The grand pageant of Chinese history has featured its share of notorious women — most notably the empress dowager Tz’u Hsi, who used to dispatch eunuchs to assassinate her enemies — but few have been as widely despised as Jiang Ching, the dreaded Madame Mao. Known to detractors as the “White-Boned Demon,” she was responsible for some of the worst ideological excesses of the early Communist years, using her position as the chairman’s wife to wreak vengeance upon anyone who had ever slighted her during her early career as actress, gold digger and political climber. For many people both inside and outside China, she epitomizes the arbitrariness and vindictiveness that have plagued the Chinese Communist Party throughout its history. That’s why few mourned when, shortly after Mao Tse-tung’s death in 1976, she was tried as a member of the hated Gang of Four and imprisoned for the rest of her life.
But now we have “Becoming Madame Mao,” Anchee Min’s fictionalized version of Jiang’s life, and while it is not exactly an effort to rehabilitate the old Demon’s reputation, it does try to give it some nuance and dimension. Without straying too far from the historical record, Min imagines herself into Madame Mao’s head, putting her political actions into the context of a difficult personal life marked by abandonment, loneliness and almost constant professional frustration. Call it an attempt to humanize a monster — without the facile psychological “explanations” that mar so many such attempts. True, Madame Mao is depicted here as a victim of the obligatory early parental abuse, but not much is made of this background. Instead, the portrait of Jiang that emerges is satisfyingly complex — that of a consummate actress who spent her entire life looking for the role that would define her, all the while being tossed about on the conflicting tides of politics and her own ambition, insecurity and romantic yearnings.
Having said all of that, however, I have to report that the novel is in most other ways a disappointment. Min’s kaleidoscopic narrative method — alternating between subjective first-person and more objective third-person sections — may help to deepen the psychological portrait of Madame Mao, but it makes for a choppy and remote reading experience. The prose, moreover, is almost always just a little off, resembling an awkward and unidiomatic translation. (A minor but typical example: “She becomes a superstar to every household.”) And although Min conjures up some scenes of undeniable lyrical power, too much of the dialogue is just plain awful, as in this exchange between Mao and Jiang outside the Great Hall of the People:
What’s up? he asks.
I worry about your health. Why don’t you take a break?
How can I when my enemies are walking around my bed?
Same here. I am frustrated.
I’m having a hard time getting the films off the ground. The opposition is strong.
Well, it’s not our style to accept defeat.
This is all a shame, since I admire Min’s intentions here and truly wanted to like her book. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the abundance of powerful, richly textured memoirs that have appeared in recent years covering similar territory. Books like Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai” and Jung Chang’s masterful “Wild Swans,” though obviously different in their ambitions — since they focus on the party’s victims rather than its leaders — nonetheless do a far better job of refracting the turbulent public events of the era through a personal prism. In “Becoming Madame Mao,” too many of those events — the struggle against the Kuomintang, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, even the Cultural Revolution — remain shadowy and underexplored. They come off like two-dimensional backdrops, propped up behind Madame Mao’s more vivid but not entirely convincing personal drama.