Conform or Die: The Maoist Travail of Anchee Min’s “Red Azalea”

There was a saying that made the rounds back in the day (and daze) of the late ’70s, courtesy of the Grateful Dead’s second album, “What a Long Strange Trip It Has Been.” Having now read Anchee Min’s harrowing, urgent memoir of her experience in China during Chairman Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” of roughly the same era, I am here to say: The Grateful Dead don’t know squat about “long strange trips.”

Originally published in the United Kingdom in 1993 and the U.S. a year later, “Red Azalea” is the kind of coming-of-age story that is initially much less about triumph than it is about mere survival.

By the end of her tale, that survival nevertheless qualifies as triumph aplenty, given the travails she contends with and eventually escapes from in the merciless, rigidly proscribed world engineered by the personality cult that was Mao Zedong. Mao founded the modern “People’s Republic of China” in 1949 with an able, dogged, and equally heartless assist from his fourth and last wife, Jiang Qing, who also looms large over “Red Azalea.”

‘Long live the great proletarian dictatorship!’ Min then shouts out to the crowd, even as she feels in her bones the deep revulsion of betraying her teacher.

Min had the misfortune of growing up under the ruling couple’s decade-long (1966-76) cultural revolution, a reign of terror that brutalized, relocated, and/or executed large swaths of the population.

This while Mao extolled the virtuous life via his “Little Red Book” and Jiang indulged her passion for the arts by promoting engagement of the proletarian masses in “socialist” opera, theater and film, with themes exclusively devoted—no “deviancy” allowed—to spouting banalities of revolutionary struggle.

Along the way, the Maos also sought to complete the previous “Great Leap Forward’s” seizure of all private property and businesses and enforce a lockstep conformity of political, cultural and economic activity that set children against parents, neighbor against neighbor, and ultimately, humans against their own natural yearnings for self-identity and self-determination.



In a strangely compelling, spare, almost hypnotic prose of tightly declarative sentences that pour out of her as if she’s chasing and swatting mosquitos rat-a-tat-tat around a room, Min describes scene upon scene of the pummeling of all personality in Mao’s all-for-all erasure of individual human sovereignty.

The oldest of four children each born a year apart, Anchee is “raised on the teachings of Mao and on the operas of Madam Mao. I became a leader of the Little Red Guards in elementary school.”

That doesn’t prevent the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and opportunistic neighbors from looking askance at her college graduate parents and their relatively luxurious two-bedroom Shanghai townhouse apartment, though.

When Anchee is 10, the family is savagely driven out at a moment’s notice by what are essentially thugs with a family that includes multiple burly sons, and who don’t consider it “fair” for Anchee’s family to enjoy so much space. So they enforce an instant “trade” of living quarters.

No one comes to their rescue, and the family is forced to settle in a wretched collectivist apartment it shares with two other families.

When her mother makes an error on an assignment devoted to praising Chairman Mao at a “re-education” meeting a couple of years later, all hell breaks loose, and she is distraught beyond imagining.

“She was criticized at the weekly political meeting that everyone in the district had to attend. They said she had an evil intention. She should be treated as a criminal. My mother did not know how to explain herself. She did not know what to do. I drafted a self-criticism speech for my mother. I was 12 years old. I wrote Mao’s famous quotations. I said Chairman Mao teaches us that we must allow people to correct their mistakes. That’s the only way great Communism is learned.”

A year later, Anchee is coerced and coached to denounce a much-beloved teacher as a possible American spy for the purported crime of assigning Hans Christian Anderson stories to her charges.

The teacher had kept a diary that Communist Party officials had seized in which she noted Min as one of the few “educable” children under her care. This is tantamount to sin for the Party, evidence that the teacher would “present it to her American bosses as proof of her success as a spy.”

Days after Min’s compliant reporting of the teacher who had shown her every kindness, the teacher is hauled before the entire school community. A wooden sign reading “Down with American spy” hangs from her neck, and her arms are tied and twisted painfully behind her.

Her captors then force her roughly to bow thrice before Mao’s portrait while begging for forgiveness.

“Long live the great proletarian dictatorship!” Min then shouts out to the crowd, even as she feels in her bones the deep revulsion of betraying her teacher.

It would represent but one of the dizzying juncture points her life hinges on before she makes it to America 14 years later and writes this book that will earn “New York Times” bestseller and “Notable Books of the Year” honors, with translations following in some 30 countries around the world. (China is not among them.)


The revolution was not televised…


Maoist China is a world where intellect is suspect and the merest shade of bourgeois sensibility is punishable at the very least by lost jobs and social ostracism. Min’s parents are re-assigned from teaching to common labor jobs, and at 17, Anchee is subject to the requirement that every family contributes to peasant life by having one member assigned to an agrarian collective farm.

There, she joins thousands of other youth “soldiers” who are essentially unwaged slaves, working the “Red Fire Farm” fields from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Anything resembling free time is devoted to endless recitations and discussions of the “Little Red Book” and its insufferable maxims along the lines of, “Be resolute, fear no sacrifice, and surmount every difficulty to win victory!”

In a tableau that Min conveys as a sort of dead young women walking, she chronicles endless toil, bad or insufficient food, fungal infections from earthen barracks floors and muddy fields, the sparest of bunkbed lodging and sanitary facilities, and desperate infighting among the conscripts for some semblance of status and power.

“We were dogs. We fought for other’s meat,” she writes.

And one more thing, given the fact of the young culture warriors being mostly late teenage-to-early 20-year-olds: repressed or deeply sublimated sexuality.

Min is awed, intimidated, and finally gives in to deep admiration and attraction for the group’s leader—Party Secretary and Commander Yan Sheng. (“‘Yan’ as in ‘discipline,’ ‘Sheng’ as in ‘Victory,’” she sternly tells the group at its introductory meeting. “You can call me ‘Yan.'”)

Min describes her at first sight:

“She had a pair of fiery intense eyes, in which I saw the energy of a lion. She had weather-beaten skin, thick eyebrows, a bony nose, high cheekbones, a full mouth in the shape of a water chestnut. She had the shoulders of an ancient warlord, extravagantly broad. She was barefoot. Her sleeves and trousers were rolled halfway up. Her hands rested on her waist. When her eyes focused on mine, I trembled for no reason. She burned me with the sun in her eyes. I felt bare.”

Fearsome as she appears, Yan winds up taking a shine to the new recruit, and they eventually become not so secret lovers. Her assistant, Comrade Lu, covets her job and seizes on the development, but Yan out-maneuvers her at every turn with Party officials.

Min spills plentiful ink in deftly describing the complicated but ever-growing passion of the couple and the knots it presents for their untangling.

Meanwhile, another comrade meets a boy from a neighboring farm, and their night-time liaisons under the cover of fields are discovered by a flashlight-bearing posse led by Yan, with Min among the group. The boy is beaten and soon executed after officials coerce the girl into claiming rape. She later takes her own life.

These are the potential wages for violating Chairman Mao’s dictates for living a chaste life, dedicated to moral rectitude and societal good.


Study session, “Mao’s Little Red Book”


Ultimately, talent scouts scouring the countryside for fresh faces to represent the cultural revolution via Jiang Qing’s much heralded theatrical works land on Min’s great beauty and intelligence and whisk her away to Shanghai, leaving a spiritually bereft Yan behind. There, Min engages in a long and fierce competition to win a heralded feature role portraying Jiang as the revolution’s pre-eminent darling—its “Red Azalea.”.

Disappointment, degradation and psychological warfare occasionally yield to hope for Min’s lasting success, but few people enjoy the good fortune and wiles to navigate the treachery awaiting in art that serves strictly political ends in a cutthroat milieu, where the price of losing tends to be severe.

The intense maneuvering for favor among all contestants and administrators is finally brought up short by the world-shattering announcement of Chairman Mao’s death in September, 1976. The turmoil following any such event is exacerbated all the more by the immediate, inevitably deadly power struggle common to all authoritarian regimes.

Jiang Qing and her husband’s legacy come out on the short end of that struggle, his reign denounced in bitter terms as “counter-revolutionary” and his wife vilified, tortured, and sentenced to death. Her sentence is later commuted to life in prison, though she ultimately short-circuits that fate by hanging herself in her jail cell in 1991. (Yes, you can make that stuff up—it’s called “opera.”)


And so ends the artistic dreams of all those associated with the disgraced Mao and Jiang Qing. Anchee manages to survive their downfall, as she always seems to, though she is relegated to a menial job as a go-fer and cleaner for the film studio whose stage she once aspired to.

The larger world had not heard from her yet at that point, but six years later, she manages to secure a visa by conniving her way into a graduate arts program in Chicago by lying about her English proficiency (which was nil at the time) and then watching reams of “Sesame Street” and other choice American television shows before classes start in the fall.

Followed, after much more television and intense dictionary study, by publication of “Red Azalea,” another memoir, six novels (all the books in English), two marriages, two divorces, and one child, a daughter named Lauryann. Min helped get her into Stanford some 15 years ago at least partly by the same force of will in child-rearing that has served her so well in her other, radically varied endeavors.

All of which goes to show, perhaps, the insufficiency of the word “strange” in describing the trip she has been on for lo, these 67 years now—and counting…


Like her mother, Lauryann Jiang sings, dances (see below), holds a graduate degree (Stanford M.B.A.), and has not forgotten her roots…


Four minutes, in her own voice…



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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

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Azalea by Matt, Crowthorne, UK

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8 comments to Conform or Die: The Maoist Travail of Anchee Min’s “Red Azalea”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Anchee Min’s “Red Azalea” is unfortunately a tale too often experienced by those who oppose the powers that be. During the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, our own nation’s historical parallel to the Cultural Revolution, many were forced to find some path forward against a witch hunting crusade designed to obliterate their Constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. Some managed to survive, and some did not. Richard Collins, an early blacklisted screenwriter, succumbed to the pressure and penned the names of individuals within the arts whom he perceived as sympathetic to communism. He even turned in his wife, actress Dorothy Comingore, best remembered for her role as Susan Alexander in “Citizen Kane”. However, she took a different route from her husband and refused to name names. Collins not only divorced her but also gained full custody of their children. Her acting career dried up like a raisin in the sun. Her drinking intensified. She was even arrested for prostitution. Sadly, today there’s considerable evidence that it was a scheme concocted in the backrooms of the LAPD as revenge for her “no” in front of the HUAC hearing. Unlike Min, she was unable to maneuver through the obstacles her courage created and died broken-hearted before her 60th birthday. Her life unfolded like the tragic opera.

    Strangely, Jiang Qing found opera as a perfect conduit to increase her influence with Mao and as his wife became a major figure in his Cultural Revolution. She turned traditional Beijing opera into a personalized ambition to promote her husband’s Great Leap Forward, a complete dismissal of all things Western. Ironically, as a young actress Jiang idolized Hollywood films, particularly Greta Garbo. Obviously, Garbo’s “Ninotchka”, a biting satire on Soviet communism, never saw the light of day. Moreover, “Turandot”, Giacomo Puccini’s unfinished opera about a Chinese princess who refused to acknowledge love, was daggered by her from the outset. I guess you might say it was put on ice; it was a kind of “Nessun dorma”—let no one go to sleep on it. Finally, in 1998, China relented, and Beijing awoke to its music.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hadn’t come across that Collins-Comingore conflict and what we can only imagine to be somewhat strained Happy Hour conversations on their porch through that era, Robert! Talk about putting not only your spouse, but your entire social circle somewhat on edge! It’s a tragic and downright horrible story indeed, and once again, makes the utter strangeness and extravagance of opera turn out to be a lot closer to home than we like to think…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    This post further fuels my astonishment that so many American citizens appear to endorse moving our government from a constitutional republic governed by the rule of law and founded on the principles of individual freedom to a cult of a Dear Leader professing the the ideals of a dictatorship. It’s all quite frightening and sobering. My greatest fear is that so many people seem unaware of this movement sitting before us (now literally and daily in courtroom proceedings).

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, I couldn’t help but note the pervasive allusions to Mao’s cult of personality as I researched this post—it very likely gave him the permission structure he needed to assume the nearly total control he did over the 27 years he ruled China. When the person overwhelms and becomes synonymous with the office, and “only he” can meet the country’s challenges, the rule of law no longer rules, and the country is in deep trouble. So onwards to November we go, with that the only question that really matters, right in front of us…

      • Jay Helman  says:

        Andrew, it strikes me that we are a country/society particularly susceptible to cult of personality influences. We revere celebrities ( even those with little to admire in terms of character or accomplishment), and collectively seem to distrust ( at best) intellect and thoughtfulness. Bold, brash, irreverent, and outrageous gets attention and wins the day. And, apparently, legal woes and high-profile scandalous trials only strengthen allegiances to the cult leader.

  • Robert Miller  says:

    I recall telling people, after reading a biography of Mao, that he made Hitler and Stalin look like lightweights. Imagine my surprise when, in the early 2000’s, I was in Beijing for work, and encountered statues of Mao. Also, one of my jobs has me periodically working with young Chinese pediatricians studying in the U.S. Whenever possible, I try to engage them in off the topic conversation about Chinese history and politics. Typically, they express little knowledge about Mao or the cultural revolution.

    I’m headed back in late June and it will be interesting to see what has changed.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That seems to pretty much line up with Americans’ general knowledge of history and civics, Robert, which can be viewed as either reassuring—”Our people are no more ignorant than the rest of the world!”—or dispiriting—”I thought the U.S. was the only country with the luxury of ignoring history!” I wonder, though, how closely young pediatricians reflect the wider culture. You’d think their education had to include at least a modicum of history through their early years, but if they specialized in the sciences and spent every moment of their doctor training studying their field, perhaps whatever history they did engage with was long shoved to the back of their minds. I wonder if they may also reflect the post-Mao China, too—Keep your head down, do your work, don’t cause trouble, and we won’t give you any trouble (and won’t make you read the “Little Red Book”).

      What’s troubling and new to me is you coming across Mao statues. That would suggest at least a partial public rehabilitation, which is astonishing considering how thoroughly he was trashed as a fanatic, over-reaching despot within days of his death. I assumed that was still more the story than not, but like most assumptions, it wasn’t based on much. Come back here after your next visit and update us!

    • Jay Helman  says:

      Robert, I look forward to your update, and am struck by Andrew’s comment in his reply to you making reference to how Americans tend to push aside uncomfortable truths in our history. The recent/current critical race theory brings Andrew’s observation to light as it underscores the ignorance and discomfort many in our country hold for historical truth.

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