Red Azalea, a memoir written by Anchee Min, and published in 2006, is a young girl’s memory of growing up in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution. Graphic and gritty, and surprisingly full of sex, it is a very dark picture of a very dark time in human history. I had not realized that the Cultural Revolution was the equivalent of the killing fields of Cambodia (with less direct murder, but murder nontheless), and of the insanity of other dictators who were willing to kill their people in order to force them to change back into simple children of the land.
Min’s first experience was being brainwashed / coached into denouncing her very best teacher ever. The description of the process was painful to read. The rest of her growing up included the family being forced into ever smaller and dingier quarters, less safe – largely because the parents were educated. This was a culture that saw virtue only in poverty and degradation, and declared it virtue.
Mao took one child (at least) from each middle class / city family and assigned them to become peasants – that is, to go work in the countryside on farms. Many adults were sent out into a world they were unaccustomed to, with awful results, as well. In Min’s case, at 17, she was sent to Red Fire Farm on the edge of the China Sea. Where the soil was not fit for farming, and the management was all about control, not about nurturing the earth and the participants. A mindless bureaucracy run at the lower levels by folk in their 20’s, expected and encouraged to use cruelty and authority to destroy the spirits of their charges.
The book is beautifully written, delicate in many places, and is a fast read – a simple narrative of events. It is also ugly and violent. And the truth. Read it at your own risk.