For the month of the AAPI: the “Forbidden City” gives voice to the women of the Chinese cultural revolution


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In the author’s note of her masterful new novel “The Forbidden City”, Vanessa Hua indicates that “fiction flourishes where the official record stops”. Her novel bears witness to this: Hua dares to write the story of the women who fought, sacrificed and endured during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, of the women who answered the call to serve their country — mind, body and soul — but whose truths have been twisted for propaganda purposes or excised entirely from history.

Hua’s novel tells the story of Mei Xiang, who leaves her impoverished village to join Chairman Mao’s dance troupe, or so she realizes once she arrives at the Forbidden Palace. With her cunning patriotism, Mei quickly becomes the 72-year-old president’s lover, confidante, and protege. This is the beginning of an adventure that will test his convictions and his personal strength.

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On the eve of young Mei’s departure from her native village for Beijing, her older sister asks her: “How can women best serve the [Communist] Partying?” Steeped in Mao’s teachings and adulation, Mei replies, eyes shining, “Women hold half the sky.” But her sister corrects her, “By lying down. As Mei’s time in the capital passes, she realizes that both answers can be true.

Mei soon becomes a victim not only of Mao’s sexual predilection for underage virgins, but also of his political machinations. While studying under him, Mei says, “The simplest first words I learned became the basis for many characters. ‘Wife’ and ‘son’ combined to mean ‘good’: 好, hao. … Three women together, 姦, jian, became ‘bad’. It reminded me of another vital Chinese word – the word ‘knife’ on the character for ‘heart’, coming together to form the word , ren : “endure”. Endure, as so many generations of Chinese women have. Endure, we teach our girls to do early and often.

Later in the book, when Mei is disillusioned and flees the capital after publicly betraying Mao, she learns how much revolutionary women have to endure, including rewriting their stories. During her run, she discovers a large portrait of another member of the troupe, known to the public only by the alias the troupe assigned to him, Midnight Chang. Beneath the portrait, a Red Guard zealously tells Mei that Midnight Chang had supposedly been a talented machinist and was supposed to have died a national hero – holding an exploding boiler while reciting the President’s studied words. But Mei thinks the complete erasure may be even more insidious than having her life reoriented. After another member of the troupe suddenly disappears, Mei remarks that the President “didn’t mention her again, a lesson more chilling than anything he could have said.”

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This erasure from official records shapes the unique narrative mode of the book. Throughout the novel, Mei tells her story to an individual – a “you” whose identity is revealed in a twist at the end of the book. Shame and fear had driven Mei to bury her past even as she found safety in San Francisco. It changes the day Mao died, when she finally finds the words: “For more than a decade, I kept my own secrets, trying to forget. Even you. Sometimes I feel like I’ve gotten so deep into my secrets that I’ve lost the ability to tell them.

Mei’s story is about memory – memories that cannot be safely recalled and others that function more like wishful thinking. When Mei, starving and fleeing on foot across the country, sees a chained prisoner being escorted by the Red Guards down the street, she thinks for a second that it’s her secret lover and that they’ve secured a meeting – at least, one. Last farewell. Then, in the blink of an eye, she sees that it’s not him at all. There are many other sorrows that Mei endures and longs to remember differently, such as her choice to continue serving Mao instead of returning to her sick mother’s bedside: “I should have, I could have gone. It was my mistake. Sometimes I still imagine it, how I would have cooked lunch for my family, held a damp cloth to my mother’s forehead, and lit incense at my sister’s grave. Wanting it so badly now, it almost feels like a memory.

These reflections lead the reader to question what Mei might remember wrongly throughout the novel and what she might not remember at all – a metaphor for the selection of events that the official story sees fit. to kiss or push away.

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But that’s the problem with hidden, political, national and personal history: once a long-buried truth is revealed, it sparks connection, understanding and empowerment. You could say that Mei, having found a safe route out of China, to Hong Kong and then eventually to San Francisco, had no reason to bury her memories for so long. That, having found relative safety, she should have felt safe. But she observes: “When the Cultural Revolution boiled over, I came to realize how dependent the Party was on scapegoats. Not because we punished the culprits for them, but because we could vent any frustration that could lead to revolt. We turned against each other instead of the Party. Fascism, Mei understands after the fact, gave her certainty. And his hidden story teaches him “never [to] be sure of anything again.

Neither national borders nor the Pacific Ocean can protect Mei from these truths. Even now, amid the pandemic, political divisions and hate crimes, Mei’s depiction of the Cultural Revolution doesn’t seem so far removed from our everyday American reality. Hua concludes his author’s note by warning that “[t]he past is never as distant as it seems. It’s just another reason his novel is revelatory, vital, and timely now more than ever.

Qian Julie Wang is the author of the memoir “Beautiful Country” and a lawyer in New York.

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