This is an honest and frightening memoir of growing up in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Min describes a systematically deprived Shanghai childhood (the family was forced into successively meaner quarters); school days spent as a member of the Red Guard, spouting the words of Chairman Mao and being forced to publicly betray her favorite teacher; and later teen years on a work farm in order to become a peasant because peasants were the only true vanguard.
It is amazing that in the context of the Cultural Revolution, in the painful struggle that was her life from the very start, Anchee Min can find at times some humor and happiness. She struggles and achieves intimacy with her hero Yan. She manages to escape the m4isery of the Red Fire Farm. Eventually, she escapes to America. She writes of the events of her early life with a clarity that leaves even a steeled cynic feeling sympathy. The struggles with her classmates, the loss of her childhood pet, the struggle against the enemy Lu, the loss of her first lover, the loss of her new lover and her new chance at stardom amount to misery beyond that which most Westerners can imagine. And yet, the simplicity of her writing at times and the extremely limited scope of her autobiography betray an attempt for sympathy, if not for her personally, then for the Chinese People. It also betrays a desire to be seen as a wounded, innocent victim in the middle of the mess that was politics and social “order” when indeed she herself was a good deal luckier than many of her contemporaries.
Perhaps it is impossible to render a fair assessment of the accuracy in her writings. Though I may see as the God That Never Dies, I also look at it from the perspective of a cynical westerner. The fanaticism, which she attributes to the more despicable characters, is only matched by the ridiculous extent of her hero worship of others. She seems hardly believable at times, and at others ignores clearly important details (the clarity of her relationships always comes through about as muddy as the mosquito netting above the bed). As a story of the human spirit and its blind, ceaseless perseverance, the writing excels. Unfortunately, as a narrative of why the suffering happened, and how it could have been prevented, it fails miserably.
Abject poverty with misery and suffering and yet people still had large families voluntarily (unlike a similar Communist regime, Romania, where large families were at one point dictated by the state). The portrayal of the pursuit of the “ideal number” of deadly snakes and the value attributed to “Tiger Balm” reveals the weak foundations of logic in the society and among its victims. All brutality and suffering are founded on one basic principle the toleration of brutality and suffering. Had the workers of the Red Fire Farm stood up and resisted the stupidity of their efforts, they would have likely been killed or ostracized. Had all of the workers of all of the various other ridiculously placed farms resisted, then perhaps some would have gained better conditions. Either way, it would have been a far better end than toiling endlessly among the leeches and the dying crops, while memorizing the little red book from cover to cover. The words “give me liberty or give me death” never rang so true.
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