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Anchee Min's Katherine: A Lesson In Survival

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Anchee Min's Katherine: A Lesson In Survival

Born in Shanghai, China, in 1957, under the rule of Chairman Mao, China’s communist leader, Anchee Min followed the teachings of Mao (Book Reporter). In 1974, she worked at a labor camp for some time. In 1984, she came to America, and by 1994 her memoir, Red Azalea, became an international bestseller (book jacket). Katherine, her first novel, was published in 1995.

Min’s Katherine has been called by a Vogue reviewer, “a powerful lesson in survival” (book jacket). We see the central character and narrator, Zebra Wong, face many tribulations and, in the end, come out the survivor.

Zebra is twenty-nine years of age, unmarried, and living in Shanghai with her parents and brother. In her native China, the Cultural Revolution has just come to an end, but many of her peers and fellow countrymen are still heavily influenced by the teachings of Chairman Mao Zedong and his administration. Revealing intimate details about her past, piece by piece, Zebra evokes suppressed feelings: “I didn’t want to take a thing with me, not even my clothes. Anything that could possibly be a reminder of what happened, I discarded”(16). With these vague indications of something horrible having happened to her, slowly Zebra’s past becomes clear.

Katherine, the title character, is a teacher from America who has come to China to teach students the English language, and along the way gives Zebra and her classmates a sense of freedom. She is a foreigner referred to by Zebra as “one of the foreign imperialist we were taught to shoot”(3). Even so, through Katherine’s guidance and benevolence, we learn more about Zebra’s past. Zebra opens up to her in a way she never has before. She tells Katherine that she used to work at Elephant Fields, a dangerous labor camp that frightened Zebra, where she was sent to the work with dynamite. “I witnessed several fatal accidents on the job and I began to feel very scared”(81). Not only was Elephant Fields a perilous place to work, but her boss “seduced and raped” her (81). At the labor camp, Zebra discovers that she is carrying the child of the man that abused her. With China’s strict ideas on a pregnant woman’s life without marriage, “In China, any woman who got pregnant before marriage destroyed her future”(82), Zebra’s strong desire not to bear Mr.