sau sa ma sfasii in o mie de farame, dar spiritul meu nu va inceta niciodata sa lupte!"
Autoarea s-a nascut la Shanghai si la 17 ani a fost selectata sa joace intr-unul din filmele realizate de studioul cinematografic al doamnei Mao. In 1984 a emigrat in America unde si-a scris cartea de memorii "Azaleea Rosie" si alte romane care au devenit bestsellere internationale, cum ar fi "Imparateasa Orhidee" si "Ultima imparateasa".
In prezentul roman autoarea ne prezinta biografia unei femei celebre care este cunoscuta in istoria Chinei drept 'demonul cu oase albe'. Este povestea sotiei lui Mao Zedong, o femeie frumoasa care a trecut pe rand de la cea mai puternica, la cea mai temuta, pana la cea mai dispretuita femeie din China.
Naratiunea este alternativa, fie are loc la persoana intai si reflecta nemijlocit gandurile si sentimentele doamnei Mao, fie la persoana a treia la modul obiectiv, rece, consemnand faptele ca un istoric.
In prolog suntem in 1981 si o gasim pe doamna Mao in inchisoare, la 14 ani de la arestarea ei, avand 77 de ani si fiind condamnata la moarte. Ea trage de fiica ei Nah sa-i scrie autobiografia si sa spuna lumii ca este nevinovata, apoi se pregateste sa se sinucida.
Ne intoarcem in timp in 1919 in China, provincia Shan-dong, cand doamna Mao este o fetita si are o copilarie chinuita. Tatal ei bea si o bate pe mama ei care se chinuie s-o creasca sa fie speciala si frumoasa pentru a se putea casatori intr-o familie bogata. Cand creste fuge de acasa si doreste sa se faca actrita de opera. Se casatoreste cu un mic om de afaceri de care divorteaza si va urma cea de-a doua casatorie a ei cu cel care va deveni unul dintre consilierii lui Mao Zedong. Se va inscrie in Partidul Comunist, apoi se va desparti si de acest barbat.
In continuare va merge la Shanghai schimbandu-si numele in Lan Ping si va incerca sa se realizeze ca actrita. Isi cunoaste cel de-al treilea sot Tang Nah, un critic citit si rafinat. Barbatul va incerca sa se sinucida de 2 ori pentru ea deoarece mariajul lor se destrama.
In 1937 il intalneste pe Mao Zedong, liderul Armatei Rosii, pe care il seduce. Cei doi se casatoresc si ea o va naste in curand pe fiica lor Nah.
In 1948 Mao isi invinge rivalul, pe Chiang Kai-shek si se instaleaza in Orasul Interzis ca un Imparat. Dupa 14 ani de domnie lucrurile incep sa mearga rau si doamna Mao salveaza situatia cu ajutorul artei si asa numitei Revolutii Culturale. Din acel moment China e condusa de catre ea. Toti dusmanii sai sunt fie eliminati fie varati in inchisoare. Mao insa o tradeaza numindu-l pe maresalul Lin Biao succesorul sau care mai apoi este executat si el.
Pe 9 septembrie 1976 Mao Zedong moare si lasa un testament numindu-l pe Hua Guo-feng succesorul sau, trandand-o pentru ultima data pe doamna Mao. Pe 6 octombrie aceasta va fi arestata, fiind numita dusman al Chinei.
Romanul se incheie cu vorbele sale: "Voi, aceia care sunteti fascinati de mine, imi datorati aplauze, iar voi, cei care sunteti dezgustati, n-aveti decat sa scuipati. Va multumesc tuturor pentru prezenta."
Asa cum putem vedea doamna Mao iese de pe scena vietii ca o mare actrita, ceea ce a si fost, fiind cea mai fericita si implinita atunci cand juca in fata publicului si iubind foarte mult arta. Poate la fel de mult ca si puterea.
Protagonista a trait o viata cat 10 oameni la un loc, din copilarie pana la batranete. A fost un copil chinuit care a incercat necontenit sa-si realizeze visul de a fi actrita, calcand plina de sperante pe refuzurile regizorilor. A fost o femeie frumoasa si fermecatoare care nu a avut noroc in casnicii, fiind mereu refuzata de barbatii de care se indragostea, dar razbunandu-se apoi pe ei cand ajunge la putere. A fost dezamagita de sotul ei Mao Zedong care a inselat-o cu femei tinere si chiar si fiica ei i-a spulberat visele maritandu-se cu un nimeni doar ca sa-i faca in ciuda. Intr-un final China insasi i-a dat ultima lovitura. O femeie care a avut de toate si n-a ramas cu nimic.
In incheiere atasez cateva citate pline de invataminte:
"Nu renunt niciodata la speranta, nici macar atunci cand vanturile ma sufla violent din toate directiile. Asta este cea mai mare virtute a mea."
"Acum inteleg ca o fata poate sa faca totul cum trebuie si, cu toate astea, viata ei sa fie distrusa."
"Adevarata saracie inseamna sa nu ai de ales in viata. Sa nu ai nimic de ales, in afara de maritis, de exemplu. Sa nu ai de ales, in afara de a fi prostituata sau concubina, sa-ti vinzi trupul."
"Faci pe desteapta in toate ocaziile neimportante, dar pierzi marile batalii. Pierzi. E ca si cum ti-ai acoperi urechile atunci cand furi un clopot - crezand ca nimeni nu o sa te auda."
"Ii detest pe aceia care fac pe doctorii ce amortesc constiinta, pe cei care ofera transfuzii cu opiu creierelor maselor."
"Trebuie ca mai intai sa ai credinta, pentru ca apoi s-o lasi sa lucreze in favoarea ta, mi-a spus candva un predicator budist."
"Ce se intampla la final nu mai e grija mea. Ratatii imi lasa un gust neplacut."
"Cel mai bun iluzionist este acela care poate sa-ti explice cum se face trucul si apoi sa te faca sa crezi ca exista magie..."
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,359 reviews2,296 followers
September 13, 2022
I am not being judged fairly. Side by side Mao Tse-tung and I stood, yet he is considered a god while I am a demon.

Er, no, no, this *isn't* how to write Jiang Qing - this book more or less erases her intellectual life, depoliticises her to a large extent ('she still doesn't know enough of Communism itself. This doesn't bother her') and reduces her to that mainstay of popular historical fiction, the 'feminist' heroine.

Awash with operatic emotions from triumphantly throwing off the foot binding strips that her concubine mother put on her as a child, to 'hot' sex with various men ('I want Mao to know that I am interested in what he is doing and want to be part of it. But I try not to follow his thoughts so I can concentrate on the pleasure'), and a lot of weeping, this is a reductive portrait of a controversial woman.

Too many complicated political phenomena get attributed to single base emotions, usually of revenge: 'it becomes one of his [Mao's] reasons to call for a great rebellion - the Cultural Revolution. It is to punish scholars nationwide for his early suffering.' And others are written off in a few words: 'in 1934 the god led his followers and performed a miracle. It was called the Long March' - full stop.

More positively, the book is written in an interesting mix of 1st and 3rd person, from Madame Mao's pov set against a more objective - if not more detailed or critical - context. It's clear that the author has done a lot of research and tries hard to navigate through complex times.

But the overriding agenda here is that Madame Mao is the victim of misogyny and treated unfairly by both comrades and posterity. By reducing her to such a cliché, not just is a complicated woman minimised and flattened but her character slips away through the prescriptive stock phrases into nothing.
Profile Image for alana.
198 reviews49 followers
June 19, 2012
This gets two stars instead of the one it probably deserves because it's an interesting premise. A human side to Madame Mao. But its told in three different voices -- often on the same page -- which makes it difficult to follow and not very engaging. You never get very close to the character, which is the whole point of a book like this. I read in the afterword that it took 5 years to get published, and I wonder if the publisher played around with it a lot or something. I kept thinking it read like someone wrote a synopsis for every chapter, and then decided to publish that interspersed with some first person narrative.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,282 followers
November 3, 2017
Part of my Fall 2017 Best Of Chinese Literature project; more here, and a cool list of books here.

Crafty and ruthless Madame Mao bent the best artists of her generation to creating propaganda musicals during China's Cultural Revolution. The best of them - the so-called "Eight Model Works" - were extravagant operas that are still, with some degree of camp and irony, loved today. Artists gonna art, and the music was good. Apparently. I don't love musicals myself, on account of how they're dumb.

Meanwhile peasants were starving in these "collective farms," where one young girl was saved from hard labor by something called her "proletarian good looks" and cast in one of these films. Years later, this girl returns the favor by writing this fictional biography of Madame Mao. Anchee Min now lives in the US and has become one of China's mightiest writers.

Becoming Madame Mao begins around the 19teens with the binding of the future Madame's feet, and follows her all the way to her death in 1991. That's a pretty broad overview of Chinese 20th century history, and I liked that. It's my impression that Min is going easy on Madame Mao, who was a pretty nasty piece of work - not that you'll come away from this book thinking she was nice, just that you might think she's not quite as mean. Min switches incessantly between first- and third-person narration, which lets her tell the story from Madame Mao's perspective and also from a more judgmental one; it's not a super effective decision, for me. More distracting than anything else; the two perspectives aren't so different that all this switchery was necessary.

But Madame Mao's story is fascinating - a celebrity who became a politician, realizing that the same merciless social climbing strategy worked for both careers, a lifelong striver and schemer with no use for ethics. Min's a terrific writer and this is an engaging book. She's written other books about strong women - like this one dowager empress from like 1900, and her own self - and I'd check them out too. But not if they're made into musicals, because musicals are dumb.
Profile Image for Kevin Barrett.
9 reviews3 followers
December 18, 2008
I loved it. It combines three things I love; China, historical fiction, and a strong female lead.

This book is written as if it were a memoir of the wife of Mao Zidong. Anchee Min pieced the story together with various historical records and all of the characters in the book were actual people. We see her as a young girl refusing to submit to having her feet bound, to a young lady who pursues Mao out of intrigue and a desire for power. From the neglected wife kept hidden from the Chinese people, to one of the minds behind the Cultural Revolution. The author was able to take one of history's cruelest leaders and actually make me cry for her in the end.

Having read Anchee Min's "Red Azalea" beforehand, I found it interesting how the author's own life crossed that of Madame Mao's when she became an actress in one of Madame Mao's propaganda operas.

December 18, 2008
I have read several books by Anchee Min and this by far is the worst. I enjoyed all of her other books so I kept reading this book thinking it would get better yet it never did. She switches from third person to first person throughout the book and it becomes confusing. In addition, you never get into the character. This book is touted at making the "white bone demon" seem more human but it does not do this. Instead, you are left hating the so called heroine of the book and wondering if it will ever end or make sense.
167 reviews1 follower
June 5, 2013
Meh

*

I remember when I said 'meh'

*

She said 'meh'
Profile Image for Freesiab.
923 reviews43 followers
February 21, 2017
I love this author normally but this book was blah. The first half was fantastic. Around 70% it lost me. I guess the history of Chairman Mao and communism wasn't as interesting as it sounded. Although, Madam Mao was an interesting historical figure.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,622 reviews280 followers
October 9, 2015
It's hard to imagine more complex subject matter. Anchee Min deserves credit for her efforts. Using the first and third person she tells the story from what may be Jaing Qing's point of view. The third person is also used to give background and historical perspective.

Min fashions not a cold hard Jaing Qing, but one who showers all her affection on her husband to the detriment of her daughter and country. She has ambition, drive and a staunchly feminist streak.

The book is strong in portraying her early life, She is fashioned as the daughter of a concubine who rebeled against foot binding. The start of her life in Shanghai as an actress named Lan Ping is well written but the narrative weakens as Min poses some ideas on how the romance with Mao was maneuvered. The narrative further weakens through the marriage. The Cultural Revolution, which culminated Jaing Qing's career/life is the least developed part.

The internal life as described here falls flat with me. Her three cohorts in the Gang of Four are hardly mentioned. The circumstances of how the Shanghai lovers perished, foreshadowed in the early part, are not revisited.

I think Min is trying to portray a warmer Jaing Qing, but with the exception of describing her love for husband and daughter, she does not develop it.

While not a smooth read, it held my interest throughout. Min deserves credit and respect for tackling such a difficult topic. For a look at what Min is capable of, I recommend "Empress Orchid". Interestingly, both books present a sympathetic portrait of their subjects, both were women in a key positions who have been judged by history to be devastating for China.
Profile Image for Evelina | AvalinahsBooks.
846 reviews438 followers
July 2, 2019
This was a tough read, and not for just the contents alone. It's written in an odd way, where every other paragraph alternates between third person and first person. It was really odd to keep switching and I only got used to it by the end. I also remember that half the book just felt like a chore, despite the contents being interesting. That may also be the translation at fault though.

One thing I was surprised about though, was that I expected the book to have a lot of horrors and maybe even gore, as many books about the times of the Cultural Revolution are like that. It's hard to not have that in your story when talking about a truly terrifying period in history. But Becoming Madame Mao focuses solely on the private lives of Chairman Mao and her. So the events are mentioned, but they lack impact, and there's barely any detail or gore. That might work well for you if you are a sensitive reader, but want to learn about the events. Unlike most books about this time period, this one isn't almost at all triggering.

The book does convey the horror and the insanity that these times seemed to be full of though. Despite feeling like it was something of a chore to read, I'm happy I read it.

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Profile Image for Shelly.
159 reviews1 follower
August 4, 2009
I really like Anchee Min and was excited to read this book. However, i couldn't even get half way through.

The style of writing was very dry and at times confusing, as it kept switching from 3rd person to 1st person and back. I did keep reading a while after I lost interest because I thought it would get better, but the characters were so distant and flat that I really couldn't connect with them. I'm the type of person who likes to connect with the characters or at least the idea that the author is presenting, but could do neither in this book.

The reason I gave it two stars instead of one is because the premise of the book has promise, so maybe someone who is really interested in Madame Mao would find it interesting, and also because I did not finish it, so really couldn't tell you if hte second half of the book is any better.
29 reviews3 followers
April 7, 2009
Reduced the history of Chinese communism to petty personal quests for influence and the affection of a tyrant. Made me want to learn more about the era.
Profile Image for Repellent Boy.
478 reviews493 followers
March 14, 2019
Llevaba años queriendo leer este libro y es una pena que al final se haya quedado a medio camino. Me ha gustado, pero podría haber sido espectacular y se ha quedado justito.

Anchee Min recabó información durante años sobre una de las mujeres más importantes para la historia de China, Jiang Qing y nos la presenta en esta novela. Jiang Qing fue la última mujer de Mao Zedong, antiguo presidente comunista de China, gran culpable de la Revolución Cultural. Esta revolución es unos de los periodos de la historia que más me han llamado la atención siempre, y cada vez que veo un libro que trata el tema me interesa. Lo que no sabía yo, y nunca se refleja en otros libros es la tremeda importancia que tuvo, la mujer del presidente en esta Revolución.

Jiang Qing fue una mujer fuerte desde su más tierna infancia donde ya se negó a que le vendaran los pies para deformarselos y evitar su crecimiento. Esta antigua tradición china se suponía que daba clase y atractivo a estas mujeres. Jiang Qing luchará por sus sueño de convertirse en un actriz de renombre, y después de varios romances, conocerá a Mao Zedong. A raíz de esto decidirá interpretar el papel más importante de su vida, el de la heroína de China.

Me ha resultado interesantísimo descubrir cosas sobre esta fuerte mujer en un mundo de hombres. Como en la mayoría de los casos, el poder la corrompió y junto a su obsesión por la interpretación, se convirtió en una de las personalidades más despiadadas y tiranas de la época. Era imposible empatizar al cien por cien con la protagonista, por su actitud, pero en cierta parte entiendes algunos de sus actos. Como se sintió siempre la sombra de un hombre y quiso escapar de esa alargada sombra.

Quizás el problema lo he encontrado en la forma de contar la historia. Se siente muy rápida y a veces es algo liosa la manera en la que la autora va narrando la trama alternando la primera y la tercera persona. Aún así, se lee bastante rápido.

Curioso que siendo esta mujer tan importante y habiendo leído y visto bastantes libros y pelis situados en esta época, jamás la nombraran, aunque millones de veces a su marido. La sombra sigue siendo alargada.
April 30, 2014
Basically, it's a love-hate relationship with this book.

From what I can remember, Madame Mao, the main character, has different names that symbolize her different "lives". She experiences pain ( especially when she has her feet lotus wrapped and constantly gets rejected for aspiring to be an actress), sacrifice, violence, sex, and heartbreak--as well as revenge against all the people ( and asshole men) who had double crossed her or broken up with her…Although most people may think of her as an antagonist since she is always scheming, I admire her in a way -- since she comes from a fucked up childhood and develops into a kick ass woman who doesn't take no for an answer--using her femininity, charisma, beauty, and wit to her advantage--which, I love.

HOWEVER, what makes me hate this book/story is that she never gets credit from Mao at the end--even though she had been there for him and was way smarter than he ever was. Mao constantly cheats on her with "virgins" and she ignores it, Mao constantly relies on her to make decisions and plan things and she does it, Mao leans on her for support both physically and emotionally and she doesn't mind. BUT NO, she's a WOMAN so she doesn't get jack shit--instead, she gets sent to prison. I get it, she committed crimes, but so did Mao -- and ( almost) everyone ADMIRED and SUPPORTED him--even though SHE was the one who had been his backbone. That's right folks, whether it be communism or democracy, there is always sexism around the corner to save the day and fuck people. I'm not a radical feminist, but it's annoying when you can't even escape the curse of having a va-j-j in a book.

Xanax, anyone?
Profile Image for Alyssa.
105 reviews2 followers
July 11, 2008
I read Anchee Min's Red Azalea before reading this one and I enjoyed Red Azalea SO much more than Madame Mao. In fact, I disliked her writing style in Madame Mao so much that I didn't even finish it. I felt bad because I liked Azalea so much that I really wanted to like this one, but I just couldn't do it. It bugged me that she went back and forth from first person to third person and I just found myself not really caring... :(
Profile Image for Sara.
158 reviews6 followers
March 18, 2009
This is a beautifully written book, the style is very poetic. The story pulls you into the build-up to and the events of the communist revolution in China as experienced by Madame Mao, most infamously known as a member of the Gang of Four. While it is historial fiction, I felt that it was written in such a way that the history and the fiction were fairly easy to distinguish. I think it does what historical fiction does at its best: describes an era in a way in which facts alone cannot.
16 reviews1 follower
September 18, 2022
Aizraujošs stāsts par Ķīnas vēsturi un tās leģendāro vadoni - Ķīnas Tautas republikas dibinātāju Mao Dzedunu un viņa ceturto sievu Dzjanu Cjinu. Cik trausla ir robeža starp varu un kritienu no troņa, ziedošanos mīlestības vārdā un / vai sava ego apmierināšanu.

Pāri visam propogandas spēks, kas “ietetovē” tautas prātā domas, kas vajadzīgas valdošajai varai.

Interesanti iepazīt vairāk Ķīnas vēsturi un vienlaikus spēcīgu sievietes likteni, kura piešķīra sev galveno lomu uz “Kultūras revolūcijas” skatuves.
Profile Image for Lora Shouse.
Author 1 book28 followers
April 3, 2017
Talk about your drama queens! In this biography of Madame Mao Jiang Ching, Anchee Min tells the story of Mao Tse-tung’s third and last wife. He was her fourth husband (although it seems that she was not actually married to at least one of the men she considered a husband and mention is made of her divorcing only one of the others.

Born the daughter of a concubine, she rebelled at the age of four against having her feet bound and evidently kept rebelling for the rest of her life. After she and her mother left her mother’s master and wandered a while in poverty, they, at last, returned to live with her mother’s parents. Her grandfather taught her to love Chinese opera, and at a young age, she ran away to join a local opera troupe. Later she moved to Shanghai, where she performed in operas and theaters and attempted to break into films. After some initial success, her acting career stagnated. About the only success she really had after that was in revolutionary films.

A couple of her boyfriends were communist revolutionaries. After stormy relationships with them, she finally left Shanghai to join the communist revolutionaries in Yenan. It is there that she catches the eye of Mao. They become lovers, and after Mao gets rid of his second wife, they are married. For a while, things go well, despite the hardships of the Revolution and the fact that they are living in a cave.

But when the Communists win, and they move to Beijing, to the Forbidden City, Jiang Ching is not allowed a political role of any kind, even though she begs for one, for a very long time. She is also jealous of his many lovers. From then on, it is a complicated political struggle. When Mao finally allows her a political role again, she launches the Cultural Revolution. It is an operation designed to give her a personal power base, to allow her to control the theater and film industry that had come to ignore her before she went to Yenan, and to get revenge on as many as possible of her rivals and Mao’s. Despite the charges later leveled against her, it appears that she was mostly loyal to Mao throughout his life in spite of their differences, and despite the fact that she was actively positioning herself to assume the role of his successor, which she seemed to think should have been hers by right.

An actress to the end, Madame Mao seems to have regarded her whole life as the role of a tragic heroine of the revolution as if she were living a play or an opera.

Anchee Min does a good job of telling Jiang Ching’s story, alternating between first person renditions of the lady’s own views and third person comments that often expand on the futures of the people involved or items from the historical record. She made it very easy to understand both the story and the characters, except maybe for Chairman Mao, who seems to have always liked to be a little enigmatic.
Profile Image for Lisa.
271 reviews18 followers
March 24, 2018
I'd love to see inside the Chinese mind. It seems to be full of imagery and very intense, at least that's what I got from the style of this writing and what people and the narrator relate in the story. Do all Chinese write in this lyrical fashion? I tried to figure out what made it FEEL so FEELY. I wonder if Chinese people speak in such illustrative language, so much simile and metaphor.

This was a fascinating and delightful way to learn what was going on in the world when I was a young girl--I had no idea!

Torture and persecution described in this way was jarring but also comforting. Much was left UNdescribed, thank goodness. These were evil people. The author tells it from Madame Mao's point of view, so somehow it all makes sense. Madame was a woman with a WHOLE story, which I am glad to know. The story starts with the binding of the feet, which appealed to me. I'm so INTERESTED in that whole phenomenon.

Opera pressed over her story made me happy; I like how the author did that. The whole "final curtain" thing... how she felt best when playing a role ... how she found her power by using the artists.

Mao. I'm glad there's a hell.

There was a whole lot of gas-expelling in this book--more than in any book I ever read! Actually used the f-word (fart).

Loved her descriptions of people, especially. Here are a few:

"How do these women keep their husbands? One can almost pity Deng Yin-chao for her yam-shaped face. She has turtle eyes, a frog mouth, a hunched back, gray hair, and a soy-sauce-bottle body draped in gray suits. There is no color in her speech. Nor in her expression. Yet her husband Premier Zhou is the most handsome and charming man in China. I am pleased with Deng Yin-chao. She is a lady who knows when to shut up, when to disappear, and she treats me like a queen.
Wang Guang-mei is not so wise. Wang Guang-mei is the opposite of Deng Yin-chao.
Madame Mao Jiang Ching can hardly stand Wang Guang-mei. Wang Guang-mei is a New Year's lantern that shines the way to warmth."

"Vice-chairman Liu has a donkey's long face. His skin is the surface of the moon. He has bad teeth and a big garlic nose. It is his wife, Wang Guang-mei, whose beauty and elegance bring to light his quality."

"Marshall Lin has always been physically weak -- the opposite of his name, which means king of the forest. He is so thin that he can be blown by wind. His wife has told me that he can't stand light, sound, or water. Like a thousand-year vase, he decays from the moisture in the air. He has a pair of triangle eyes and grassy eyebrows. He tries to hide his slight frame in military uniform. Still, one can tell his sickness by the bamboo-thin neck and the lopsided head as if it weighs too much for the neck."
Profile Image for Gianna.
128 reviews10 followers
December 13, 2012
Sure, I knew about the Cultural Revolution, but I never wondered about Mao’s personal life or about the personal life of Madame Mao. Drawing on actual historical figures and events, Anchee Min creates a compelling fictionalized portrait of Mao’s forth wife, the woman known as the “white-boned demon” even when she was alive. We see the young, spirited girl struggling first to survive and then to establish herself as an actress. We can even sympathize with her. Anchee Min, who was an actor herself, certainly has the background knowledge to describe the artistic circles at the time.

We see Yunhe’s —the girl who fights against having her feet bound—gradual transformation to Jiang Ching in the greatest role of her life: on the stage of her marriage to Mao and, eventually, at the core of political leadership in China. “For Madame Mao,” writes Min, “there is no line between living and acting. The Cultural Revolution is a breathing stage and Mao is her playwright” (p. 184).

At times, the main character is powerfully convincing. At times, she comes across as one-dimensional. For example, her desire for political power seems fueled entirely by her very personal desire to please Mao and to become closer to him. We learn about Jiang Ching's machinations, about her vindictive actions and her most intimate thoughts, but I am not sure I know who exactly she was and what exactly drove her, even after I closed the book.

The style is fairly dramatic, sometimes overly dramatic, and Min is good at using metaphors. The tiger metaphor, for example, runs through the second half of book as Madame Mao’s political life is compared to riding a tiger: One cannot get off the back of the tiger because she will be eaten. I actually liked the interplay between the first-person account (the character’s own voice) and a third-person view. The rhythm felt strange at times. Min likes to use a series of clipped, incomplete sentences, and I realize she does it for effect,
but it just sounded as if a composer had overused the “staccato” notes in a piece of music. I can't imagine that it is easy to write about someone like Madame Mao, especially in a work of fiction, but Min’s book is an interesting perspective on her life.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,216 reviews
February 23, 2008
Although I liked much about this book, I also found it very disturbing and even frightening. The fact that I read it while I had a serious case of the flu and probably a high temperature might have influenced my reaction. The book is a fictionalized account of the rise of an actress, the girlchild of a last concubine, to the role of the powerful Madame Mao in China. I use the word "role" purposively since this girl Lan Ping (she changes her name 4 times so it is hard to identify her by name) lives life as a series of roles. I loved the writing style - the sentences are short, almost jerky at times, but they give an incredible sense of immediacy to the story - probably part of why I found it so disturbing. The style also very successfully shifts constantly from first person to third person. Since the protagonist is almost always looking at herself as a role, this is particularly effective. At first I was a bit annoyed by the protagonist's breaking into tears at nearly every scene, but that too became clear was simply that she could only play life as a role and she had limited experience in other than overly dramatic roles. What I found disturbing was the all-too vivid portrayal of the politics of China during this period. The fear - actually paranoia, distrust, arbitrariness, and self aggrandizement is terrible to read about. I kept thinking about trying to exist in such an atmosphere. And I kept thinking about the Chinese people and their incredible resilience. How can they have emerged with any happiness or enthusiasm or energy?
Profile Image for Tess.
59 reviews
November 13, 2011
This book incorporates some of Mao's writings and poems which I found appropriate. I enjoyed reading the book but found some difficulty because of many characters involved. I found Madame's Mao life very colorful starting from her family background, career as an actress and her role as Chairman Mao's wife.

Some interesting points mentioned about Mao were having many concubines (most of which were actresses) for longevity but his health dwindled maybe because of poor diet and old age. I was a little disgusted at one point Chairman Mao instructed his wife to pursue a favorite concubine to stay with him at their quarters in Beijing.

In the book, Chairman Mao did not trust his wife completely and had turned over his power to one of his cabinet members (based on a document found at his quarters). Here I am not sure if this document was forged or not since many were after Mao's supremacy. This was a clear disappointment for Madame Mao as she herself worked hard to gain Mao's attention and dominance over China.

During her lifetime, some important facts I come to know about Madame Mao, she had 3 Chinese names, 4 husbands including Mao, 1 daughter (Nah) whom she was not much of a mother too and was known as the White bone demon because of her influential support to the proletarian Cultural Revolution which destroyed and changed many lives across China.

After Mao's death, she was arrested in 1976 until her suicidal death in 1991. I really wonder while serving jail time if it was true that she was making daily production of Chinese dolls for export?
Profile Image for Julie.
1,309 reviews91 followers
September 16, 2019
I was intrigued by an inside look into the life of Mao through his wife’s eyes, but I was disappointed in the overall narrative. It started slow because it took me a while to get used to the unusual cadence of the writing. The first third is a vicious cycle of our title character (before she become’s Mao’s wife, she goes through several name changes) falling into tumultuously passionate love with various men. It gets a little redundant as those relationships deteriorate, one after another.

When she finally does meet Mao, before he becomes the de facto ruler or China, she recognizes his power and clings to him because of it. “I sense a peculiar side of my lover’s nature. It is his ability to deal with suffering. It is what makes Mao.” The next third of the book is Madame complaining about how her husband shuts her away and doesn’t involve her in his world. By the time she finally does become a visible force in Mao’s politics, I had enough. There was so much backstabbing and double crossing, and all Madame ever wanted was to be in the spotlight, and she had no qualms about keeping her position no matter the cost.

I just couldn’t feel enthusiastic about a character who was selfish, duplicitous, and unsympathetic. I didn’t get a feel for how Mao’s policies affected the nation as a whole, just how Madame thought her own treatment was unfair.
Profile Image for Pamela.
Author 1 book32 followers
October 23, 2008
I was fascinated reading this fictional account of the life of Jiang Qing, one of the most hated women of the 20th century. Called the White Boned Demon by many, she has born the brunt of blame for the Cultural Revolution and other evils. Anchee Min's book takes a step into the heart and soul and humanizes this woman seen as many to be the epitome of evil. The author does not excuse her actions, but does help explain them. Having read a good bit about Mao himself and about the last 75 years of Chinese history, I found Min's account pretty plausible and believable.

Her switching viewpoints from the first to third person on just about every page would be in other cases off-putting, but somehow seemed to work here. It was like stepping inside Madame Mao's head, then back out again to a little more objective place.

All in all, a good book, though it may not be for everyone.
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,450 reviews9 followers
January 23, 2012
A very involved narrative of Madame Mao, and how she evolved from a beautiful young actress in Shanghai into Mao's mistress and then wife. Her love for acting stays with her until death and presents itself in her inner thoughts and political achievements. At the end she is a bitter old woman, made that way by her constant attempts to win Mao's love. Mao's feelings about her fluctuate, and he toys with her emotions so much that she becomes paranoid, mean-spirited, and vindictive. The story makes for interesting reading, but I didn't care for the authors writing style much.
Profile Image for Mmars.
525 reviews93 followers
May 5, 2012
This is a richly imagined telling of Madame Mao. I think I enjoyed it more for the insight on what it must have been like to be married to, and dominated by, The Chairman. I have a penchant for stories about women who live subverted lives and do everything in their power to survive under the circumstances. Granted, I often can't agree with their choices and actions, but I am fascinated with the ingenious ways they find to survive. And, sadly, this is history folks.
Profile Image for M.M. Strawberry Library & Reviews.
3,993 reviews314 followers
May 21, 2017
I read Empress Orchid before this one, that book was my first Anchee Min novel. I can't say that this book is as good, but it's still a enjoyable read with Ms. Min's fluid writing and wording. It's a fascinating if somewhat fictionalized look into the life of Madame Mao. If you are a fan of Anchee Min, you should enjoy this book, but if you've never read Anchee Min before, start with 'Empress Orchid' or 'Red Azlaea'.
Profile Image for Christine.
34 reviews9 followers
April 21, 2011
I found this a very difficult book to read becausing of the constantly changing Point of View. I couldn't get by this artifical contrivance by the author and did not read more than 2 chapters before giving up.
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