Anchee Min's new novel, Becoming Madame Mao (Mariner Books), is a triumph of historical fiction. In Min's skillful hands, the "white-boned demon," as Madame Mao is known, is given flesh and blood. The myths surrounding her are systematically unraveled to reveal a woman motivated by ambition, fueled by revenge, and tortured by her unrequited love for Mao Zedong.
To millions, Madame Mao Jiang Ching is evil personified; she has been erased from China's history books. In Becoming Madame Mao, Anchee Min resurrects her in a sweeping story that moves gracefully from the intimately personal to the great stage of world history. Every character existed in real life, and the protagonists' letters and poems have been translated from original documents. These facts and Min's personal experiences with Jiang Ching and her closest advisers help to create a story that redefines forever Mao's fourth wife—one of the most interesting women of the twentieth century.
The novel begins in 1919 with Yunhe, a four-year-old girl born to a rural concubine who defiantly refuses to have her feet bound. Again and again her mother tells the girl that "females are like grass, born to be stepped on," but the girl doesn't listen and throughout her life clings to the belief that she is "a peacock among hens." After abandoning an arranged marriage and being abandoned in another marriage, Yunhe runs away to Shanghai to become an actress and renames herself Lan Ping. In her new identity she pursues roles on stage and screen but never gets out of B movies and second-tier operas. Another failed marriage leads her to the role of patriot, and she joins the Red Army. She is sent to the mountainous region of Yenan, where, in 1934, she meets and seduces the charismatic war hero Mao. She wins him for a time in an erotically charged and passionate affair. They marry and he renames her Jiang Ching, but soon after their marriage her jealousy, the machinations of Mao's trusted aides, and Mao's own loss of interest cast her into limbo. By now a veteran of the inner-circle betrayals that Mao encouraged, Jiang Ching attempts to gain personal power, but it becomes her undoing.
Min fluidly details her heroine's series of love affairs and marriages, divorces and acrimonious partings, roles in China's operas and movies, endurance in the shadow of Mao's disfavor, desperate ploys to regain his attention, and brief time in the limelight during the Cultural Revolution. As a chronicle of ambition, betrayal, murder, revenge, barbaric cruelty, paranoia, and internecine rivalry, the narrative races from 1919 to 1991. But Becoming Madame Mao"is foremost a character study of a determined, vindictive, rage-filled, cruel, and emotionally needy woman," writes Publishers Weekly, "who flourished because she reinvented herself as an actress in different self-defined roles — and because China was ready for her."
Jiang Ching was beloved by the Chinese people as the driving force behind the proletarian operas and films that inspired millions. As an architect of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and supposed murderer of Mao, however, she was despised and sentenced to death. Despite being a victim of The Cultural Revolution, Anchee Min felt it was her job as a writer to understand Jiang Ching as a human being. "In truth," says Min, "she was an early feminist who was caught up in the whirlpool of Mao's political and personal life." In Becoming Madame Mao, Min opens Jiang Ching's soul for all to see — the good and the bad — and gives voice to a conflicted, impassioned woman who has been rubbed out of history.