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Instability in Leadership in “Red Azalea” Essay

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Updated: Jun 23rd, 2022


The memoir Red Azalea documents a factual narrative of Anchee Min’s life in the era of Mao China prior to escaping this harsh regime and moving to the US. Min’s story provides her readers with an overview of early childhood memories and a description of the period she worked for the Communist Party as a farmhand and ultimately her big break into stardom in a film called Red Azalea. To date, the memoir’s message is still significant because censorship, speech entitlements, and government transparency continually emerge as issues of discussion worldwide (Lanlan 130). This paper, therefore, examines how Anchee’s memoir elucidates the instability in leadership and its impact on the lives of the people who lived during the Mao era.

Leadership Instability

In the novel, Min asserts that she grew up wearing rags and going for days without food. She asserts that she was an adult since the age of five (Min 10). At this age, Min used to tend to her young siblings and parents, who, although educated, were forced to undertake grueling and complex jobs for the Communist Party to fulfill the Cultural Revolution’s goals. Min learned to take on a leadership role when she was just a young child.

At the time, she saw it as being normal because almost all the children in her neighborhood would take care of their siblings. However, this role assigned to her took away her childhood. Children are supposed to be left to grow up as children and enjoy the pleasures that come from childhood (Lanlan 131). For example, although she was scared of crossing the road, she could not reveal her fear since she was obliged to act as a role model to other children (Min 12). However, Min and other children were thrown into leadership positions without their consent because of the harsh regime. As seen in the novel, these roles further disoriented the children; they grew up scared and fearful of the government. Min’s parents expressed their ultimate respect and fear for the regime. This, in turn, caused Min to follow the same path as underscored later in the novel when she had to forfeit her loyalty to give in to the whims of the Communist Party.

Additionally, Min was given a leadership position in school: she was an outstanding learner who achieved popularity and deference in school for being adept in the Mao teachings. She became the Little Red Guards leader, the party troops responsible for implementing and enforcing the Cultural Revolution. However, min talks about the dangers of propaganda and brainwashing by revealing her experiences while in school. She says that “I was raised on the teachings of Mao and the operas of Madam Mao … I became a leader of the Little Red Guards in elementary school. This was during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution when red was my color” (Min 19). Leadership instability in this context is, therefore, expressed by highlighting the consequences of propaganda and brainwashing.

Having been praised for her brilliance and intellect in school, the institution’s party secretary forces Min to attest that one of her best pedagogues was a spy. Min recalls that her teacher “looked at her with joy” when she performed highly in the mathematics competition (19). She also remembers that “when she was ill, she looked at her with sympathy and love” (Min 14). However, despite all this love, Min has to make the hard decision to betray her. She is scared to face the consequences that would follow if she dared oppose Mao’s teachings. This part of the memoir shows that the leadership, even at school, instilled fear and desperation in children (Armbruster 173). It did not matter at that time what the truth would be. The only thing that mattered was that nobody would go against Mao’s teachings. Min was forced to lie because she was scared of the leadership, resulting in her growing up feeling guilty and regretful.

Historically under oppressive regimes and propaganda movements, adolescents and teenagers have been exploited as objects for advancing government-related agendas. Min accurately portrays how children are coerced and manipulated and the dire consequences that follow (Lau 583). Denouncing her beloved teacher for fear of political leadership draws some emotional responses from Min, highlighting how children and the youth are trapped in the political leadership tugs of war. Education is supposed to be the channel that spearheads children into a bright future (Armbruster 175). However, although the Mao era is gone, Min’s experiences make one wonder how education systems in the world affect children. The government and leadership dictate the curriculum in many schools. What the government proposes into the curriculum drives and shapes children’s minds in the world and the next generation of leaders. The big question is how the government and education systems, as leaders, impact the next generation of said leaders.

The values and teachings that were ingrained into Min’s teenagerhood forewarn of the drawbacks of the agenda-minded learning system. This era was marked by politics, deception, and corruption, which typified children’s identity, a system where young people are not afraid to turn against their values for the sake of power (Armbruster 176). Min’s portrayal of leadership during the Cultural Revolution shows that individuality in its highly personal perspective is eroded in a community where an individual’s value and identity do not belong to them.

Instability in leadership is also seen when Min has to betray her favorite teacher. At one point, Min is the head of the class. She enjoys her studies and finds that it is the only thing that gives her peace of mind (Lau 586). She enjoys her role as the Little Reds leader and believes that her life is better away from the oppressive regime (Min 14). However, Min faces the utmost test of her allegiance to Mao and the coalition. At the tender age of twelve, she is coerced to denounce her beloved teacher in the party’s name. It is at this point that she faces instability with her education, which she values. Then as a reward, the party offers her a job at the farm (Min 21). Min finds herself working on a farm in the country as a slave from being a schoolgirl. She is subjected to hard labor and has to live like a peasant. She intellectually disoriented herself from some of the underlying illusions; this made to be extremely critical of the coalition. The party that she once cherished as fair and supreme was now to her corrupt and offensive.

The next part of the instability occurred when it came to Min’s love life. While at the farm, she falls in love with Yan, her camp commander (Lau 583). In Communist China, it was implicitly forbidden to explore one’s passion, especially when it was one of the same sex. But Min finds herself attracted to Yan, and she faces instability regarding her sexuality (Lau 583). Instead of exploring love romantically, Min turns this mystique into a political venture to revolt against the government. Min uses it as a counterrevolutionary act in a period where citizens were misguided to perceive sex as an essential act. She elucidates that she loved Yan’s “shyness because no one else would think of her as shy, her intimacy belonged to me.” (Min 26). This passion becomes solely political because Min realized that the desire does not belong to the coalition but to another entity. When Min and Yan traverse each other’s bodies, the novel expresses it as a rebellious statement rather than a passionate one. The instability comes when Min’s passion shifts from the party to Yan, especially since she is another woman.

Additionally, Min demonstrates how easy it was in Communist China to provoke the instability in leadership by simply insinuating that counterrevolutionary activity took place. Lu, one of the prominent political leaders at the farm, despised Min and Yan and tried to expose their relationship as counterrevolutionary; eventually, she herself became subject to the totalitarian system which she wanted to exploit. Yan seduced Lu, and they were found half-naked by the Chief Party Secretary, who viewed them as his two best officers (Min 50). As a result of this discovery, they both were sent to prison. This event shows that even the most loyal people to the regime are not guaranteed any stability under a totalitarian rule. Lu, who previously had a flawless reputation as a party leader, in one instant became a counterrevolutionary in the eyes of her superiors and the platoon. It also demonstrates that the instability in leadership could be triggered simply by the fact that an individual engaged in a romantic relationship with another person.

Moreover, Min faces instability in her career – while working at the farm, she secures a place in the theatre industry and lands a leading role in the movie Red Azalea. Here she is no longer poor but rich and famous. However, Chairman Mao’s death brings about insecurity in the regime, and her supervisor flees, and the movie never makes it to the theatre. Min again finds herself in poverty. She has to rely on low-paying jobs like selling movie tickets. She never finds stability in her career until, at last, she moves to the US.

Finally, the death of Chairman Mao needs to be addressed more thoroughly since it constitutes one of the major acts of leadership instability, which shows that under a dictatorship, even the most powerful people can lose their influence in an instant. The demise of the influential political figure exposes the main flaw of many authoritarian systems, namely, the lack of any mechanisms which would govern the standard procedure of the transition of power. As a person who controlled every aspect of the Chinese state, Mao’s relatives were considered potentially dangerous to the government, which would be installed after the death of the chairman. Eventually, the passing of the beloved leader of the nation resulted in a decision by its successors to neutralize the threat posed by Mao’s widow, Jiang Ching, whose real name was Jiang Qing. She was the fourth wife of Mao and exemplified the image of “Iron Girl,” who always wore military attire in public. Yet, despite being a reputable figure during her husband’s lifetime, she completely lost all of her power after the death of Mao since the ministers chose her as one of the people to blame for the cultural revolution (Rossman 58). As Min writes in her memoir, even during Mao’s funeral, which was televised, “we hardly saw the face of the widow” (Min 86). Essentially, an effort was made to completely undermine the status of the widow in the face of the public. Yet, more importantly, the loss of political influence and power by Jiang Ching also meant negative consequences for everyone who was associated with her and her projects. Min (86) compared being recognized as a follower of Ching as having “Black stains splashed on my dossier.” Essentially, leadership instability on the top reverberated through the hierarchy and reached the lowest levels of it.


Red Azalea tells a powerful story of how leadership and instability intersected in the Chinese Cultural Revolution era and warns about the shortcomings of these forces in our modern society. This essay provides a comprehensive analysis of the existing leadership instabilities highlighted in the text. Min learned to take on leadership duties when she was just a young child – a role which took away her childhood. She relates this phenomenon to the harsh regime existing in her country during this era. The memoir reveals Min’s unexpurgated rendition of the brutal Cultural Revolution and its related after-effects. The book exposes the leadership instability which affected all citizens of the country during and after the Cultural Revolution. Such instability is sensed in all aspects of life and on all levels of the state’s hierarchy. For instance, using the example of Mao’s wife, Jiang Ching, it demonstrates how totalitarian regimes do not guarantee any protection from persecution even to the most privileged members of society. Essentially, the memoir indicates that in the absence of any democratic institutions, instability becomes an inherent part of the state.

Works Cited

Armbruster, Elif. “The Chinese American Miracle: An Interview with Anchee Min.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 40, no. 4, 2015, pp. 173–190.

This source provides an invaluable insight into the life of Anchee Min. The source contains an interview with the author of Red Azalea, where Min shares important details about different periods of her life in Communist China. The interview is particularly significant in the context of this paper because, in it, Min expresses her opinion on her childhood, which will be used in the essay.

Lanlan, Du. “From Taboo to Open Discussion: Discourses of Sexuality in Azalea Mountain and Red Azalea.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 52, no. 1, 2015, pp. 130–144.

This article explores the literary discourse of sexuality which was present in the environment of the Maoist Cultural Revolution. The author uses Red Azalea to derive historical evidence, which can expose the aspects of the main subject. The source is valuable because it contains information on the role of a totalitarian state in the life of citizens, which will be used in the paper.

Lau, Emily. “Anchee Min’s Red Azalea: Memoir as an Enterprise to Self-Discovery.” Forum for World Literature Studies, vol. 11, no. 4, 2020, 583–606.

The article provides an in-depth analysis of Min’s memoir and expands on certain elements which were not covered in the book. It shows how Min was able to explore her own personality and identity through writing. The article is relevant for the current paper because it allows one to gain a better understanding of the situations faced by Min in China.

Min, Anchee. Red Azalea. Anchor Books, 2006.

Anchee Min’s Red Azalea constitutes the main object of the current paper.

Rossman, Gabriel. “Red Terror.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, no. 306, 2019, p. 55-60. Gale Academic OneFile.

The article by Rossman contains historical information on the Cultural Revolution in China, the period described by Min in her book. The source demonstrates the inner mechanisms which triggered the revolution and describes its consequences. This article is particularly important for the paper since it provides evidence on the primary reason why Mao’s widow, Jiang Ching, faced incarceration after the death of her husband.

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