Review

Wild Ginger

by Anchee Min



The year is 1969 and Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution is sweeping
through China --- the government is in turmoil, the entire
educational system is disrupted, and violence is the order of the
day. You're either a revolutionary or you're a low-down
reactionary, and in this world, you don't really have a choice ---
you are what they say you are. "They" usually being the Red Guard,
a semi military unit made up of young people who consider it their
sole duty to ferret out counterrevolutionaries and beat the
"reactionary dust" from their bodies and minds.

Maple, the novel's 14-year-old narrator, dreams of the day she will
be old enough to join the People's Liberation Army and die fighting
China's enemies, thus proving her loyalty to Mao. But in the
meantime, it is her classmates she must fight off, particularly
school bully and head of the local division of the Red Guard, Hot
Pepper, who insists Maple is an anti-Maoist reactionary because she
is not from a "three-generation-of-labor family." Maple endures
these horrifically brutal attacks daily and has in fact become
almost used to the routine, until the day a strange and beautiful
new girl joins the July 1st Elementary school and changes
everything.

Her name is Wild Ginger and she is immediately singled out for
persecution by Hot Pepper and the other revolutionaries for her
"foreign-colored eyes" and fearless attitude. Unlike Maple, Wild
Ginger defends herself against Hot Pepper's accusations and even
fights back when Hot Pepper's gang attempts to beat her into
submission. Incensed that the newcomer refuses to reveal her
background, Hot Pepper steals Wild Ginger's dossier and gleefully
reports to the entire school that Wild Ginger's father was a
Frenchman and her mother a whore. Wild Ginger does not deny these
new accusations and is beaten severely.

Bonded by their outsider status, Wild Ginger and Maple become close
friends and allies --- they still suffer the stinging blows and
jabs of the Red Guard's bayonet-like umbrellas and sticks, but at
least they are not alone in their suffering. Although Maple learns
that Wild Ginger's deceased father was only half-French and her
mother was once an opera singer not a whore, Wild Ginger confides
to Maple that she is nevertheless deeply ashamed of her parents and
is more than willing to do anything she can to distance herself
from them so she can one day become a "Maoist star" in the
Communist party. Maple humors her friend but knows that Wild Ginger
has about as much of a chance of being accepted into the Communist
party as she herself does.

After her mother commits suicide amidst accusations that she is a
spy, Wild Ginger is left to fend for herself as an orphan. She
begins working in the fish market as a preparer, a grueling and
demeaning job that pays little. She spends any extra time she has
memorizing Chairman Mao's words and speeches, hoping to enter and
win the Mao Quotation-Reciting contest. She eventually loses the
competition (even though it is obvious to all that she was the
clear winner) but in the process is befriended by contest champion
Evergreen, who admires Wild Ginger's determination to gain
acceptance among the revolutionaries. Evergreen is an ardent Mao
activist and head of the Red Guard at his middle school. The two
develop intense feelings for each other but cannot act on them
because to do so would go against the Chairman's teachings --- love
is seen as human weakness and there is no place for weakness in
Mao's army.

When Wild Ginger uncovers some unsavory and decidedly anti-Maoist
activity on the docks where she works, she sets off a series of
events that will immediately grant her the life she's always wished
for. Her heroism on the docks thrusts her into the national
spotlight where she is labeled a Maoist hero and invited to meet
Mao himself. As a result of that meeting, Wild Ginger is accepted
as the youngest member of the Communist party, pronounced the
commander-in-chief of the Red Guard and held up as a shining
example to China's youth. She has everything she's ever wanted, but
in exchange must live up to the nearly impossible burden of being
the perfect Maoist citizen --- one false step and she's back to
where she started from --- or worse. Still, Wild Ginger cannot stay
away from Evergreen…

Anchee Min has created an immensely satisfying tale of love, lust,
and revenge set against a backdrop of political upheaval. At once a
coming-of-age novel and a fascinating historical account of a
frightening and confusing period in China's past, WILD GINGER is
Min's best work to date and should earn this talented author many
new fans.

Reviewed by Melissa Morgan (morgan9800@yahoo.com) on January 24, 2011

Wild Ginger
by Anchee Min

  • Publication Date: April 8, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0618068864
  • ISBN-13: 9780618068869