When Vanessa Hua’s publicist pitched Forbidden City, I looked at my schedule, already jam-packed for the summer, and hesitated. But as a lifelong student of Russia and the Soviet Union, as well as a novelist fascinated by China’s long history, in the end I couldn’t resist. I devoured the book in three days, sent in my questions for Vanessa Hua, and received her answers within forty-eight hours. So clearly, this pairing and this interview were intended to happen.
And in a happy side note, I was paging through the New York Times Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago, and there was Vanessa Hua, talking about the Chinese concept of mamahuhu and what it means for her family. I immediately thought, “Wait, I know her!”
You’ll have to find that column yourself, but read on to learn more about her wonderful novel about Chairman Mao, his maneuvering against President Liu Shaoqi, the Cultural Revolution that resulted, and Mao’s love of ballroom dancing—all told from the perspective of an idealistic young woman.
What drew you to writing a novel about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and how did you decide to approach your subject from this particular angle?
Years ago, a teasing glimpse of black-and-white documentary footage intrigued me: Chairman Mao surrounded by giggling young women in tight sweaters. As I would learn, the peasant-turned-revolutionary was a fan of ballroom dancing—and young women, who partnered with him on the dance floor and in the bedroom.
When I looked for more information about these ingenues, I couldn’t find much. In his memoir, Mao’s doctor said, “To have been rescued by the Party was already sufficient good luck for such women. To be called to the Chairman was the greatest experience of their lives. For most Chinese, a mere glimpse of Mao standing atop Tiananmen was a coveted opportunity, the most uplifting, exciting, exhilarating experience they would know … Imagine, then, what it meant for a young girl to be called into Mao’s chambers to serve his pleasure!”
I suspected—I knew—the relationships had to be more complicated—especially for those who he kept on as his “confidential clerks.” For example, Zhang Yufeng was eighteen years old when she met the Chairman at a dance party—in the liminal years between girl and woman, and so young by comparison to Mao, then in his late sixties. In time, she would handle and read aloud the reams of documents that the Chairman commented upon daily. Toward the end of his life, as his speech became garbled by illness, she served an important role, interpreting what he said. People who wanted to meet with Mao had to go through her. How did she survive the political intrigue all those years? What unacknowledged role did she have in making history?
My protagonist, Mei, is emblematic of the millions of impoverished women who have shaped China in their own ways, yet remain absent from the country’s official narrative. I wanted to write a story from the perspective of someone relegated to the margins, yet who would have as much intelligence, ambition, and yearning as those leaders.
How much of this novel is historical, and how much fiction?
I believe that fiction flourishes where the official record ends, and that research should serve as the floor—and not the ceiling—to the imagination. For the first time, I grappled with the challenges of writing a historical novel.
Many details in my book are recorded in history: Mao kept nocturnal hours, relied on sleeping pills, wrote poetry, and occasionally took to his bed, depressed. Dancing girls from cultural troupes served him. He also swam in the Yangtze River in July 1966, a feat heralding his return to power during the Cultural Revolution. The characters of the Madame, President, Defense Minister, and Premier are very loosely based on those in Mao’s inner circle; their rivalries and alliances existed, though my novel departs in the particulars.
Your heroine is unnamed when we first meet her. She tells her story in retrospect, from the standpoint of 1976 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, when Chairman Mao has just died, and addresses it to an equally anonymous “you.” We find out only late in the book who the “you” is, so I don’t ask you to explain that part. But why relate the story within this frame?
I started writing Forbidden City in 2007 and finished final edits last year—about fourteen years, or nearly a third of my life! I knew from almost the beginning I wanted a retrospective narrator, reflecting on her turbulent teenage years. But I didn’t realize who she was addressing until relatively late in the lifespan of the project, sometime after its sale in 2016. I can’t remember what inspired me to experiment with it, but once I understood who she was telling the story to, why she needed to tell it now, it added urgency and depth to my novel.
After the prologue, we snap back to 1965, when your heroine is fifteen years old. She was born Song Mei Xiang—although she goes by several names during the course of the novel. What is she like, as a personality, and where is she in her life when we first meet her?
Mei was born in 1949, the year the Communists came to power, and she’s grown up dreaming of becoming a model revolutionary. Though she’s the lowliest daughter in the lowliest family, she’s also smart and resourceful, which is how she maneuvers her way out of the village and navigates the rivalries in the dance troupe and at the Lake Palaces.
By novel’s end, she’s a survivor, but as she—and we—learn, survival comes at a cost.
Mei Xiang gets her wish. She’s taken from her village to Beijing, to a part of the Forbidden City where the Communist elite has established itself. What is her role there?
She becomes the Chairman’s companion and confidante, trained as part of an elaborate prank to humiliate the President. She tries to make herself indispensable to him, but her time beside him is fraught with peril and precarity. As the Cultural Revolution unfolds, she influences him in ways that later haunt her.
What are her impressions of the Chairman and why does she cling to him despite a rather rocky beginning and an enormous age gap (he’s seventy-two when they meet)?
She’s raised to believe he’s a god; she looks at his portrait every day on the wall of her home. But after she meets him in person, she has to confront him as a man and not a god. When she joins his inner circle and becomes his confidante and companion, her youthful idealism collides with the reality of who he is—his intelligence, his tenderness, but also his cruelty and selfishness—she becomes disillusioned.
There are many other interesting characters I’d love to ask you about—Teacher Fan, Secretary Sun, Midnight Chang and the other girls in the dance troupe, not to mention Madame Mao. Do you have a personal favorite, and if so, what can you tell us about him or her?
That’s like asking me which of my twins is my favorite! They both are. Likewise, all my characters are my favorites—all born from my imagination! All of them represent “What ifs” I dreamed up and mulled over. As I mentioned, I started this project in 2014, so these characters have been my longtime companions.
This novel just came out. Do you already have another in the works?
Yes, I’m working on a novel about surveillance and suburbia and also putting together an essay collection.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Vanessa Hua is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of the novel A River of Stars and a story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities. A National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, she has also received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, among others. She has filed stories from China, Burma, South Korea, and elsewhere, and her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She has taught most recently at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
Photograph of Mao waving before his 1966 swim across the Yangtze and propaganda painting of Mao and his closest cadres during the Cultural Revolution public domain via Wikimedia Commons.