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A Reader's Guide

Becoming Madame Mao

Q & A with Anchee Min

Q) Why did you write this book?

A) I believe Madame Mao deserves a more decent place in the history books. She had a strong influence over my entire generation, especially women, and yet she has been officially wiped out of Chinese history. She is called a "white-boned demon." But in truth she was an early feminist who was caught up in the whirlpool of Mao's political and personal life. As a writer, I felt it was my job to make an effort to understand Jiang Ching as a human being. I tried to delve behind the myth and see who she really was.

Q) Why is this a historical novel and not a biography?

A) The historical facts of her life fascinated me, and after three years of research, the characters began to sound themselves out in my head. The style came to me naturally. With solid history as a foundation, I was able to build up the story with confidence. The original material was so rich and exciting that it enabled me to visualize Mao and Jiang Ching as a man and a woman, walking in time toward each other, leaning on each other. They touched and fell in love. They entered the cave at Yenan and closed the door tightly behind them. And here — here is where the historians are shut out.

What happened? What could have happened? The love affair of the century, a passionate actress and a great warrior and poet? Here is where I entered as a novelist. I just opened the door and lunged in. I had such a good time exploring and tracing the possible events, forging links between the hard facts and other assumptions. My imagination was fueled by the couple's correspondence and poems. I could hear their voices speaking through me: the sound of their pillow talk, their heavy breathing, their laughter, arguments, and cries.

Q) Did you have any personal connection with Madame Mao?

A) Yes. Our paths crossed in an extraordinary set of circumstances. I grew up with her revolutionary operas — all Communist brainwashing, of course. But the irony is, she had a lot to do with my becoming a willful, independent woman. Her political operas had an impact on me. They represented her idea of a modern woman, and the idealized characters mirrored the images of her own life. The female protagonists were portrayed as leaders. They were courageous, although as I see it now, they were also deprived of love and intimacy. I was able to recite every one of Madame Mao's operas from beginning to end. I modeled myself after her heroines during my teens.

Madame Mao was about to inherit Mao's empire after his death in 1976 and was shooting a propaganda film (sort of like a campaign commercial) to help ease her way into power. She was looking for a working-class girl to play her leading role, and I happened to be chosen from a labor camp by her talent scouts. After I was taken to Shanghai, the Film Studio trained me to act and I went through a lot of screen tests. But the film was never completed, because Madame Mao was overthrown shortly after Mao's funeral. She was denounced and sentenced to death. I was declared Madame Mao's follower, and as punishment I was forced to work as a set clerk on temporary contracts at the Shanghai Film Studio for eight years. The only positive outcome was that in the process of clearing my name, I ended up obtaining some first-hand material about her life. I investigated and spent time with her friends and enemies to learn the truth.

Q) Do you admire Madame Mao?

A) That's a hard question to answer. Madame Mao was a strong woman in a culture and an environment where women were not allowed to be strong. She experienced pain early. Her rebellious character was formed when her feet were bound. She took control of her life by ripping off the cloth. I can't say that I don't admire her at this point; it's what she did later that I despise. Her life was a real - life soap opera, with all the elements of love, betrayal, and tragedy. The heartbreaking part is that she let her frustration corrupt her soul. Without being conscious of her actions — she thought she was doing China good—she let her ambition be the only ruling factor, which led to the nation's destruction.

Q) Do you feel that she is misunderstood somehow?

A) Yes. There is a big part of her character that is misunderstood. People have a problem believing that she and Mao were once in love. How can a demon be in love? Or know love the way we humans do? The general population in China — and historians — believe that she seduced Mao and that's why Mao failed China. She is held responsible for Mao's poor judgment, his decisions, his actions. In my view this is nothing but a Chinese cliché — the downfall of every dynasty was the fault of a woman. Today Mao's portrait hangs high at the Gate of Tianenmen Square in Beijing and he is considered by many to be China's George Washington, while his wife of 38 years was denounced and sentenced to death.

Q) Were you in China when she was sentenced?

A) Yes. At the trial she shouted, "Long live Maoism!" She didn't believe that she was destroying China. Quite the opposite. That's how she had the guts to hang herself before the execution. It's just as she taught us in her propaganda films — either live by what you believe or die with pride and dignity.

Q) Do you think that society and China's cultural climate conspired against Jiang Ching and forced her to become who she was?

A) Certainly. As an author I believe that it is important to show that nobody is born evil. After the Communists won the civil war, Mao became China's modern emperor; he was a playboy who got every beauty he set his eyes on. He had an obsession with actresses, especially opera and film actresses. And he believed in sleeping with virgins to keep himself vital. Imagine Madame Mao as a woman, a wife, and how she felt. Though I don't accept her, I can almost understand why she chose evil.

For nearly 30 years she suffered and plotted. She waited for the day when she could manipulate herself into power and, more important, back into Mao's heart. The Cultural Revolution was her chance. China was ready for her. She was in ecstasy — playing a leading lady on a live stage and in love with Mao once again. It's a perfect opera from beginning to end.

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