Anchee Min, Red Azalea
Red Azalea is Anchee Min’s memoir of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She was born in 1957 and left China for the United States in 1984. In her memoir, she focuses on her experience being sent (unwillingly) to do back-breaking labor on a collective farm, her love affair with a woman named Wan, and being sent to movie studio to try out for a major role in Madame Mao’s film Red Azalea.
I learned a great deal about growing up in China during this period. I think what stood out most to me, however, was the saying mentioned by Min that “poverty gives birth to evil personalities” (145). With very few exceptions, most of the interactions between people portrayed in this memoir were marred by resentment, envy, betrayal, or hatred. If Communism was supposed to lead to feeling of solidarity with the other Chinese people, it failed miserably—at least in the world portrayed by Anchee Min. People who were forced to work closely together fought like dogs over the occasional rare bone. Rather than living together in harmony, like chop sticks, instead, they “all carried [their] own thoughts, thoughts of how to kill one another” (120).
In addition to learning about how much Chinese people hated each other, I also learned some other useful information: Chinese sayings and techniques for insulting one another. In the rest of this post, I will share some of my newfound Chinese wisdom with you. That way, you will be better prepared should you ever journey to China yourself.
- First of all, you will need a new name if you are a boring Westerner with a name like Jim or John or Jane or Jill. You will need something more evocative. It could express something about your personality or what your parents wished for you. Anchee Min’s name, for example, means Jade of Peace. Some good Communist parents named their children things like Guard of Red, Big Leap, Long March. If you are not ideologically inclined, you could just name yourself something pretty or fragrant, such as Autumn Leaves, Sound of Rain, Little Bell, or Firewood.
Personally, I have chosen to go with a name that matches where I live and how I spend most of my time: Minnesota Couch Warmer.
- In order not to get into trouble, you will need to know how to show respect to your superiors. I learned from Min that the really powerful people are known simply by their titles: “When someone in this country was called by his title instead of his name, he was beyond general importance. For example, Mao was called the Chairman, and Chou, the Premier. The omission of the last name displayed the power of the persona.” So, to show proper respect to me, you could call me Madame Blogger or, better, yet “the Blogger.”
- In addition to respecting your superiors, you should learn how to flatter them as well. Red Azalea suggests that agricultural metaphors work best for this process. As one person said, “I am Soviet Wong’s student. I am what she made of me. I am the soil and she is the cow who cultivates me. I am her harvest” (116). I think it would be acceptable to employ variations on this theme, such as, “I am the dirt, and she is the peat moss who made me fertile” or “I am the seed, and he is the Miracle Grow product that produces lovely blooms if used as directed.”
- Although you will hate most everybody you meet, it’s possible you’ll have a little room for a close relationship with someone you actually like. In that case, you can express your intimacy by saying things like “you are a good sprout,” and “you know me better than the worms in my intestine” (132). If you want to vary this language, try to restrain yourself to creepy animals and/or disgusting body parts, such as, “You are as close to me as a wood tick whose head is stuck in my bloodstream and whose body is bloated with my blood.”
- To Express Suffering. So far, all of the books I’ve read about China focus on the extensive suffering of the people. Be prepared, therefore, not only to suffer, but to express your suffering appropriately, as the following passages do.
- We were rice shoots that had been pulled out of the mud. We lay, roots exposed. But we did not want to submit. We would never submit. We were heroines. We just tried to bridge the gap. We were trying out best. The rice shoots were trying to grow without mud. Trying to survive the impossible. We had been resisting the brutality of the beating weather.
- It is difficult for a snake to go back to hell once it has tasted heaven.
- Because of all the suffering you will endure, you will want to insult people frequently, either behind their backs or to their faces. Make sure you study this section carefully.
Insulting a woman’s looks is apparently a universal pastime, and here are a few suggestions on how you might do this, Chinese-style.
- “She had a small thin mouth. So small that it looked like the anus of my hen Big Beard.”
- That woman’s body reminds me of a piece of furniture—a door-thin back, flat breasts, nipples like drawer knobs, table-leg legs and the face of a cooked eggplant.
I’ve always said that you can never go wrong with eggplant and hen anus metaphors and these are classic examples of my philosophy.
China is still at least nominally a Communist country, so it wouldn’t hurt to have some handy Communist-style insults on hand to use in a pinch.
- “They said you had been a bourgeois individualist, they said you always acted alone, you had no sense of groupism, you’re selfish, so you should be eliminated.”
- “Everyone in the studio is convinced that you are the capitalist sprout.”
Some more general insults that can be used in a variety of circumstances are these:
- “You rice worms have no ears!” (This is helpful if you are the leader of an orchestra, band, choir, or other musical ensemble.)
- “She is seriously corrupted, like a stone in a manure pit—smelly and hard!”
- A fly only parks on a cracked egg.
- “You pig-shit-head, you louse-won’t-touch corpse, you have disappointed and dishonored me.”
- “Spoiled rice shoot, pig ass, mating worm”
- “A mother of a fart.”
Sometimes a person will insult you first, and you have to be able to respond appropriately. Here is an example from Red Azalea of an exchange between two women who hate each other
- Lu said, “Comrade Secretary, I think you’ve got spiritual termites in the house of your mind.”
“Yeah?” Yan looked at Lu sideways. “You know where I got those termites? From you. You’ve got termites fully packed in your head. You have no clean beams or studs in the house of your mind. They were eaten up a long time ago. And now your termites are hungry, they are climbing out from your eyes, earholes, noseholes and asshole to eat up other people’s houses.”
It is generally a good idea to use a termite metaphor at least once a day, especially if said termite lodges in human body orifices.
I think that is enough for today’s lesson in Chinese culture. I would love to hear back from my readers, especially if they can practice using some of these phrases and concepts in their own sentences and paragraphs. Practice makes perfect! –Minnesota Couch Warmer, aka The Blogger
QUESTION FOR READERS: WHAT SHOULD YOUR CHINESE NAME BE?