Vanessa Hua’s historical novel, Forbidden City, vivifies Maoism through the eyes of teenager Mei Xiang. She is the fictive embodiment of the servile teenaged girls and young women who surrounded Chairman Mao like butterflies in the photographs and documentaries that inspired the novel. But Mei is not just a poster child for Maoist China; she is a complex representation of the many adolescents whose development was shaped by civil unrest and political turmoil; their activism necessitated the end of innocence. Through Mei’s reckoning with her role in the Cultural Revolution, Forbidden City envisions the life of one such teenaged butterfly, whose childhood was diminished by the man elected to protect it.
Mei is 15 years old when Chinese Communist Party members arrive in her village to select volunteers for Chairman Mao Zedong’s cultural dance troupe. Though ungainly and arrhythmic, Mao loves to dance. It’s spring 1965 and the village girls line up in rows like seedlings to show their fealty. The Chairman’s posters are as faded as Mei’s memory of the policies that led to the privations of her childhood, but the songs and poems she is taught reframe Mao’s success. Mei believes her faith in him is a choice, but she’s an adherent like everyone else in her village, indoctrinated to worship. Clouded not by dust, but by innocent idealism, Mei supplicates: “I prayed to the Chairman, asking him to grant me the opportunity to serve. The people’s republic had been born the same year as me, and we were both still testing our limits, still ricocheting between extremes as we figured out who we would grow up to be.”
Red China is also adolescent. Mao’s rebellious spirit that provided the political firmament that all of China pinned their hopes on now struggles under his governance. His revolutionary antagonism against the “old ways” did not produce enlightenment. While adolescent rebelliousness is a sign of individuality, Mao pushes a collective identity that is devolutionary.
Hua’s portrayal of Mei is most vivid when capturing her innocence. Though her idealism is more cultish than dreaming, she harbors a spirited yearning for singularity that sets her apart. Mei and her sisters share the same first name. A fate “determined while [she] was still in the womb” seems to shroud her future. Given the preeminence and desirability of sons, Mei is the disappointing youngest girl in a trio of daughters. If she is not chosen for the troupe, her destiny is as a wife and mother who will “have a baby, then another and another.”
Mei dreams of inspiring pride in her parents while aiding in a revolutionary future for China. But there are no revolutionary individuals in Maoist China, only “revolutionary heroes.” Through Mei, Hua demonstrates the yearning for individuation that adolescents in the 1960s fettered for the collective aims of equality, peace, and economic empowerment. Self-awareness came at great cost to Black adolescents experiencing terrorist acts of racism in America, juvenescent soldiers fighting for their lives in Vietnam, and students sent to labor camps in China. This turbulent and transformative period in history cultivated a stalwart heroism that resulted in martyrdom. Selfhood had to be subordinated to self-sacrifice. But Hua conceives more for Mei, and in the process expands the novel’s ideation of heroism and feminism.
In Mei’s world, “female heroes [are] few.” Though courageous and selflessly devoted to the revolutionary cause, girls and women lie outside the official record, immortalized only in the myths and poems that Mei memorizes. Heroines burn in fires while saving lives, forage for food to the point of their own starvation, and collapse after the exhaustion of seeking help in a snowstorm—they perform every miracle except survival. Fatal sacrifice is seemingly required for their canonization since “no one so perfect could last in this world.” But Mei wants to “live like a hero,” even at the cost of an identity that she’s surrendered before possession.
Despite Mei’s literacy and cleverness, the insularity in her village walls in her naïveté. The Party officials are vague as to her duties, and when Mei quotes Mao’s words that “women hold up half the sky,” her older sister responds, “by lying down.” Mei denies this but remembers how menarche descended upon her like a curse, and that Ba, her father, had warned her that men could “ruin” her. Mei’s Ma seems to confirm this by preparing her for the journey to Mao as though it were her wedding day, adorned with a dowry bead. Ma gives her dong quai, an herb used for birth control, and the safety of a touch that wants nothing from her:
It was the tenderness I’d always craved from her. Though she must have heard the fear in my voice, she couldn’t face me. Not then, maybe not ever again. She would no longer warn me about fox fairies, shapeshifters who roamed the twilight to lure travelers; of disappeared girls, run away or raped, kidnapped or killed.
She knew that she had no choice but to give me up, I can now see, and didn’t want me thinking about the dangers ahead.
Mei joins the cultural dance troupe at Lake Palaces, just west of Forbidden City, where emperors of the past sought respite. Its inhabitants are insulated against the suffering of the lower classes. There is school, but the learning is more of a grooming. Teacher Fan, who acts as both mistress and mother, treats the girls as if they are in training and tells them that they “are just as important as a guard protecting the border.” But Mei’s becoming is dictated. The troupe girls vacillate between a loose sisterhood and a rivalry reflective of their adolescent immaturity. The interactions between Mei and the other teenage girls almost reflect contemporary high school drama except that harmless gossip can result in tragedy, and the object of their affection is not a popular 17-year-old boy but a deified 70-year-old man. Their school is a political stage and they are minor actors in a play designed to keep them that way. They derive a false sophistication from the “importance” of their Party roles, but lack both agency and adult protection. Whether in the fields or on the dance floor, their bodies and fates are the provinces of men.
While Hua conceptualizes Mei as a ballast for Mao’s revolution, and a trusted companion that renews his youthful egocentricity, he is an aging pedophile. Mei’s love of Mao is unnatural and her relationship with him deforms her intellectual, sexual, and emotional development. Historical records that described teenage girls like Mei as “young women” denied their right to be girls and made them the fodder of men. When, towards the end of the novel, Mao asks Mei her age and she tells him 16, he laments at having “ruined” her—but it is too late. His manipulations destroy her faith, the dominion of her innocence. As Mei descends from her apotheosis of faith in Mao, her conviction fades as well: “There was nothing left to believe in, no heroes who weren’t selfish or grasping.”
Individuation is a crucial stage of adolescence. It is the process of forming a separate identity, in order to achieve self-realization. This stage might have been missed by many adolescents during Maoist China, as any detachment from unity under Mao would be viewed as profane disloyalty. Mei’s individuation ultimately arises from the casualties within her collective identity. She must lose everything. She must lose Ma: “My first word, my first plea, my first longing,” and Ba: “The first god I’d prayed to, yearning for the approval that I would never have again.”
Mei blames herself for this period of her life in which her adolescent immaturity is exploited, her faith manipulated, and her body politicized. Yet, Red China is also a deceived teen at the start of the Cultural Revolution. At Mao’s behest, schoolchildren put down their books and aligned themselves with a legacy that would fail in a miserable and bloody way. The irony of a senior citizen mobilizing a youth movement to overthrow “old” traditions was likely lost on him. Mei considers how modern Chinese American teenagers would regard his legacy: “These children would find him and his revolution backward—self-interest, not self-sacrifice, will better their lot and their families’. Their indifference would be the worst punishment of all for the Chairman.”
Mei’s mature conception of heroism embraces the idea that sacrifice is required but martyrdom is not. The adolescent versions of herself—peasant, revolutionary, apostate—are subsumed but she is not whole. As Mao’s sun sets on her life and she is free of his shadow, Mei holds out hope that her parents might finally offer her the armor of their love, and receive her absolution. With the time that only survival brings, Mei might be able to offer this to herself.