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Caitlind L. Florence Nightingale. Emma Fischel. Leizu: Empress of the Silkworm. Alex Rounds. Adventurous Women. Penny Colman. Karlin Gray. Anchee's sense of her own life, as recalled in her memoir and in conversation, sometimes takes on operatic qualities as well. While she deprecates her skills as an actress -- I could never get that kind of feeling you need, the really strong emotion'' -- she comes across, on the page and in person, as someone with a fine sense of drama. Her narration of her own life in ''Red Azalea,'' like the passages in her new book rendered in Madame Mao's own voice, is marked by an emotional nakedness and a sexual intensity that overwhelm history, narrative and even sometimes the English language.

Anchee's traumatic encounter with Mao's misrule begins with her family's eviction from their Shanghai apartment and their relocation to a squalid communal house, where food was scarce.

Little Green: Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution

But the degradation and economic hardship the family endures is incidental to ''Red Azalea,'' which is centrally concerned with the moral corruptions of a system organized around rituals of private treachery and public shame. Her father, whose great passion was astronomy, was dismissed from a coveted job for discussing sunspots. At 17, Anchee is sent to the Red Fire Farm, a labor camp in which people appear to speak entirely in proverbs from the Mao's ''Little Red Book'' and where every word, thought and action is subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

The policing of sexuality is especially intense: when one of Anchee's co-workers, a young woman named Little Green, is caught in a sexual relationship with a man, her lover is sentenced to death for rape. Little Green suffers a complete mental collapse and eventually drowns herself in a river. But amid this repression, ''Red Azalea'' is an improbable and vivid love story. Anchee develops a crush on a work-team leader, a woman named Yan. A paragon of Maoist discipline and rectitude, Yan is locked in a bitter power struggle with the dogmatic and hypocritical Lu.

Female rivalry is one of Anchee Min's great themes, and this escalating cat fight between Lu and Yan foreshadows Jiang Qing's battles with other actresses and political wives. But the lyrical simplicity of Anchee's prose also renders Yan and Lu as allegorical figures, embodiments of the two sides of the Communist personality, or of her own profound ambivalence about the culture of Maoism. Yan is selfless, hard-working and radiantly sacrificial, while Lu is manipulative, cruel and demanding.

My heart beat disorderly. A wild horse broke off its reins.

Video: China's Cultural Revolution, 50 years on

She whispered something I could not hear. She was melting snow. I did not know what role I was playing anymore: her imagined man or myself. I was drawn to her. The horse kept running wild. I went where the sun rose. Her lips were the color of a tomato.

Little Green

There was a gale mixed with thunder inside of me. I was spellbound by desire. When I ask if she knows what became of Yan, Anchee looks wistful.

It's very painful for a lot of people to remember that time. One day as Anchee was working in the cotton field, a team of talent scouts from the Shanghai film studio noticed her proletarian good looks and whisked her away for acting lessons. After intense competition, Anchee won the lead role in a propaganda film inspired by Madame Mao herself. The role promised to make her famous, since ''people all over China had to see the films or be labeled reactionaries. But the film was never completed.

When Jiang Qing fell, after Mao's death, Anchee, now classified as Madame Mao's ''political debris,'' became the pariah of the film studio. Treated as a nonperson and forced to perform endless menial tasks, Anchee slipped into despair. Her mother had been sent to the countryside to teach, and eventually her father was denounced and packed off to a labor camp.


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Because this book starts with the Great Leap Forward and extends beyond the end of the Cultural Revolution, it offers a somewhat broader view of a nation in turmoil and illustrates the grit and determination necessary for survival in a dysfunctional society. The author is four years old when Mao initiates the Great Leap Forward in , and she describes the transformation of the family's shared, once lovely courtyard as the neighbors follow orders to erect a brick furnace and feed it all their metals in an attempt to produce iron and steel.

Everyone, including the child narrator, willingly cooperates, but the instructions are flawed and everything is ruined. The episode prefigures what follows: diligence is repaid with destruction, obedience with chaos, loyalty with treachery. Li effectively builds the climate of fear that accompanies the rise of the Red Guard, while accounts of her headmaster's suicide and the pulping of her father's book collection give a harrowing, closeup view of the persecution. Sketches about her grandparents root the narrative within a broader context of Chinese traditions as well as her own family's values, establishing a basis for Li's later portrayal of the individuals around her who respond to oppression with hope and faith in knowledge and education.

For Li and her family, the peaceful situation, in which several generations of the family lived together in harmony, changed precipitously. Mao's revolution destroyed family customs and life. Members of educated, comfortable families who lacked political influence like Li's were forced into reeducation according to Communist principles.