The Book Club

Becoming Madame Mao

Dear Sarah,

I wonder whether you found Becoming Madame Mao as flat and disappointing as I did. As a former Beijing correspondent, I’ve long been a junkie for books about modern China, no matter whether they are biographies, histories, or novels. There are plenty of good books out there. I thought this one, however, was a loser.

Becoming Madame Mao is Anchee Min’s attempt to re-create the life of Jiang Qing, Mao Tse-tung’s third and final wife. Jiang, a former Shanghai film actress, began her relationship with Mao when he and other Communist Party leaders were living in the caves of Yenan in rural China and were trying to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime. She moved to Beijing with Mao when the party came to power in 1949. Despite their often-estranged relationship (Mao in old age seemed to prefer young peasant girls), Jiang became one of the architects of China’s Cultural Revolution, helping to goad on the young Red Guards in their chaotic nationwide revolt against established authority. A few weeks after Mao’s death in September 1976, she was thrown in jail, where she remained until she committed suicide in 1991.

Min’s first book, Red Azalea, was a memoir of her own life in China during the Cultural Revolution, and so she lived under Jiang Qing’s reign of terror. She also claims to have had a distant personal connection to Jiang Qing, because she was once recruited to be an actress for the film studio Jiang controlled. Still, despite all of Min’s reasons to be interested in Jiang, I thought her book failed, both as history and as a novel.

First, on the history: In a piece published in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago, Min boasted that Becoming Madame Mao is “completely accurate. You can check it all out.” In fact, Min’s book has quite a few errors; she could have done a little checking herself. Her retelling of China’s 20th-century history is shaky. The disastrous Great Leap Forward, for example, had been under way for about one year, not two, at the beginning of 1959. I can put aside such nitpicks, but there are also some significant bloopers, ones that go to the heart of the narrative. For example, in Min’s account, after Mao dies on Sept. 9, 1976, Jiang Qing finds that “a new figure, a man named Hua Guofeng, a provincial secretary … has taken over.” But in reality, at the time of Mao’s death, Hua was serving as China’s prime minister, the highest-ranking government official in the nation, after having earlier served as minister of public security. Although he had risen earlier from obscurity, he had already figured prominently in the high-level power struggles that preceded Mao’s death. At the time in question, Jiang Qing and, indeed, most of the rest of China knew well who he was.

If Becoming Madame Mao succeeded in creating a new and vivid portrait of Jiang Qing, such factual errors wouldn’t matter so much. The larger problem is that as history, Min’s account doesn’t go much beyond previous books, and as a novel, it doesn’t work.

Jiang Qing’s life story has already been told, not just in obscure scholarly works, but in popular books like Ross Terrill’s The White-Boned Demon, Roxane Witke’s Comrade Chiang Ching and Dr. Li Zhisui’s Private Life of Chairman Mao. (Min credits these books and others as “references” on the last page of her novel.)

Min apparently felt she could give new insight into Jiang’s career by speculating on her inner life. And so she gives us Jiang Qing as victim: the child who refused to let her feet be bound; the movie star who could never quite land the big role; the concubine who aspires to the power of the emperor she has seduced.

Rarely, however, does Min’s attempt to fill in the historical blanks extend beyond the predictable. The only passages in the novel that come alive are the final 80 pages or so, as Min traces through the power struggles of the Cultural Revolution from Jiang Qing’s perspective. Here, she recounts nicely what it must have felt like as Mao kept all the powerful people serving under him–Lin Biao, Chou Enlai, Jiang Qing and others–off balance.

But I have to confess that if I hadn’t been reviewing Becoming Madame Mao for Slate, I would have stopped reading before I ever got to this last part of the book.

Min’s writing style is downright irritating. She seems to believe that short sentences are inherently profound, when sometimes they are just plain short. She tries to alternate between a few paragraphs of third-person narrative and a few paragraphs of first-person account, as if told by Jiang Qing herself. Yet the two voices aren’t distinctive enough to blend together well, and the result, I thought, was merely to confuse the reader.

Am I being too harsh in my judgments, Sarah?