Dancing with History: A Conversation with Vanessa Hua

May 25, 2022   •   By Grace Loh Prasad

ON THE EVE of China’s Cultural Revolution, an impoverished, 15-year-old peasant girl is plucked from obscurity to join a secret dance troupe whose sole purpose is to entertain the Communist Party elite — including the Great Leader himself, Chairman Mao Zedong. Mei bonds with other girls in the dance troupe who all live together in a dormitory just outside the Lake Palaces, but she quickly realizes that she must outmaneuver them to keep the Chairman’s attention and ensure her own survival. She becomes part of the Chairman’s inner circle and longs for an opportunity to show her loyalty and patriotism, but when the time comes, things spin out of control and Mei is forced to make a wrenching choice.

Forbidden City is the second novel by award-winning writer and journalist Vanessa Hua. For more than 20 years, Hua has been writing about Asian communities in the United States for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, and the San Francisco Chronicle, where she is a weekly columnist. I spoke to Hua in March 2022 about the evolution of the book, her research process and character development, how historical fiction reflects the current zeitgeist, and her desire to amplify unheard and forgotten voices to paint a more complete picture of a turbulent time in Chinese history.


GRACE LOH PRASAD: What sparked the idea for your novel Forbidden City?

VANESSA HUA: A decade and a half ago, while I was watching a black-and-white documentary, an image jumped out at me: Chairman Mao surrounded by a group of adoring teenage girls in tight sweaters. It turns out that he was a big fan of ballroom dancing — and the company of young women, both on and off the dance floor. But when I looked for more information, I didn’t find much except for brief references in the memoir of Mao’s personal physician, who said serving Mao was “the highest honor” for these women.

Intrigued, I wrote a short story set at one of these dance parties. But it kept tugging at me; I knew there had to be more going on behind the scenes, that these relationships had to be more complicated behind closed doors. So that’s how the novel started.

Your main character, Mei, is recruited from a small village to perform an important but unspecified patriotic duty. What drew you to this character?

Mao is the most revered, beloved, and powerful man in China, yet he’s also having these private moments with these teenagers and young women. According to his physician’s memoir, he really was spending most of his time with them, in addition to his bodyguards. I was compelled by the fact that someone like Mei, one of these girls, wouldn’t show up anywhere in the official accounts. Or if she showed up at all, she would be described in a dismissive tone. But I instinctively knew there was much more to the story.

As a journalist and a fiction writer, I try to shine a light on untold stories. That’s what appealed to me. Because I didn’t find much about the relationships between Mao and these dancers, I felt fiction was an ideal way to fill this absence and tell the story, because otherwise it wouldn’t exist at all. History is largely an account of cisgender men, right? Fiction is a way to fill in those gaps for the people whose voices are absent from the official record.

Was it hard to find sources about Mao’s personal life?

I read Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao and various biographies about Mao, his wife, and other Communist Party leaders. I also read about the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and journalistic accounts of China by Western journalists, in search of details that might illuminate my character, the Chairman.

Who or what was the inspiration for the character of Mei?

Zhang Yufeng met the Chairman at a dance party when she was 18 — on the verge of womanhood, and so much younger than Mao, who was in his late 60s. She eventually became his companion and personal secretary and played an important role interpreting what he said toward the end of his life when illness impaired his speech. While their relationship was documented, I couldn’t find anything that described the rhythm of their days — how they spent their time together and how she was able to gain his trust and carve out a space for herself while sequestered at Zhongnanhai, which I call the Lake Palaces in the novel.

Mao Zedong’s name is never used in the novel — he’s identified only as “the Chairman.” Was that your intent from the beginning, or was it a pragmatic choice to avoid any potential backlash from writing about a revered public figure?

I wasn’t really thinking about how people would react, in China or elsewhere. From the very earliest drafts, he was the Chairman. When I was still testing out the story — what would become the novel — I didn’t want to be wedded to a specific time or place. For example, in the earliest drafts, I didn’t name all the specific provinces they visited. Eventually, though, I set it during the Cultural Revolution and charted out locations.

By calling him the Chairman, it was easier to make the character my own. It was never because I was worried I would get blackballed in China. I wondered, “How do I bring this character to life on the page and make him be more than the portrait that hangs in Tiananmen Square?” To do that, I had to get away from all the things that made him iconic and instead try to think about what made him fully human.

The Chairman is portrayed in a pretty unflattering way — horny, depressed, infirm, and disinterested in governing. Do you think Chinese audiences would be scandalized by these revelations, particularly his history with young women?

Perhaps for some it could be shocking, akin to Americans first discovering John F. Kennedy’s affairs, while others might have already heard rumors or come across the doctor’s memoir (though it’s banned in China). Apparently, there were jokes in China in the early 1980s about his sexual prowess!

I hope that readers recognize the focus of the book is not on him. My protagonist, Mei, is emblematic of the young women whose lives and stories have been excluded from the historical record. I wanted to tell the story of someone who was barely a footnote in these written accounts yet was influential in her own way.

Tell me about your research process.

I became a power user of the University of California library system. I reserved so many interlibrary loans that when I went in to pick up the books, the librarian recognized my name. I read biographies, memoirs, as well as fiction set during those times. I watched documentaries, printed out photos, and hung up maps.

I also traveled to China in 2004 and 2008, the first time on a reporting trip for the San Francisco Chronicle, and the second time to conduct novel research. In Southern China, I went to villages and factory towns, where I met teenagers who dreamed of a better life. I also conducted interviews on the outskirts of Beijing and explored many of the significant places in the book, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Zhongnanhai, Shanghai, and Hong Kong — tracing the path that would ultimately become Mei’s.

How did you get people to open up about a traumatic period in history?

It’s important to take it slowly, have them set the pace, and let them meander in their storytelling. They should also feel comfortable and safe — which could mean interviewing them at home or elsewhere. Establishing a sense of connection, however small, is also important. Depending on the source and what might put them at ease, you might also send examples of your work that demonstrate nuance and expertise.

The days I spent in the villages were key to developing the setting and rhythms of daily life in my novel — for example, I asked an elderly woman what she ate for breakfast and she pulled out a corn cob from her pocket. We discussed aspects of their upbringings and their pasts, but I didn’t press them on their traumas. I would have taken a different approach if I’d intended to write a nonfiction account about their lives, but I was there as a novelist. I wasn’t writing about them specifically. My goal was to write a novel inspired by historical figures and events, but it is ultimately a work of fiction.

There’s a real intensity to the relationships between the young women in the dance troupe, the passionate students, and the Red Guard. Was that based on historical accounts or just great character development?

Thank you! The character development was mostly born from my imagination. But I did read accounts of Red Guard dynamics, and there’s a long tradition of what’s called “scar literature,” memoirs from educated youth that got sent to the countryside for hard labor. I based the dance troupe on my knowledge of what it’s like being a teenager and what happens when everyone wants the same thing or wants the same person. I also took social dancing in college; it was one of the most popular classes on campus.

It’s similar to the approach I took in my first novel, A River of Stars, which portrays queen-bee dynamics among pregnant women at a maternity tourism center. It’s completely fictionalized, though I remembered being hugely pregnant with my twins. I tried to imagine what would happen if all these pregnant women got together. It was only later, after I finished the manuscript, that I found a first-person account that essentially corroborated what I’d written, that there were lots of rivalries and conflicts.

There’s a wonderful passage about how hero worship works by obliterating the more mundane facts of a person’s life: “To become a hero, your life had to be worn away, worn smooth, until you were blank, the barest of outlines.” Can you expand on that?

It’s really interesting. When you think about heroes, even in an American context, there’s a lot we don’t know about them. Like, who is George Washington’s wife? Martha, what was she like? Did they have any children? Few of us ever think about them. A hero serves one purpose; you don’t want to know their backstory, because it makes the story too messy. I was thinking about all the things that were projected onto Mao Zedong, like that he could keep a mango from rotting or inspire people to sew back a finger that was lost in an accident. It’s wild. They were projecting these magical powers onto him, but that can only happen if they don’t really know him.

You worked on this project for over a decade. How did the manuscript evolve over time?

This was the first book I wrote, but it’s the third one I’m getting published. I started writing it in 2007, just before I began my MFA program at UC Riverside. It was initially a short story about the girl meeting the Chairman at a party, but when I workshopped it, I realized I had to keep going to understand how she got there and how she made her way through it. After I graduated, I got an agent and the book went out on submission and came close to selling, but ultimately did not. I was devastated; I broke out in hives every day for two years. So I worked on other books — A River of Stars and Deceit and Other Possibilities — but I kept coming back to this one.

In the early versions, there were two story lines: China on the eve of the Cultural Revolution and San Francisco Chinatown a decade later. The Chinatown portion was 30 percent of the book, but I ended up cutting it all away because there were too many competing story lines and characters. Now it’s just the bookends.

Eventually, I realized the particular audience Mei had in mind. That’s something I will often ask students: Who is your narrator speaking to? Who is their imagined audience? There are stories we tell ourselves to survive, and there are stories we tell other people to persuade them. Figuring out who Mei was talking to made all the pieces fall into place; it explained the urgency behind her story.

Do you feel that you are a different writer now, compared with when you started it?

You are a different writer at the beginning of a novel than you are the end of it — even with a book that doesn’t take 14 years to write. Over the course of writing this novel, I passed through personal and global history: I had kids, my father passed away, I moved back home, we had the #MeToo movement, the pandemic hit, and relations cratered with China. All of these things, while not in the novel itself, certainly shaped who I am as a person and an author. Although the novel took a long time to arrive in its final form, I became a better writer by the end.

People have been asking, “What will be the next pandemic novel, or what will be the literature of the pandemic?” I think a lot of it won’t be about a virus that shuts down society and puts us into lockdown. There will be some of that, but much of it will be reflected indirectly. Living in lockdown was not unlike living in the Lake Palaces — there’s a lot of isolation and separation, and Mei is constantly worried about not being able to see her family. The experience of the pandemic seeped into the book even if it’s not directly referenced. They say that all historical fiction is shaped by the time period in which it is written, not just by the time period in which it’s set.


Grace Loh Prasad writes about belonging and diaspora for publications including The New York TimesLongreadsCatapult, and KHÔRA. Follow her on Twitter @GraceLP.