Krista's Journal: Understanding China's Past Through New Ears

September 13, 2007

Before my interview with Anchee Min, I wasn't sure what she would have to say about faith, if anything at all. But I had read her books. Between the lines of her beautiful, careful prose, I found glimpses of a passion not just to tell about her own life — and the story of China, ancient and modern — but to illuminate the struggles of the human spirit in a society gone awry. Take this passage from her 1995 novel, Katherine:

"The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was pronounced officially "ended" in 1980. I was now a former revolutionary, a status shared by millions.

Chairman Mao had described himself as a servant of the people, but he was just another emperor. For twenty-seven years he played with our minds. Our heads were jars of Maoist pork marinating in five-thousand-year-old feudalist soy sauce. The spoiled mixture produced generations of smelly rotten thoughts. The thoughts multiplied like bacteria.

Since 1976 we had been singing an elegy for Chairman Mao; now we were singing for our own vanished souls."

The titles of our programs are rarely planned in advance; they show themselves in the course of the interviews. And as I began to ask Anchee Min about her understanding of the word "faith," she spoke of her earliest devotion to the "religion" of Mao. Now, through Anchee Min's eyes, China's recent past became comprehensible to me in a way history books have never conveyed.

We're rebroadcasting this program in conjunction with Anchee Min's latest book — the second in her historical fictional account of China's last imperial court and its empress, Orchid. But I hear her voice and experiences and insights with different ears this year. At present, there is a surge of interest in Confucianism as well as other religions, as new generations of Chinese grapple for moral bearings in a booming capitalist economy. And the legacy of Mao itself is unresolved in that now capitalist Communist country. Mao's Cultural Revolution pitted children against parents, neighbors against neighbors. It did so, as Anchee Min describes, by manipulating the weight of China's ancient history and philosophies. It did so with all the mobilizing power and violent excess of religious zealotry.

Ultimately, Anchee Min's perspective is one of survival — of a human spirit that remains vigorous through the most dire and brutalizing experiences. She is one of the most exuberant human beings I've ever encountered. She radiates delight in the simple fact of being alive and free. She is fully American now and paradoxically, she says, more Chinese than ever before.

She admits that the forced labor camp in which she spent her youth destroyed many of its inhabitants. She might understandably have emerged wounded, cramped, closed to life. But she seems to have emerged with another extreme response: gratitude, years after her escape, for every moment and every breath she takes. On the day I met her at her home near San Francisco, she had just climbed off the last plane of an exhausting book tour. Despite her weariness, she was gracious, welcoming, and entertaining.

Anchee Min has no developed theology, but she does inhabit a very large soul. I feel privileged to have spent an hour asking her to put words around that. I think you'll enjoy being in her presence too. And like the best of true and deep personal narratives about life, this one also helps explain the world we inhabit.

Recommended Reading

Image of Red Azalea
Author: Anchee Min
Publisher: Berkley (1995)
Binding: Mass Market Paperback, 352 pages

Anchee Min's memoir, Red Azalea, was her breakthrough work, and it is required reading for all of the writing that follows. I can't do it better justice than a reviewer in the Sunday Times of London, who wrote that Red Azalea "is as simple as a young girl's diary and as evocative as the most skilled poetry."

Image of The Last Empress
Author: Anchee Min
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2007)
Binding: Hardcover, 320 pages

Min's latest book, The Last Empress, is the sequel to Empress Orchid, an exquisitely researched and detailed novel — a human glimpse inside the cruel, majestic world of Imperial China's Forbidden City. As Anchee Min explores China's past, she makes sense of the present and grows into her mastery as a writer.

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Anchee Min

was born in Shanghai in 1957. She came to the United States in 1984. She's the author of several books, including her memoir Red Azalea and, most recently, The Last Empress, a sequel to Empress Orchid.