The Book Club

Gaseous Prose

Dear Sarah,

Your thoughtful reply leaves me with the arduous task of discussing Joan Didion and farting, and how each of them (separately!) relates to Anchee Min’s Becoming Madame Mao.

You called Anchee Min “at her best … a less disciplined, poor man’s Joan Didion.” I know you weren’t being entirely serious. Still, my first reaction was: What an insult to Joan Didion, a truly great writer, to mention her alongside someone as pedestrian as Anchee Min.

And yet upon reflection, the comparison is a good one, because Didion illustrates much of what’s wrong with Min’s writing in Becoming Madame Mao. Didion writes about familiar people and events and yet manages to look at them from a distance, with an eye for the details and the perspectives we missed. By contrast, Min writes about people and events unknown to most Americans, hoping that the readers’ unfamiliarity will enable her to retell old stories in gee-whiz fashion without adding telling details or perspectives beyond those already set down by the historians.

Her lame idea of “perspective” is to interpret Jiang Qing, Mao, and others in the book in what you rightly call “dumbed-down” American psychobabble. As you say, at some points she seems to suggest that the Cultural Revolution was the product of low self-esteem; I thought at other points she was reducing the Cultural Revolution to Mao’s personal revenge against teachers and scholars (Page 133). “It becomes one of his reasons to call for a great rebellion–the Cultural Revolution. It is to punish scholars nationwide for his early suffering.” Talk about trivializing and personalizing history! OK, she didn’t have to write a political science textbook, but she might have suggested there were larger ideas and forces at work.

You ask, how common is this sort of therapeutic language in China? In my impression, it’s confined to cities, and relatively new. (I can remember, when I was living in Beijing 15 years ago, inviting Chinese friends to our home to see the movies Tootsie and Kramer vs. Kramer, which was fetchingly titled in Chinese Kramer Fu-fu. Afterwards, we had to explain everything–not just the plots but, especially, what the American characters were feeling, and why.) Freudian concepts haven’t spread too far. In fact, it seems to me the overriding emotions in most Chinese dramas today are the enduring ones that were around long before Freud: friendship, avarice, revenge, the lust for grabbing and keeping power.

Which brings me to the larger point: I think above all that Min was writing a book she hoped would appeal to Americans, and therefore tried to interpret Jiang and Mao in the sort of therapeutic terms she thought Americans would like. Similarly, you ask why Min keeps comparing Mao Tse-tung to Buddha. That struck me as a very un-Chinese comparison (inside China, Mao is most often compared to Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor). But Min knows that while ordinary Americans might not know Qin, they do know Buddha–and Mao and Buddha both had big bellies, round faces, and bald heads. That’s the most superficial sort of comparison, but maybe Min figured what the hell, it’ll do for her American audience.

And so to farting … You ask, what’s with all the flatulence in the book (beyond that of Min’s prose style)? Why do so many characters fart so often? Does flatulence have some special meaning in Chinese culture? 

Well, I can only answer in general terms. China’s always been an earthy culture. People live on top of, alongside, and underneath one another, without the seemingly endless space to spread out that we have in the United States. Historically, there hasn’t been the same stigma about belching, farting, or spitting as in this country. (We Americans have our own idiosyncracies–among them our style of direct, confrontational interpersonal relations–which the Chinese consider comparably disgusting.)

And so maybe Anchee Min was trying to convey some of the earthiness of China, and of Mao and Jiang Qing, with her repetitive images of farting in the book. In fact, I didn’t mind so much. It brought just a touch of China into the book. At least she wasn’t depicting Mao and Jiang Qing as characters destined for the Jerry Springer Show.

All the best,