On the eve of China's Cultural Revolution and her sixteenth birthday, Mei dreams of becoming a model revolutionary. When the Communist Party recruits girls for a mysterious duty in the capital, she seizes the opportunity to escape her impoverished village. It is only when Mei arrives at the Chairman's opulent residence—a forbidden city unto itself—that she learns that the girls' job is to dance with the Party elites. Mei beelines toward the Chairman and becomes the Chairman's confidante—and paramour. When the Chairman finally gives Mei a political mission, she seizes it with fervor, but the brutality of this latest stage of the revolution makes her begin to doubt all the certainties she has held so dear.
... masterful ... These thoughts bring the reader to question what Mei might be misremembering throughout the novel, and what she might not remember at all — a metaphor for the selection of events that official history deems fit to either embrace or discard...But that’s the thing about hidden history, political, national and personal: Once a long-buried truth is revealed, it sparks connections, understanding and empowerment ... Mei’s description of the Cultural Revolution does not sound so removed from our daily American reality. Hua concludes her Author’s Note by warning that '[t]he past is never as distant as it seems.' That’s just another reason that her novel is eye-opening, vital and timely now more than ever.
... captivating ... a new classic ... If you know nothing about 20th century Chinese history going into Forbidden City, worry not ... so much more than an historically minded #MeToo narrative ... Historical fiction, at its best, is a visceral, not academic, enterprise. It provides dual pleasures to the reader: the pleasure of time travel and the pleasure of time’s echo. It’s one thing to know intellectually that history repeats itself and another to see history enacted through a well-crafted, defamiliarizing narrative. The echoes I heard in Forbidden City — narcissistic leadership, a revenge-thirsty body politic, women and girls treated as things — both unsettled and compelled me to consider the present anew. I can think of no higher praise for this ambitious and impressive novel.
This fictionalized, inside view from a Mao devotee is compelling. Outside this world, Mei could be seen as foolish and star-struck, but she is a victim of the insidious propaganda campaigns and the culture around her. Her growth and gradual realization of the truth of the real Mao turns her into a fierce woman of strength.