Anchee Min

There is bamboo in every room of Anchee Min’s house in the hilly East Bay area of San Francisco. It is to remind her of China. The mud on her clothes and in her long hair today also reminds the author of China, specifically the banks of the Yangtze River near where she grew up. ‘I have been out gardening,’ she explains in a Chinese-accented American. ‘I like getting mud on myself. My daughter hates it when I pick her up from school looking like this though. She says I look like a peasant.’

It was looking like a peasant that helped Min escape a Chinese labour camp in 1976.  She was selected to play Madame Mao in a propaganda film. ‘They wanted someone who looked like a peasant. I was the opposite of the Chinese notion of beauty which was to be like Empress Orchid [the subject of Min’s fourth and latest novel, which is favourite to win the British Book Awards later this month]. She had a small mouth and I had a big mouth. She had a tiny nose and I had a big nose. She had fine skin and I had weather-beaten skin. She had pencil thin eyebrows and I had eyebrows like caterpillars. Also I was strong. I could carry 300 lbs of manure. The main reason I was selected to play Mother Mao was the calluses on my hands and shoulders.’

Anchee Min was born in Shanghai in 1957. She was  seven when the Cultural Revolution began. She soon became a model member of the Red Guard. ‘I was beaten all the time at school by bullies,’ she says, ‘but I soon learned that if you worship Mao and memorise the Little Red Book then the beatings stopped. I could recite all 73 pages of it. So I came to see Mao as my saviour — the man who protected me from beatings. I loved him. I became the top student because I was the most committed communist in the class. I was brainwashed. I had a sense of purpose: I thought the rest of the world’s children were much worse off than we were and we could save them.’ Her family of four lived in a one and a half room apartment with a single lavatory shared between eight other people. ‘We all got tape worms and one girl at school died from it. So after that I took some medicine and dragged my tapeworm from my anus. It was very long.’

On her wall she had a portrait of Mao. ‘I took down my mother’s drawing of a lotus flower to make room for it and that upset her. I could never understand why she wouldn’t put up my award certificates for being the best Maoist in the district. I had won one for going on stage and denouncing my teacher as an American spy, even though she was my favourite teacher. She was sent into exile. I couldn’t understand why my mother wasn’t proud of me for that. That is how a regime of terror works: you turn the children against the parents.’

I ask if she ever considered denouncing her mother. ‘Oh I would have, I would have — especially if I had known she was a Christian. Only years later did memories came back to me of seeing her praying at three in the morning in the dark, on her knees. She never once spoke about her religion. It was a secret.’

Min would also have denounced her father, an astronomy teacher, but  one of his pupils beat her to it. ‘When he said that the Sun was the brightest star in the galaxy this was considered an attack on Mao because Mao was supposed to be the brightest star.’

Was there a particular moment when she became disillusioned with Mao? ‘At 17 I was sent to work on a collective farm near the East China Sea. I worked an 18 hour day carrying bags of manure that were double my body weight. My nails were stained brown from fungicide. My back was white from the dried salt of sweat. I was one of the five tigers which means I was one of the five strongest women in my platoon of the Red Guard. We also had to be guards as well you see. I was patrolling the coastline for Taiwanese spies one day and caught a friend of mine having sex in the rice fields. That was not allowed because it was thought decadent. We reported her and she was interrogated and forced to say that her boyfriend had raped her. That was punishable by death. We had a Peoples’ Trial and the guards shouted to all of us: “Should he be executed?” We all shouted “yes”. The boy was taken off immediately on a tractor and shot. His family was billed 26 cents — the cost of the bullet. I live with the guilt of that every day of my life. After that I was confused about Mao. We all were. How could this be done in his name?’

As she became disillusioned, Min realised that it was not only wrong to suppress sexual desire but difficult. She had a lesbian affair with her commander. ‘If Yan had been a man I would still have had sex with him. It wasn’t a question of being a lesbian, but of falling in love with a fellow human being.’ It was a passing phase (Min is now married to her second husband, Lloyd Lofthouse, a Vietnam veteran turned teacher). But the experience of harbouring an illicit love amid all that alienation taught Min to rebel. When the opportunity to appear in the Madame Mao film arose she seized it — but before the film could be made Mao died and, a month later, his wife and her ‘Gang of Four’ were arrested. ‘After that I was considered one of Madame Mao’s people,’ Min recalls. ‘I was denounced as a “bourgeois individualist”. It went on my record. I was told I would be sent back to the labour camp. I wanted to kill myself. Then a man in the studio took pity  on me and let me stay there doing menial work, sweeping up.’

After eight years at the studio, Min befriended Joan Chen the actress who was later to move to America and star in the Last Emperor. ‘Joan wrote to me from America saying I should try and get a place in an American college as a way of getting out of China. I got a friend to help me fill in an application form in English. It was for the Chicago Art Institute because I was good at drawing Mao murals. I sent some examples. They must have thought they were experimental.’ She lied that she could speak English and was offered a place. ‘The official in China who dealt with my visa asked if there was a proletariat in America and I said, ‘Yes’. He said: ‘Do you intend to promote revolution there?’ And I said, ‘Yes’. And then he said: ‘Is America like Albania?’ He clearly didn’t known anything about it so I said ‘yes’ and he let me go.’

Min arrived in America in 1984. She was 27. ‘It was like a different planet. I went to the airport bathroom and was amazed that the toilet paper wasn’t scratching and it was free.’ She was frightened because she had been trained to think of Americans as the enemy and all she could think at first when she saw tall men with blue eyes was: ‘Shoot! Shoot!’

‘My college was annoyed that I had lied that I could speak English. All I could say was ‘thank you, thank you,’ with my eyes on the floor. They said I would have to learn English in six months or I would be deported. I learned from watching Sesame Street.’

She learned well. Ten years later, Min had published the book for which is best known, Red Azalea, a haunting memoir about growing up in Mao’s China. Four novels were to follow and her latest — Empress Orchid about the last empress of China — is proving to be her most successful internationally. She will, indeed, be coming over to London next week to attend the Nibbies. Although all her books have been international bestsellers, Red Azalea is still banned in China. ‘The authorities there think my book brings shame on China. But they don’t. They bears witness to what really happened. China is still in denial about Mao. He is still revered. It is hard to admit guilt because it is a collective guilt. I feel guilty because I had been a part of that brutal, murderous history. I was a victim but I was also the water that kept the Mao boat afloat.’