Fall 1998, 20th C. Writers
Reflections on Red Azalea
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 misery 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 timesóand the extremely limited scope of her autobiographyóbetrays 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. Whether intentionally or not, the book succeeds at exposing the stupidity of the work and life requirements delegated by the politics in China during this period. Unfortunately, it also succeeds at exposing the stupidity of the people who tolerated it. The picture of young men and women, toiling endlessly among the leeches and the reeds in the lifeless fieldsóto achieve some communist proletariat idealóalmost leads me to laughter. Abject poverty with misery and sufferingóand 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 is founded on one basic principleóthe 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.
However, at the same time, I am reminded of the daily struggles that take place in totalitarian communist societies. The people are too occupied finding their daily food ration to contemplate a revolution. Although in all societies, there always exists the ability to overturn a government whose policies are unacceptable, there very rarely exists the will required to do so. Here, brutality and suffering was certainly present (it oozed from every pore) but the will to resist it seemed nearly absent. Little Green was the only one willing to resist, and even though she suffered a pitiful fate, she became the only genuinely admirable figure in the whole mess. Although the workers suffered immensely, the people somehow managed to survive. Although the crops failed miserably, the work still persisted. The very essence of obedient communists. What stupidity.
Bach Beckons Once
Writing Workshop II
Dr. Julia Keefer
October 3, 1998
Student marchers gathered in the quad and reported to their section leaders. The noise was thunderous among the militant, the passionate and the curious, as University demonstrators made preparations to advance to the 6th Precinct. President Russo had issued a firm edict that any civil rights demonstrator would risk expulsion from the University. A crimson tsunami of humanity, they numbered in the hundreds as they militantly risked the backlash. The marchers' wearing of red symbolized the bloodshed of five black men, one of them a University student, gunned down during a riot two nights prior. The Daily News had rendered extensive coverage of the killings and the photography captions had insinuated police brutality.
Like a cockatoo in a pack of panthers, Isabel linked her arm through her roommate's and wished she could vaporize back to the safety of their room. A year ago, she would have joined the marchers passionately, but within the last few months an unidentifiable omen had blanketed her. Fragile in stature, but usually strong in spirit, Isabel anxiously wrung her hands in her shirt. A disciple of the Peking Opera, she hummed an aria from The Patriotic Princess and her morale brightened as the sun climbed out of the Hudson, and the megaphones announced the march's advance.
Isabel spied Renee running along the flank of dissenters. A Political Science major, Renee was their social conscience and the University organizer who demonstrated for women's rights, civil rights and world human rights. Renee dubbed herself the University's conceiver and mother of rights. Striding over to her roommates, she reported that Meredith would be addressing the protestors at 10:00. As an aspiring actress, Meredith delivered stirring orations. Isabel proclaimed that Meredith spoke in tongues when taking an assembly to task, and that she was Renee's most penetrating weapon. Today's manifesto would be powerful, for Meredith had been rehearsing her lines throughout the night as her emotional message floated in and out of her sleeping roommates' consciousness.
The fourth was conspicuously missing. They were like a three-legged gazelle without her, but she was adamant in her refusal. Lynne was disdainful of demonstration's journey, especially it's repercussions to her career. She was on the fast track to NASA and had no intention of allowing a social cause to abort her liftoff. Every code of the University rule book was committed to memory and she was fervent in her devotion to each. This morning as she flipped through an engineering text distractedly, Lynne listened to the marchers' uproar and scornfully shook her head.
Large in number and mission, the demonstrators plodded along their designated route. At 9:30, they turned down 10th Street smack into a surprising quandary. A police barricade had been erected like a fort around the Precinct two blocks square. Renee gave the order to break through, and the unsophisticated soldiers swarmed the stockade. Isabel watched terrified as Meredith was carted away choking on teargas. Four uniformed policemen tossed her like a corpse into a paddy wagon with twenty other patriots. There were at least fifty wagons waiting to cart the flailing demonstrators off to a holding cell. Beaten with police clubs and trampled, faces blended with shirts.
Renee sped in and out of the fray, avoiding blows and imprisoning grasps, until she spotted Isabel crouched on heel with arms cradling her head. Gracefully out of place, Isabel waited for the Chinese commander to sweep her away while the peasants chanted. Renee guided her into a doorway. There they were able to avoid attention and arrest as the screaming commotion engulfed them until they needed to be sick. Hours crawled by until the noise and their nausea subsided.
Skyscrapers imprisoned the light before they emerged from their doorway and furtively ran back to the University campus. All the while, Isabel wrung her hands. By the time they had reached their room's safety, she was hysterical for water to wash. Renee and Lynne helped her soap where there was no dirt.
Around midnight, Meredith returned triumphantly with bruised face and swollen eye, and Isabel returned to the sink. The four huddled together as the campus speakers broadcasted President Russo's pledge that a full investigation would ensue. As night turned to dawn, thoughts spun their webs around Isabel's bathroom wanderings. Renee wondered how long before she would be asked to leave the University. Meredith wondered if stage makeup would cover her purple wounds for her court appearance and summer troupe audition. Isabel wondered why her bookish professorial interest always seemed distracted, and if she would get his attention with the march's details. Lynne wondered if NASA's funding would be tapered if Nixon was impeached.
On Red Fire Farm, somewhere between Shanghai and the China Sea, Green Leaf made ritual a religion. Every evening after day's work, she wiped her manure-stained fingernails and obsessively scrubbed away the vestiges of the workers' nightmarish operations. Composing operatic arias, she practiced mind power like the American POW she had observed in a North Vietnamese propaganda film. Green Leaf visualized each day in the fields as her own operetta, but there were always intruding realities. As she picked murderous leaches off her legs, her fragile spirit wandered out of body and threatened to keep on traveling. One afternoon, she thought she saw Richard Bach's plane as he beckoned her spirit to follow him. "We are One in many dimensions," he called out in perfect Mandarin as his plane swept over the rice paddy. "Follow me and choose liberation!" That night Green Leaf's despairing fingers plucked at her matted hair as she listened to Yan and Lu's hateful political debating. Yan, the social communist, despised Lu's lack of integrity and advancing self-interest. She was not a worthy Party representative of the People. As the heated decibel ebbed and flowed, Green Leaf eavesdropped through the filthy mosquito netting as Anchee recited her lines for the Party's film competition, and the propaganda whirled through her head like frenzied locusts.
Every nightfall until light, Green Leaf meandered aimlessly throughout the paddies. The bats considered her an abandoned ancestral ghost and respectfully altered their courses. That evening at midnight, a soothing breeze blew in from the sea, and on its tail, her bookish bespectacled soulmate returned from execution's grave. Bach's co-pilot, he gently guided the Piper toward her and beseeched her to join him. Needing no further proposal, Green Leaf calmly laid face down in the rice paddy's waters and inhaled the stench-filled fluid of the Chinese Party. Her desperate spirit flew like a Monarch freed from her net and ran toward the plane as her mate held out his hand drawing her into the aircraft.
Chairman Mao watched from his tower as one more sensitive Red Guard comrade slipped through dimension's doorway. With one angry swipe of his forefinger, Mao deleted another bead on his abacus... and Isabel ceased washing her hands.
Afro American, The Black Panthers. [On-Line]. http://www.afroam.org/history/Panthers/panther-lead.html
Articles of Impeachment Against Nixon. [On-Line]. http://www.herald.com/archive/watergate/docs/047689.htm
Bach.R. One. (1988). New York: Silver Arrow.
Min. A. Red Azalea. (1995). San Francisco: Berkley Publishing Group.
Peking Opera. [On-Line]. http://www.chine.pages.com/culture/jj-home.htm