FORBIDDEN CITY

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On the day of Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, Mei Xiang, a waitress in a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant, recalls the incredible journey that took her from a remote, impoverished village to the heart of political power in Communist China. When Secretary Sun, a Party official, arrives in the summer of 1965 to recruit young girls for mysterious duties in the capital, the patriotic 15-year-old Mei is so eager to become a model revolutionary that she subtly blackmails the village headman into guaranteeing her selection. Arriving at Beijing’s walled Lake Palaces, once home to emperors and now the Chairman’s residence, Mei soon learns from Teacher Fan that her job will be to dance with the Party elites. That first evening she attracts the Chairman’s attention, earning the enmity of another ambitious girl, Midnight Chang. The quick-witted Mei soon becomes the Chairman’s lover and confidante; when he recruits her to trick and undermine his political rival, she seizes the opportunity for revolutionary action with fervor. But her doubts grow as Mei observes the harrowing violence and brutality sweeping the country. Inspired by documentary footage of Mao surrounded by adoring young women and drawing on the life of his personal secretary, Zhang Yufeng, Hua vividly captures the cult of personality that enabled the manipulation of girls like Mei. But her narrative pace is surprisingly slow; most of the action takes place within the isolated confines of the Lake Palaces, where Mei obsesses over her rivalries with Midnight Chang and Madame, the Chairman’s wife. Mei’s narrow viewpoint also limits the novel’s emotional impact, as she remains detached from the traumatic events of the Cultural Revolution until the contrived climax.

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