"During the Red Guard years—I was about 10 years old—they were burning books. They would throw books out into the lane where I was passing by and I would grab some," said Anchee Min in a telephone interview conducted by this reviewer on March 16, 2010. One of the books, she stole from a Red Guards fire pile was a Ming dynasty opera libretto that concerned love. [Possibly Mǔdāntíng The Peony Pavilion] Min says she "learned writing by copying ancient Chinese opera scripts which were filled with poems" but that she probably chose the libretto because she was curious about love.
STEALING BOOKS FROM THE BONFIRES
Her latest novel Pearl of China, which is the love story of the American writer Pearl S. Buck as told by a fictitious Chinese peasant woman who for the purpose of this book grows up with Pearl, seems to be built on a Chinese peasant opera called The Butterfly Lovers [Liáng Shānbó yǔ Zhù]. When asked to talk about the role The Butterfly Lovers plays in the structure of Pearl of China, Min not only provided the portrait of herself as a ten-year-old child stealing books from the bonfires of the Red Guards but also said that, in China, good writing depends on a mix of anecdotal stories, poetry, and the rhythm created when these things blend together.
"They [readers] can tell from your tone if you have all this. Otherwise people consider your writing very shallow. I apply instincts and use old forms. I love the compressed structure of poetry. I also love emotional intensity. Compressed structure and emotional intensity—these are what are important to me and I apply this to my novels. In my novels I use the Western historical novel. I make the historical opera into the novel. That's what I'm doing. It's a bi-cultural thing."
BOUND FEET AND THE DRIVE TO WRITE
At seventeen, Min was sent from her Shanghai home to a collective farm to fulfill her family's responsibility to the Chinese people and the Cultural Revolution, but after a grueling year or so, she was selected to compete for a film role that would eventually cast her as Jiang Qing (the young Madam Mao). When asked if Min takes her driving force for writing from the man known as The Supervisor [Madam Mao's right-hand man who helped with her filmmaking projects] because Min quotes him in her memoir Red Azalea as saying, "We are the hands that should be writing history," she answered that this line exists in her subconscious but she is probably more influenced by her grandmother who suffered the agony of bound feet.
"I spent time with my grandmother and massaged her bound feet. My grandmother told me, 'Woman are grass born to be stepped on. You have to learn to hide your broken arm inside your sleeve.' This kind of thing makes me embrace communism and Madam Mao who was an early feminist."
While Min has written historical novels based on the lives of Jiang Qing (Becoming Madam Mao) and Cixi, the Empress Dowager (Empress Orchid and The Last Empress), Pearl of China seems less about Pearl Sydenstricker Buck and more about Willow, the novel's narrator. Min says Willow is "a composite of people I grew up with." Though Min identified with Pearl because of all the time she spent with her grandmother who lived on the Yangtze River not far from where Pearl and her missionary family lived, Min said of Willow and much in contrast to her other historical novels, "I was in my own skin with Pearl of China."
PEARL BUCK, THE PRIDE OF CHINA
Min said she did not "draw out a structure for Pearl of China" as she did for some of her other books. She also thinks that Buck wrote her Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning novel The Good Earth with no particular plan. What motivated Min to write about Buck?
"I was driven to write about Pearl Buck because she treated the Chinese peasant with respect and I felt so bad about myself having denounced her during the Cultural Revolution. Pearl Buck really understood China. She became the pride of China for the Nobel Prize she won, but she refused to support communism."
In Min's novel, the adult Willow is thrown in prison because she was a friend of Pearl Buck. According to the novel's narration, Mao wanted Buck with her Nobel prize to be his friend and she would not support him so Buck became an enemy of China and Madam Mao made sure of this. When asked what Min hoped readers would take away with them after reading Pearl of China, she said she hoped people would develop some understanding of Chinese people, particularly the Chinese woman.
Cover Photo - Naishi Min