We witness the unfolding of Mao's rise to power as the Long March becomes a victorious campaign through the eyes of Madame Mao after Chiang Kai-Shek is defeated by the Red Army. Mao's closest advisors live in a world of intrigue, none more Machiavellian than the man himself.
We are introduced to the future Mrs Mao while she is an actress named Lan Ping. Sensing a challenge, she envisions herself as Chairman after Mao's death. To this end, she schemes and plots, keeping her eye on this lifelong goal, the most ambitious part she will ever play. Lan Ping is driven by self-interest and self-deceit. As a high ranking party member, her name is changed to Madame Mao Jiang Ching.
Lifelong grudges and petty jealousies provide the excuse for revenge, as Jiang Ching struggles to keep a foothold in the power hierarchy. Blinded by her own delusions, a life of denial causes Madame Mao to frequently misread circumstances, creating more political enemies through the years.
It is important to remember that this is an historical novel, as Ms. Min provides an interesting view of Mao's personal life. He is adept at sidestepping responsibility for the lives needlessly squandered in The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, an experiment at best. Amazed that the Revolution actually succeeds Mao constructs the Communist agenda out of his imagination.
Considering herself a true Revolutionary, Madame Mao is put to the test when she learns that Mao is enjoying a virgin every day in order to attain longevity. Initially shocked by this betrayal of their marriage vows, her practicality asserts itself when she is secretly informed that he also has syphilis. Ever the pragmatist, she makes adjustments. But there is chaos and rebellion throughout Mao's reign as Party Chairman/Emperor of China, and finally undone by her own machinations, Madame Mao is imprisoned after Mao's death.
It is doubtful that I would read this novel a second time since the characters are so unsympathetic, but it is a fascinating read, especially when recalling the 1950's in America when a tremendous threat was seen in The Red Menace and it's Five Year Plan. It is hard to believe that this menace was quite as potent as we were led to believe by our government. But is was certainly a useful tool in uniting Americans against the "enemy".
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Before her stint as Mao's first lady, Jiang Ching, as she was then known, was an actress, a singer, and a star in Communist films. Anchee Min grew up in Red China and watched Jiang Ching from afar; she was fascinated by her for many years, by tales of her independence and strength, and by images of her beauty. In a way, the great villain and demon was a role model for Anchee Min, and her teenage devotion is the engine of her remarkable novel. Moving back and forth between stories of the actress and the evil dictator, Min complicates the Madame Mao of history.
As a girl, Madame Mao narrowly escaped having her feet bound. The book opens with graphic descriptions of this process and of the ensuing infection that freed her. But if her feet were not bound, her spirit was. Reared by a mother who was the last concubine of a rich man, and a father who liked to hit his girls with shovels, Madame Mao as a young girl felt herself doomed: "I see my father hit Mother with a ...