Friday, April 25, 2008


Katherine, Anchee Min, Riverhead Books, 1995, 241 pp

Reading Dragon Bones by Lisa See and Brothers by Da Chen got me interested in the period of Chinese history that included Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Actually, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie was my first fictional introduction to the era. Katherine is from a female point of view and is most beautifully written.

Katherine is an American woman who comes to Shanghai to teach English. Her class consists of adults who grew up after the Communist revolution was a fait accompli and have never known any other kind of life. Oppression and complete suppression of personal feelings or desires has been their way of life. Freedom of any kind is just not an option.

Since Mao's death and the tentative "open door" policy of the government, the purpose of which is to bring money into a country of starving people, there has been a chink in the armor, a glimpse of Western ways and some workers are allowed to learn English so they can be more useful to their country. It is still not permitted to criticize China, the party or government leaders in any way.

The story is told by a 29 year old woman who has known only the Maoist teachings, hard work, abuse and loss. She is a member of Katherine's class, hoping to better herself for more income. Instead, she and her classmates find themselves awakening emotionally and sexually because of Katherine's free-spirited ways. They see her clothes, listen to her music and talk with her about American ways. They are thrown into great turmoil, The narrator (whose name is never said) becomes Katherine's friend and experiences love for another human being for the first time in her life.

The story is so intense, it was almost physically painful for me to read it. Anchee Min expresses what the life of the body, mind and spirit was like for Chinese people in the 1980s. She has been an actress in Chinese film, now lives in San Francisco and the bio says she is also a painter, photographer and musician. As a writer she is a magician. I absolutely loved this book.

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