Anchee Min's 'Wild Ginger': woes of Maoism

May 26, 2002|By Martha Southgate | By Martha Southgate,Special to the Sun

Wild Ginger, by Anchee Min. Houghton Mifflin. 224 pages. $23.

How do you brainwash a nation? In her slender new novel, Wild Ginger, Anchee Min makes a persuasive case that the way to the mind is through the libido -- that is to say, by demanding that even the mildest youthful sexual impulses be turned to political ends.

Anchee, best known on these shores for the memoir Red Azalea and the novels Katherine and Becoming Madame Mao, knows whereof she speaks, having been born in Shanghai in 1957 and been an ardent member of Mao Tse Tung's Red Guard in her youth. She also spent years as an actress in Communist propaganda films before coming to the United States in 1984. These facts of Anchee's life give Wild Ginger the chilly ring of authenticity, even as the occasional awkwardness of the writing (Anchee writes in English, not her native Chinese) and the over-the-top melodrama of the plot occasionally strain credibility.

On the other hand, it is important for readers of this imperfect but worthy novel to remember that the Mao years themselves often strained credibility. A nation of millions entirely under the thrall of one man's ideas -- it's happened before and will no doubt happen again -- but it's never an easy process or a just one.

Anchee's novel tells the story of the militant Maoist Wild Ginger, who, in part because of her mixed-race background, is scorned and mocked throughout her school career. In response, she becomes the most rigid Maoist imaginable, spouting slogans for every occasion and denying her very real feelings for a young male comrade named Evergreen. The novel is told from the perspective of Wild Ginger's devoted friend Maple, who becomes the third leg of a love triangle that develops among the three. We follow them from high school until young adulthood and a tragic end.

Some of the most compelling, beautiful writing in the novel comes in Anchee's vivid descriptions of the life and times of ordinary people under Maoist rule, as when she describes a work camp where the young people are forced to eat yecai, a kind of grass that sickens them all, as part of their effort to better understand and appreciate Mao's early sufferings.

Or here, as in this description of the three's college campus: "The campus smelled of ink and spoiled flour paste. The school seemed another world where wall-to-wall news columns on Mao study discussions were published every other day. Before the first layer of the poster paper dried, the second layer was applied. The traces of dripping ink looked like tears. ... The waste was tremendous. No one really read the posters anymore because all of them sounded the same." Here the simplicity and starkness of Anchee's prose style serves her well.

The novel's greatest strength -- its intensity and stripped-down focus -- is also in some ways its greatest weakness as well. One longs, occasionally, for a fuller historical context for the character's lives, or to more completely understand why they behave as they do. But the fact is, it is difficult for an American in 2002 to understand what China underwent at the height of the Communist era -- we have nothing even remotely analogous in our history. It is to Anchee's great credit that her novel invites us to imagine vividly what such an experience might be like.

Martha Southgate has been a staff writer for the New York Daily News and the magazines Premiere and Essence. Other work by her has been widely published. Her two novels are Fall of Rome (2002) and Another Way to Dance (1996).

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