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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.
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Zebra is also heeded as the survivor in this novel because she has to face the reality that every day that passes depreciates her value as a woman. In China, an immense amount of pressure is constantly put on Zebra to find a man and get married. Although her brother does not directly come out to her with his feelings, his future as a married man depends on her getting married, “He was waiting for me to move out of the apartment so he could get married and live there with his wife. He would never say this to me, but I knew what I was supposed to do”(19). To remove some of the weight off her back, Zebra attempts to find love and begins to date. The dates that Zebra go on are nothing but humiliation for her. She can’t bring herself to like these men, and she makes excuses to avoid them. Even worse, her family is even more disappointed with her inability to find love: “I could see my mother leaning out the window, waiting for good news. I felt terrible” (147). Her brother eventually gets married, meaning that she has to move out of their room for him and his wife to stay in, leaving Zebra, a grown woman, with nowhere else to sleep, but with her parents.
Zebra also suffers and self-sacrifices in the end of the novel when she goes on an instinct and saves Katherine, whom she has become close to. On one night after the Moon Festival, Katherine is taken complete advantage of by Jasmine, one of her students, who has a deep dislike for her because of Katherine’s affair with her boyfriend Lion Head (who also had an affair with Zebra). During that time Katherine is severely intoxicated and begins to spew objectionable thoughts of Jasmine’s father, Mr. Han, the president of the East Sea Foreign Language Institute, to his daughter. Jasmine has Katherine walk directly into her trap, while Zebra notices this, “I stood by the door, feeling like I was waking from a dream. I was hoping Katherine would stop, but it looked like she was going to make things messier. She would drink more and walk straight into Jasmine’s trap”(171). Later on that night, Jasmine accuses Katherine and Jim, a fellow student, of adultery. Zebra then goes the distance to prove otherwise, and ends up taking the fall when she is re-assigned to the perdition of Elephant Fields.
Zebra proves on more than one occasion that she can survive through trying ordeals. She was physically violated, and took a life. She is constantly ridiculed over something she has no power over, being a woman, and she fails in her attempts to do good. Yet, her spirit hasn’t been taken down, even though at times she feels she doesn’t have any choice. Taking everything into account, Katherine is an excellent lesson in survival and opens an American reader’s eyes to the idea that a woman in a repressed, seemingly hopeless society can make it through and beat it in her own right. She can endure the worst of the worst.
Book Jacket. Katherine. By Anchee Min. New York: Putnam, 1995.
Book Reporter. 29 September 2000. Bookreporter.com. 24 April 2001.
Min, Anchee. Katherine. New York: Putnam, 1995.