Women's Lit

Communism and feminism went hand in hand, like, say, George W. Bush and porn star-turned-sexual activist Annie Sprinkle frolicking, hands clasped, through a meadow of wild flowers--but with fewer phony, for-the-television-cameras smiles and a lot more bloodshed. Despite that, author Anchee Min has made a career of looking back on her Chinese upbringing and finding strong women whose stories she can set straight (or as straight as possible with the documents available and some imaginative gap-filling) as well as examining the uneasy relationship between women and power in her homeland.

Min's first book, Red Azalea, was the story of her life in Communist China, where she worked on a farm picking cotton and rice and later in a movie studio where she was a janitor and a set hand--all this before she immigrated to America at age 27 in 1984. She learned to speak English by watching Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which makes her books even more remarkable. I mean, I learned Spanish from a certified teacher, and I can't even order enchiladas in an appropriate accent. Her writing is conversational, casual, a spoonful of sugar to help all the historical context go down. Well, mostly. She falls into textbook style at times, especially when recounting some facts that only scholars might be familiar with.

In Becoming Madame Mao, she took on a larger task: humanizing the Madame Mao Jiang Ching--wife of Chairman Mao, the woman condemned for killing him and the enemy of the state known as the "white-boned demon." And her latest, Empress Orchid, is about the woman who went from being one of Emperor Hsien Feng's 3,000 concubines to being a royal wife, the mother of his only male heir (known later as "The Last Emperor") and a regent who helped rule China for 46 years during the end of the Ching dynasty.

Though her writing and historical knowledge would be enough to add Min to the Arts & Letters Live schedule, her appearance on Friday has another function. Her story of Empress Orchid discusses the daily lives of the people living in the Forbidden City, bringing to life the art and artifacts in the Dallas Museum of Art's current exhibit Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong (Empress Orchid was married to the grandson of Emperor Qianlong). Also, rather than a traditional reading, Min will discuss Empress Orchid and women and power in China, and she and her daughter Lauryann will perform a scene from Empress Orchid in full costume. Again Min takes a nontraditional look at China's nontraditional women.

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Shannon Sutlief