Picks and Pans Review: Red Azalea

updated 05/02/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Anchee Min

When Anchee Min was 9 years old, she was the perfect revolutionary. She had memorized Mao's Little Red Book, sang heroic operas and was head of her school's Little Red Guard. The year was 1966, and the Cultural Revolution had just begun to turn Chinese society inside out. Too young to understand the public criticisms and purges, Min thought she was fighting for the "final peace of the planet." Then the hardship and terror caught up with her.

Red Azalea is her achingly beautiful memoir of the time, a story remarkable for its absence of anger or recrimination against the Communist Party and Chinese government. Told to serve the revolution as a peasant when she turned 17, Min left her family in Shanghai and joined the Advanced Seventh Company to plant rice near the East China Sea, toiling 16-hour days in muddy, leech-filled water. Two years later she returned to Shanghai to compete with three other women for the title role in Red Azalea, a film project based on the revolution, written by Mao's wife.

Min contrasts the gray regimen of her society with her own passions, first for a female lover in the army and later for a mysterious man who supervises the production of Red Azalea. Each secret rendezvous and illicit tryst—whether in a Shanghai bathhouse or a Buddhist temple brimming with scents of incense, jasmine and the crush of worshippers—is all the more poignant in a country where personal desires are politically dangerous.

Min emigrated to America in 1984, but in Red Azalea she has created a powerful sense of life in China during that country's most heartbreaking time. (Pantheon, $22)

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