53 pages 1 hour read

Anchee Min

Red Azalea

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1994

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


First published in 1994, Anchee Min’s Red Azalea has won a fair bit of acclaim. It was named a New York Times Notable Book and also won the 1993 Carl Sandburg Literary Award in 1993. As a genre-defying blend of autobiography, memoir, and novel, Red Azalea focuses on the struggle to gain freedom and individual identity amid state-sponsored oppression. As the sole narrator of the novel, Min depicts her own views of the Cultural Revolution (1964-1976) through her first-hand memories, blurring the boundary between subject and author and facing her actions and their consequences, from her first denunciation of a teacher, to her work on a government-run farm and short-lived role as Red Azalea in a propaganda-oriented film. Min has written several other books, including Empress Orchid and Madam Mao, both of which focus on historical figures in Chinese history and engage with the same themes and elements present in Red Azalea. To clarify Anchee Min’s dual roles as both narrator and author, “Anchee” is used to denote her role as the protagonist of the novel, and “Min” is used to identify her role as the author of Red Azalea. While the memoir articulates her recollections of China during the Cultural Revolution, it is important to note that Red Azalea presents Min’s own perspective and depends upon her memory rather than on an all-encompassing academic perspective of the time frame. As such, the memoir may contain assertions that deviate from the conclusions of modern historians who have analyzed a broader view of the events in question.

This guide is based on the 2006 edition, published by First Anchor Books, which begins with a new preface.

Content Warning: The source material features a false accusation of sexual assault and outdated language describing mental illness.


Red Azalea presents Anchee Min’s memories of her life during the Cultural Revolution in China, which lasted from 1964 to 1976. The account describes her early journey from Shanghai when she was a young believer in revolutionary principles and goes on to recount her back-breaking work at a farm near the East China Sea. Finally, the memoir describes her return to Shanghai to star in movies extolling the efforts of Mao, who was the ruler of China during this time frame. Highlighting the corrosive effect of Mao’s propaganda during the Cultural Revolution and the cult of personality that sustained his efforts, Red Azalea illuminates and highlights the small acts of courage that demonstrate the need for oppressed people to gain freedom and liberty. Focusing on the Cultural Revolution’s attacks on individual identity, Red Azalea celebrates the resistance of ordinary citizens and their sometimes-simultaneous complicity in supporting dehumanizing structures.

The first part of the three-part memoir opens with the consequences of the propaganda machine that Mao unleashes on China, with neighbors turning on and denouncing others in service of a revolutionary ideal. Anchee’s family, terrorized by the downstairs neighbors because her family is perceived as being too small to occupy such a “large” space, trades their more comfortable home for a cramped one, with one toilet next to a stove shared by multiple families. Her parents, both teachers, start new jobs and are forced to do hard labor to prove their revolutionary character. Without enough food, money, or clothes, Anchee and her siblings face teasing at school. Adept at learning and repeating back Party slogans, Mao’s texts, and other propaganda, Anchee joins the Litte Red Guard. Convinced by her school’s Party officials, she denounces her teacher, Autumn Leaves. Although punished by her mother for doing so, at the time Anchee sees her own actions as being righteous, and she only records her belated guilt at this action much later in the memoir.

Her promise as a revolutionary and a believer in the continuing importance of the class struggle translates into an assignment to become a peasant and take up residency in Shanghai, to work the rice fields at Red Fire Farm near the East China Sea. Following Party policy, one child from each family becomes a peasant, giving up their identity to become the image of the perfect worker and revolutionary in a China that is being transformed by the Cultural Revolution.

Part 2 thus recounts her life at Red Fire Farm, where she finds acclaim yet again as she works the rice fields and idolizes the Commander, a young woman named Yan. Yan and her second-in-command, Lu, appear to operate in harmony at first, and Anchee sees the value of their work. However, Anchee’s roommate, Little Green, presents difficulty for Yan and Anchee. Little Green symbolizes the spirit of rebellion and nonconformity at the farm by singing opera, which she learned from her grandmother, who was an opera singer. Wearing colorful underwear and openly caring for her appearance, she seems to embody the bourgeois influence that the Cultural Revolution seeks to destroy. One night, Yan leads Anchee and other platoon members through the fields with guns drawn, and they discover Little Green and a local man having sex. They compel Little Green to accuse the man of rape, and he is publicly executed as a result. Afterward, Little Green ceases to care about her appearance and soon exhibits symptoms of mental distress, forcing Anchee and Yan to acknowledge the costs of conformity.

As Anchee resents Yan for the damage done to Little Green, Yan secretly hunts venomous water snakes, convinced that Little Green will recover once she has collected 100 of them. Realizing that Yan regrets what she has done to Little Green, Anchee grows closer to Yan following her as she collects snakes and later meeting her at a brick factory nearby. The closer Anchee gets to Yan, the more she realizes that Lu is actually plotting against Yan rather than working with her. Convinced of her own righteousness, Lu keeps the skull of a martyr that was given to her: a kind of talisman that connects her to her own father, who was a revolutionary martyred by Nationalist forces.

The relationships among Yan, Lu, and Anchee grow more complicated as Anchee and Yan start to share a bed, both complaining of the cold and the lack of blankets. There, under their mosquito net, they discuss men and desire. Yan admits that she desires Leopard Lee, a commander of a nearby farm. She asks Anchee to revise a letter that she has written to Leopard. Anchee takes the letter, (the first of several) to Leopard, and he receives it, but he never writes back or gives Anchee letters to deliver to Yan. Old Wong, his secretary, talks to Anchee when she drops off the letters because Leopard avoids her entirely. Lying to Yan, Anchee reports to her that Leopard reacts emotionally to the letters. After Yan leaves for Party business, she returns convinced that Leopard doesn’t like her and that their burgeoning romance has ended. Confronting Anchee, Yan tells Anchee that she knows Anchee has lied about Leopard. They make love under the mosquito net.

As food becomes scarce and Yan and Anchee start to lose faith in the Party, Lu sees fault in Yan and her leadership. Yan and Anchee both become Lu’s targets, as a coworker named Orchid and other women become Lu’s spies. The culture of fear and suspicion created at the farm reflects the pernicious effort of gossip among ordinary citizens, as denouncing one’s neighbors and friends becomes politically expedient. A boatman finds Little Green’s body in the canal at Red Fire Farm, and Yan is devastated with guilt. Increasingly shaken in her faith of the Party, Yan loses interest in teaching the Party’s propaganda. At the same time, officials from the film studio in Shanghai visit Red Fire Farm to select actors that will match the new revolutionary standard, with farmers, workers, and soldiers replacing conventional actors in Jiang Ching’s film productions. Ching, the wife of Mao, wants to continue the project of the Cultural Revolution, creating films that focus on common people and heroines. Selected to try out in regional contests, Anchee advances through each contest, winning an opportunity to train as an actress in Shanghai. Because of this development, Coral, her younger sister, will have to become a peasant and take Anchee’s place when she leaves the farm. Meanwhile, Lu files official complaints, first with Party leadership, then with the film studio, momentarily stopping Anchee’s move to the studio. Knowing that Lu is watching them, Yan takes Anchee to the farm on a tractor as Lu follows on another. As she demands that Anchee jump off, Yan continues driving the tractor alone, telling Anchee to come back with her platoon. Yan then arranges for Anchee and the platoon to “discover” her and Lu in a sexually compromising situation; thus, Yan sacrifices her own reputation to effect Anchee’s escape from the farm. Anchee then moves to Shanghai and pursues her acting opportunity.

Part 3 opens with Anchee arriving at the film studio in Shanghai, where she meets Sound of Rain and his secretary, Soviet Wong. Suspicious of Anchee, Soviet Wong instead favors one of Anchee’s fellow actors, Cheering Spear. As she and Cheering Spear, along with two other actors, compete for the role of Red Azalea, the starring role of a film of the same title, Soviet Wong continues to attack Anchee. One day, Anchee asks for a three-day leave to see her mother, whom she claims has grown ill; however, she instead takes the opportunity to visit Yan at Red Fire Farm. Sound of Rain and Soviet Wong visit Anchee’s mother and discover that Anchee has lied. They don’t confront her, and after a long delay, the Supervisor, who will direct Red Azalea, finally arrives and asks the actors to audition. Tricked by Cheering Spear, Anchee does poorly at the audition. Forced to become a set clerk, she soon becomes friendly, and later, intimate, with the Supervisor, who becomes fascinated with Anchee.

Yan visits Anchee in Shanghai, and she and Anchee have lunch, go to the bathhouse to bathe, and shop, where Yan buys red underwear. Yan tells Anchee that Leopard will visit later that day, and they need to meet at Anchee’s house, as their farms aren’t safe places to carry out their affair. Anchee manages to get her father out of the house by sending him to watch a double feature about Lenin. On her porch, Yan and Leopard have sex; Anchee watches briefly, crying as she realizes that she has lost Yan forever. Yan and Leopard finish just as Anchee’s mother comes home, and Yan says goodbye to Anchee.

Filming continues for Red Azalea and travel to the West Lake district of the Southern River province, where the film concludes. Later, Jiang Ching, disappointed by the film, orders it to be redone, and Anchee must screen test for the part of Red Azalea again. Going to Beijing, she meets the Supervisor, who tells her why he makes these movies for Madam Mao. As they film, Anchee cannot say the line “Chairman Mao” with enough emotion to satisfy the Supervisor, and he grows angry. One day, he doesn’t show up for filming, and they learn that Chairman Mao has died. Although ordered back to Red Fire Farm as Red Azalea shuts down, Anchee nonetheless remains as set clerk thanks to the Supervisor’s intervention. A man appointed by Mao denounces and arrests Jiang Ching.

In her Epilogue, Anchee relates that she remained as set clerk for the next several years before a fellow actor writes to her from America. Understanding the work involved and knowing that she will never see her family again, Anchee immigrates to America.