Red Azalea by Anchee Min

Literary criticism.



Celine Kraus

20th Century Global Literature

 "Soviet Wong looked even more bitter" (Anchee Min 177). From this simple statement, the essence of Red Azalea can be drawn, the bitterness, the survivalist cruelty, the conflict that the protagonist has with other characters and her own efforts to develop friendships ultimately lead to an observation of what female strength is and can represent.

As a result of the communist system in China, disunity, bitterness and a sense of individual suffocation within the system was experienced by many. The Supervisor states "it is a stifling world" (Anchee Min 244). The main character, Anchee Min finds herself in conflict with jealous antagonists from a young age but continually in her experiences on the Red Farm and later in her attempt to secure the role of Red Azalea. At one point, she states "Cheering Spear often reminded me of Lu. It seemed that I could never escape from Lus. There were Lus all over China. If was reminded of the old saying ‘poverty gives birth to evil personalities’". (Anchee Min 225) Lu was in fact, a character who attempted to sabotage Anchee Min’s chance at participating in the movie Red Azalea through sheer animosity and enmity. Cheering Spear was one of the contenders for the role Red Azalea who attempted to intimidate Anchee Min and make her look foolish.

As a result of the harsh conditions, people would often attack each other in power struggles, sometimes in quest of material things. An incident of harassment is cited in the beginning of the book where Anchee Min’s downstairs neighbor pretends to be insane and attack members of Anchee Min’s family. Part of the harassment also included piling shit on top of their beds, in an attempt to make the family move so the neighbors could take over their space.

Unlike many of the characters, Anchee Min did not succumb to this survivalist mentality. She, although very neglected in childhood, found comfort through the formation of friendships and attachments. "My life greened because the Supervisor took an interest in me" (Anchee Min 249). She states of her relationship with Yan "I needed Yan to worship" (Andhee Min 56) Her relationships gave her a some respite from the harsh physical and emotional conditions surrounding her.

The repressive nature of the Communist system had a destructive impact on human attachments. Little by little, all Anchee Min’s relations were torn apart. One of her friends, Little Green, lost her sanity and drowned soon after being pressured to portray her sexual relationship as a violation. This concluded with the execution of the man who "raped" her. People were forced to live on farms where they were more or less trapped. When Anchee Min was removed by providence through being selected as a possible contestant for the role of Red Azalea, her relationship with Yan suffered a blow. In one incident where she returns to the farm, she cannot keep from frowning at the food Yan serves her. Her friend tosses the food out while Anchee Min tries to repress her tears. There was now a distinct difference in the quality of each character’s lifestyle.

The connection most elaborated on in Red Azalea was that of Anchee Min and Yan. The two women’s relationship began with Anchee’s distant admiration and gradually evolved into friendship, and finally became a sexual affair. Several passages depict strong erotic encounters.

Through the plot scheme, Anchee Min exposed Yan’s female strength. The author often looked on with admiration at this character, a symbol, somewhat of the Chinese heroine under communism. She was a commander who went to any length to protect her principles. In her friendship with Anchee Min, she jeopardized her own standing in order to ruin the reputation of Lu. Ironically, the symbol of Chinese communism often showed her strength by going against it.

In addition to the sexual aspect of the relationship with Yan and Anchee, strong bonds of emotional support were formed. Yan played an almost motherly role at one point where Anchee was auditioning for her role. While she could not utter the words through anxiety, Yan glared at her to do so, recited the lines silently along with her and beamed when she was done.

The strong female figurines are Yan and Madame Mao. The two characters, in some ways, serve as metaphors for one another. Yan "became a commander…the new soldiers worshipped Yan" (Anchee Min 184). Towards the end of the book, in his depiction of Madame Mao, the supervisor says "she went through battles…she survived" (Anchee Min 288). Here we are introduced to those female heroes which were the substance of the film which was to be made "Red Azalea".

Descriptions of Yan’s beauty in contrast with another woman serve as metaphor. "I adored her long neck and broad shoulders…their elegance" (Anchee Min…210). "She glanced at Yan, admiring her robustness…the bather lowered her head in embarrassment…that woman’s body…a piece of furniture – poor thin back, flat breasts, nipples like drawer knobs, table legs and the face of a crooked eggplant (Anchee Min 210). Yan began by representing communism but turned against it at different points in the book, at one point saying her naivete had made her a killer. The mass population, not rebellious, was plain and ugly, like the bather, while Yan is proud and beautiful.

Yan’s writing style uses fairly simple vocabulary and is straightforward. There are some pleasant descriptions and she will use some of the tools of poetry, such as metaphors.

Following is one of the passages:

The moment I touched her breasts, I felt a sweet shock. My heart beat disorderly. A wild horse broke off its reins. She whispered something I could not hear. She was melting snow. I did not know what role I was playing anymore; her imagined man or myself. I was drawn to her. The horse kept running wild. I went where the sun rose. Her lips were the color of a tomato. There was a gale mixed with tunder inside me. I was spellbound by desire. I wanted to be touched. Her hands skimmed my breasts. My mind maddened. My sense cheered frantically in a raging fire. I begged her to hold me tight (Anchee Min 128).

Some of the tools of poetry are used in this passage. The horse becomes a reflection of her senses it "broke off its reins" and later "kept running wild" Her friend Yan was "melting snow" using a metaphor to describe Yan’s response. Anchee Min’s senses "cheered", using personification. Another metaphor used in this passage is Anchee Min having a "gale mixed with thunder" insider her.

Following are a few writing samples and the poetic tool used:

Other interesting or well formulated phrases:

The last interesting writing format was the use of dialogue without quotation marks, which occurred a few times in Red Azalea and made the descriptions, the characters, the thoughts blend in for a powerful effect.

The book lacks depth but its clear writing style and the vivid descriptions and interesting language turns make it very pleasant and interesting read. I could not find one particular beautiful description of the setting, but these description were mixed all throughout with metaphors and inserted in the dialogue.

Red Azalea is a reflection of Anchee Min’s personal journey as she exits the world of Communist China. This book is autobiographical and the conclusion, where Anchee Min leaves China to go to the US is what, in fact, happened to the author. She currently lives in California with her daughters and has since published two novels in addition to Red Azalea. Her books have received a positive response in the US.