Today I came to the end of an historical novel by Anchee Min, Becoming Madame Mao. It's the story of Mao Tse Tung's wife, Jiang Ching, from childhood to death. Every other paragraph she tells in her own voice, first person, and every other paragraph is told in third person, biography and autobiography in the form of a novel. She likened living as Mao's wife was riding the tiger. Not easily done. High chance of proving lethal.
It's not often that I enjoy reading about people I don't like. From early in the story I didn't like her, and liked her less as her story went on. Mao, himself, I really don't like. He put an end to dynasties and emperors, and became the new emperor of a new dynasty. He was a despot like the tradition of Chinese despot emperors. I went into it open about Mao and his wife, I remember from the news in the Gang of Four days when she was arrested soon after he died and spent the last 15 years of her life in prison, where she belonged. Ruthless betrayals continue under Communism just like they did in a very long history of emperors. It's all they know. Like in the song by the Who, Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.
Madame Mao never forgot a slight. Later in her life when she had some perceived power, she went down the list and this one and that one disappeared never to be seen again. She ended up in the same prison cell of a woman she and Mao turned on. This woman was the wife of Mao's most trusted premier. He was a yes-man all the way, to the Nth degree, which Mao required. He became a little too popular among the people to suit Mao, and his wife was getting more attention than Madame Mao. They had them over for dinner one night, and on the way home they were arrested and put in prison. The man died soon after. The woman lived eleven more years. And Madame Mao got her cell. It's one of those details that says there really is justice in this world.
Mao and his wife are excellent examples of what Jr's daddy meant when he told Jr, "Stay away from important people." To even know important people in China is certain death. He wasn't talking from China either. Lorne Campbell, a lawyer I used to know, told me the same thing, just different words. He was a little more specific.
It's a curious experience reading about people you can't like. Anchee Min's writing made it possible. Not just possible, made it enjoyable reading. She writes beautifully. Not florid or fancy. It's a clarity she has, she's perfectly clear, so clear you see what she's telling in words. And she writes in English with a near perfect command of the language. She's especially aware of flow in language.
I started with Empress Orchid and loved it so much I found a copy of the next one, The Last Empress, part 2 of same story. In time, Mao came next. In 3 historical novels I got a good history of China from mid 19th Century to 1970s. Such good writing I read mostly for her writing. Talking with a friend a couple days ago, I mentioned I don't like Madame Mao and really don't like Mao. She asked why I'm reading it. For the good writing. Next, which I've already begun, is Red Azalea, Anchee Min's first book, her account of her life in China during the Cultural Revolution and her escape to USA with the help of American Chinese actress Joan Chen.
My time at Jr's is a time of learning Chinese history from start to present. I've no idea why this interest in China came over me except that China has always been a curiosity. Through much of my early life nothing was coming out of China but occasional dissidents. The Bamboo Curtain they called it. I've wanted to know what the writers were writing about, what the film makers are doing, what their artists are doing. I've seen and heard the news about China, but don't believe most of it. I've wanted to see from the inside what's been going on behind the Bamboo Curtain. It's interesting as the oldest civilization on earth, how it got that way and its changes along the way. Now that I've learned pretty well what it's like in China, I do not want to go there.
I love reading about it, but that's close enough. Like I sometimes like reading about the Civil War, but I don't want to go there. I can't help but feel like the Chinese people have been down for so long, so many, many centuries, that possibly the Mao period was such a shock to the system it woke up a nation asleep in Confucious as dogma. The Maoist period was extremely difficult for the Chinese people and will continue to be for some time. They've come all the way out of the old ways. Next, I imagine, they will step away from the Maoist ways too. They'll have to. And, like always, there's no telling what's yet to come.