Red Azalea by Anchee Min (Gollancz $288) THE issue of love and sex in the Cultural Revolution, a time when Chairman Mao and his wife Jiang Qing were trying to divert all human passion to their revolutionary cause, is boldly tackled in this book by a former Little Red Guard and Shanghai actress. Of all the works on the Cultural Revolution so far, including Jung Chang's best-selling Wild Swans , Anchee Min's is the most personal. No other focuses so extensively on the course of relationships and individual passion in those years. There is no doubt that the drama of Ms Min's life and loves makes for a good and sometimes shocking read. But it is also refreshing that Ms Min, who managed to leave China for the United States in 1984, has cut through traditional Chinese prudery to explain how she survived the no-sex regime that the Maos imposed on the country's young people. Ms Min was too young to have taken part in the Cultural Revolution when it was at its most fervent - she was only nine when it broke out in 1966. But her experience in its last two years, when disillusion was well set in among the movement's initial supporters, makes for a dramatic story worth telling. In 1974, when she was 17, Ms Min was assigned to life as a peasant alongside thousands of other Shanghainese. She was sent to Red Fire Farm, located near the shore area of the East China Sea, where 13,000 toiled to make crops grow. The city girls lived and worked in the most basic conditions. By day they slaved over land so barren it could only grow cotton fit for paper. At night they returned to their military-style camp, incessant political study sessions and cramped dormitories. At the farm she fell under the spell of her commander, Yan, with whom she developed a sensual lesbian relationship. But she lasted at Red Fire for only a year before being picked to train for the starring role in one of Madam Mao's propaganda films, Red Azalea , a thinly veiled dramatisation of Jiang Qing's own life. She was cheated out of contention by her rivals. But then, in the style of popular romance rather than autobiography, was given the chance by the director, the mysterious Supervisor and her new lover, to play the role after all. (The film, however, was halted with the downfall of Madam Mao.) Ms Min's story contrasts the sterile passions whipped up by the Cultural Revolution with the private passions that flickered on. And her account suggests that basic human emotions were, in fact, a main engine of much that transpired in those years. At the highest level was Jiang Qing herself, motivated, we are led by the Supervisor to understand, not by cold Marxist principle but by her thwarted love for Mao and her thirst for her private ambitions to be fulfilled. It was also private passion that allowed natural bourgeois individualists, such as Ms Min, to support the crazy revolutionary activities. Her infatuation for Yan rather than Mao drove her to be a model worker on the farm and fervent participant at nightly self-criticism sessions. Later the sexually-charged relationship with the Supervisor made her play the role of Red Azalea so ardently, she damningly identified herself with Jiang Qing and her clique. The Maos tried but failed to extinguish private passions. But an untold number of young men and women paid for their relationship with their lives. The fate of Ms Min's fellow farm worker Little Green and her bookish lover whose affair led to the latter's execution and the former going mad as a result, was not untypical. Ms Min also describes the pathetic scenes which such sexual repression led to in China's parks. Despite the constant fear of discovery by criminal control patrols with spotlights they were filled with fervent lovers and the sadly frustrated whose only relief came from masturbating while watching what went on behind the bushes. Ms Min's book reveals strange ironies on the effects of the political regime on human emotions. Comrade Lu, Yan's deputy and rival at Red Fire Farm, acts the passionless revolutionary. But even this is a veil for her own jealous emotions and greed for power, as must have been the case for numerous petty leaders. And, in an environment where private human affections were dangerous, Lu girlishly and almost perversely heaped hers on to a guard dog, 409, whom she made her own. Then there is Yan and the author's relationship which forms the core of the book. In the surreal environment created by the Maos' revolution, it was easier for two women to develop a sensuous relationship than for a male and female. Two women, after all, could shower together with impunity and even share a bed. In contrast, it was nearly impossible for men and women to hold hands unless they had made their marriage intentions public. What Ms Min fails to do is indicate how far her feelings and actions were typical. Did the generation of young people living regimented lives in the countryside suffer similar awakenings and frustrations to Yan, Little Green and the author, or did the majority buy the Maoist propaganda that sex was an unpleasant bourgeois evil that should only be used for procreation? Perhaps, given the fear that reigned at the farm, Ms Min found it impossible to know what many thought and did on the farm. Traditional Chinese modesty also precluded frank discussion on sexual feelings, except among close friends. Unlike Wild Swans , the book does not rise above the very personal. One gets a strong sense that the story is set against a dramatic backdrop of political madness. But the detail is far from clear. Nor is it stylishly written. The author frequently allows the story to gush forth in over-dramatic descriptions and clipped language more befitting romantic literature. And some passages do not ring true. How, except in fiction, would the two women loversconduct such lengthy passionate conversations when their bunk lay so close to that of their enemy Lu? Nor, with Ms Min watching on, does Yan's first sublime experience of heterosexual sex, seem credible. But despite these doubts, the book paints a haunting and moving picture of the period and should become a popular and eye-opening read.