A Leap of Empathy Where the Record Ends: A Conversation with Vanessa Hua about Forbidden City

Vanessa Hua’s newest novel is a vivid and intricate foray into history, one that navigates through yearning, betrayal, and power in the time of China’s Cultural Revolution. In Forbidden City, soon-to-be sixteen-year-old Mei Xiang longs to be someone important in her country after feeling insignificant as the third daughter in a family of peasants. When Mei is selected as the representative of her village for a mysterious duty in the capital, she leaps at the opportunity to serve the Chairman. From the moment she arrives in Beijing to fulfill her duties, Mei is met with jealousy, schemes, and secrets from the other girls in the dance troupe at the Lake Palaces. Mei must do whatever it takes to stand out from the rest of her troupe to win the Chairman’s favor—and trust—in order to finally embody the model revolutionary she’s always dreamed of becoming.

In a swirl of ballroom dances and afternoon swims spent with the Chairman, Mei is finally given the chance to prove her loyalty by becoming a political pawn, one who could alter the course of the entire revolution. An intimate reflection on the power and shortcomings of memory, regret, and ambition, Forbidden City is a moving tale of what it means to give up everything to make one’s mark on history, and the inevitable consequences that follow such pursuit of a legacy.

Vanessa and I first met at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2021, where we shared the unaccustomed experience of attending an in-person workshop after a long while. We met over Zoom shortly after the beginning of the Lunar New Year to discuss how to breathe life into characters through research and imagination, the translation of loneliness across periods of time, and what it means to be remembered, if given the opportunity.

Tammy Heejae Lee




Tammy Heejae Lee (THL): In your exploration of China’s history as a journalist who’s reported and traveled to the country, as well as being Chinese American yourself, what compelled you to write a novel that takes place during this particular time period? What did you feel was left unaddressed or unrecorded that you felt was worth exploring?

Vanessa Hua (VH): Let me start off by saying: I’m the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants. During World War II, my parents had to keep moving ahead of the Japanese invaders. Month to month, city to city. As the Communists came to power in 1949, they moved to the island of Taiwan. But they were never ones to talk much about their childhood. A lot of it had to do with the immigrant mindset of looking ahead to the future, of not talking about those difficult years—the difficult past. They never discussed that time period, or Mao Zedong, even though as an adult, I realized that those factors changed the whole trajectory of their lives. What I knew of the Cultural Revolution or Mao was limited to the lens that many of us in this country have about the Cultural Revolution: stereotypical images of a young person in an army uniform, waving the Little Red Book. I didn’t know much about the cause of the turmoil, either.

As a journalist, I had already filed stories from China. I visited villages that were getting hollowed out—the very old taking care of the very young—because all the young people were going to work in factories. I had a chance to interview people who’d sought out more opportunities, whether they traveled to the cities or moved abroad—say, to the United States, where I filed stories about life in the diaspora. In my fiction and in my journalism, I always try to shine a light onto untold stories.

So what sparked this novel? About a decade and a half ago, I was watching a documentary about World War II in China, when a photo popped up: Mao surrounded by giggling teenage girls wearing plaid shirts and Peter Pan collars. They looked like bobby-soxers at a soda shop. I was astonished: who were they? The documentary mentioned how Mao was a fan of ballroom dancing and had a special troupe of young women whom he partnered with not only on the dance floor, but also in the bedroom. When I tried to look for more information, I came across a memoir written by Mao’s personal physician, Li Zhisui. For these young dancers, it was the most exhilarating, highest honor of their lives, he said. End of story, as far as he was concerned. However, I knew it was not the end of the story—it had to be a lot more complicated. I didn’t find many details, but that’s where fiction can really flourish: where the official record ends, and you take that imaginative leap of empathy to portray what’s otherwise unaddressed and unrecorded. My curiosity about what rocked my ancestral homeland—coupled with the mysterious photo and trying to get to the bottom of it—compelled me to write Forbidden City.

THL: In your author’s note you also mentioned that while you were interviewing people in China, you were actually met with some reluctance from the older generation to talk about that time period. They just wanted to move on and brush off the past.

VH: I traveled to China in 2008, just after the Beijing Olympics, an event which showcased the country’s rising economic and political might. But the evasiveness I encountered on the subject of the Cultural Revolution reflected how China was still coming to terms with its past. The fiftieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution in 2016 might have been an opportunity for a national reckoning, except that doing so would have threatened the legitimacy of the Communist Party and Mao’s legacy. Officially, it’s said: “Mao was 70 percent good, 30 percent bad,” but a mathematical formula doesn’t get at the nuances of what happened, it doesn’t get at neighbors turning on neighbors, students turning on their teachers, or children on their parents. More recently, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Mao by Gen Z because of the vast economic inequality in China; they see merit to some of his ideas. Would they embrace him if the country shone a light on the Cultural Revolution and his role in it? China seemingly hasn’t reconciled the trauma and turmoil of those days. But that’s not a Chinese thing. Does anyone in any country fully grasp or reckon with what has taken place in their history?

THL: I’m curious about what the writing process of this novel was like for you. Did you come across something in your research when you turned to resources and stories for guidance that took you by complete surprise, or struck you as meaningful or significant?

VH: Writing historical fiction is a challenge. I don’t have a time machine; I’m not from China, and I couldn’t visit Zhongnanhai, the country’s seat of power where Mao lived (it’s not open to the public). But I could conduct interviews with people who’d lived through that time period, read memoirs from the Cultural Revolution as well as history books about the political machinations, examine historical photos and footage, and go through newspaper archives. While researching, I was fascinated by Mao’s love of ballroom dancing and swimming. The fact of it felt significant, but more importantly, those details also enabled me to imagine a historical figure on a visceral level. Mao’s swim in the Yangtze River helped kick off the Cultural Revolution in July 1966. The publicity stunt helped dispel rumors of ill health and show off his strength. I’m a swimmer too. In my early twenties, after I injured my foot running, I took swim lessons at the YMCA to improve my ragged stroke. I loved gliding through the water, and the sense of peace in the pool, cut off from other distractions. Swimming not only kept me sane during the pandemic, but helped me portray the Chairman and Mei as bodies in motion: their strokes, their breath.

I also knew what it was like to spin around a dance floor. Social dancing was really popular when I was an undergrad. A student reporter told me it’s still in high demand at Stanford—it’s a waitlist sort of class. I remember how to position my hands and feet, the anticipation before the opening bars began, and the sound of heels clicking on a wooden floor. Dancing was another avenue, a side door, that helped me understand and develop my characters.

THL: Mei’s story is told to us in the retrospective first person as she’s recounting her past to a particular audience. Was this something you decided on right from the beginning in your earlier drafts of the novel?

VH: It’s a convoluted story! I started writing this book in 2007, worked on it throughout my MFA program at UC Riverside, and after I graduated, got an agent. It went out on submission and came close to selling, but did not. Though I was heartbroken, all I could do was work on other books. Yet I kept coming back to this one—I couldn’t quit it. In the first version, there were two storylines: China on the eve of the Cultural Revolution and the San Francisco Chinatown a decade later. The Chinatown portion was 30 percent of the book instead of just the epilogue and prologue, as it is now. In the next major iteration, I cut the Chinatown stuff away. There were just too many competing storylines and characters. I don’t regret it, though; none of those pages were wasted effort. Growing up in the Bay Area, I visited Chinatown often and, as a reporter, I’ve spent a lot of time there. Much of my thinking about Chinatown ended up in other published work, in my novel A River of Stars and in my short stories.

In terms of the retrospective narrator and the particular audience Mei has in mind, that actually didn’t emerge until very late in the revision process. I can’t remember when, but certainly after I did the major rewrites after its sale. That’s something I will often ask students: who is your narrator speaking to? Who is their imagined audience? There’s the stories that we tell ourselves, for the sake of survival, for the sake of our egos, and then there’s the stories we tell other people to persuade them. Knowing Mei’s specific audience helped the book come together. It explained why she so urgently needed to tell her story.

THL: One thing that I found really fascinating was Mei’s time in the Lake Palaces with the other girls in her troupe. They all share the same end goal, but rather than having them turn to each other for allyship, you really draw out the divisive and competitive nature among them. I was wondering what made you lean into that as you were going about these scenes?

VH: Female friendships are a rich source of inspiration in my fiction. In A River of Stars, I portray the complex relationships among the women in the maternity tourism center and then the friendship and found family that Daisy and Scarlett create in that novel. In Forbidden City, I wondered, how would it feel to sleep with someone you’ve been raised to believe in as a god? What would you do to keep your place beside him? Yet it’s not just teen drama; the dynamic among the recruits mirrors the chaos that was to come in the Cultural Revolution in which people claimed to be patriotic, but instead turned on each other, using it as a chance to settle old scores. Whatever happened within the confines of the troupe got repeated across the country: the struggle sessions, the rivalries, the fight for power. The interactions within the troupe stand in for and help explain what would unfold elsewhere.

Teenagers have an interesting energy, right? Their emotions are so big, and their brains are still developing. I felt sympathetic toward the dance recruits, even in the moments where they acted cruelly, because I kept thinking, they’re teenagers. Caught in the grip of powerful forces, and pitted against each other.

THL: I found the book’s explorations of loneliness and visibility to be particularly poignant. What was it like writing a character whose goal is to be known—specifically, immortalized in history—who’s also self-aware that she’s completely alone? What did you hope her isolation and character would convey to your readers?

VH: In 2004, I traveled to villages in southern China to file stories for the San Francisco Chronicle about the rise of modern China. One night, I went out for drinks with factory girls. We played a dice game, whose rules I never figured out! All of these women yearned for something different and bigger, a life they couldn’t have imagined while growing up. Being out in the world, they achieved a newfound visibility, but at the cost of being far from family, from everything they’d ever known. While it was a different era than in Forbidden City, those dreams manifested in Mei, too—and frankly, in any immigrant. It’s hard to imagine your parents having these big dreams, but somehow they managed to come to this country, right? They wanted something different, even though their life in a new land would surely be difficult and lonely.

I worked on this novel over a long period of time, including a portion during the pandemic. Sheltering in place and social distancing influenced my thinking on loneliness, distance, and separation. Not only for me, but for my characters. The Chairman is so revered and beloved; his portraits are everywhere and people are singing songs in his name, but he’s lonely and uneasy. Mei grew up knowing that women are completely absent from family lineages; only men appear on ancestor tablets. She hungers to be immortalized, to be famous, and she thinks she has a chance, with that era’s talk of equality and Mao’s slogan, “women hold up half the sky.” She dreams of a better world, dreams of becoming a model revolutionary. Eventually, she realizes she’s a pawn at the Lake Palaces. She’s alone—no one is looking out for her. It’s a grim realization, but an empowering one. She has to chart her own way through, her own way out.

THL: And when Mei thinks that she’s finally achieved what she set out to do, there’s still erasure there. Even after she thinks she’s finally visible, she’s still invisible, at least to herself.

VH: You can be hidden in plain sight. You’re held up as an example, but that depiction is unrecognizable to yourself. People are also projecting what they need and want onto you. I thought a lot about what it means in being a hero. Take American history: what do we really know about George Washington—chopping down the cherry tree, the crossing of the Delaware River? He’s reduced to a myth. And what do most people know about his parents, or his family? Nothing. People know so few details about heroes, if they get remembered at all. You can see that with celebrities nowadays—you know a few things about them, or even just one thing. In Mei, I wanted to explore how it felt, to get completely flattened. To become abstract.

THL: Going back to what you said about Mao and his loneliness, I noticed that there’s a certain tenderness to Mei and the Chairman’s relationship after a certain point—she’s his primary companion, refuge, and caretaker even. It seems like the two really do care for one another in their own ways, and they’re often left to be in their own little world behind closed doors. What did the relationship between the two mean to you?

VH: There’s a huge power imbalance between Mei and the Chairman, and notions of consent wouldn’t have entered the conversation in those days. The term would have been anachronistic. Would Mei consider it assault? Her duty? She grows disillusioned over the course of the novel—with him, with the revolution. A modern reader views the situation differently, of course, especially after the Me-Too era. Yet while writing the novel, I also pondered how close Mao became to some of the young dancers. For example, Mao met Zhang Yufeng when she was eighteen years old. Besides dancing with him, she became his companion, his “confidential clerk.” In time, she read his correspondence, and after his speech became garbled, she interpreted what he said. They weren’t equals, but they shared something intimate. They also spent so much time together—more than a decade, on and off. What else happened behind closed doors, beyond the sex? I wanted to portray the complexity of the relationship between Mei and the Chairman, those moments of tenderness and callousness.

THL: A constant, underlying fear for the majority of the female characters in this novel is that they’ll be rendered useless or punished someday. For the teenage girls in the troupe, they’re required to entertain and serve these older and powerful men and political figures in addition to the Chairman himself. Why were these power dynamics important to illuminate?

VH: We need to examine systems of power, systems of oppression in order to become better writers (and become better humans)! In my novel, I wanted to explore how the patriarchy shaped these young women, and influenced how they navigate the world. They’re always vying for the attention of these men. Even if you’re the favorite, it’s only momentary. You’re always worried about losing your position; another girl is already on the way. They also knew that their time in the troupe and their access to the Chairman would come to an end. And so, I portray how that dynamic can warp their relationship with others and with themselves. What little power they had, they used against each other instead of banding together. And that’s part of how the patriarchy—every system of power—gets reinforced and perpetuated.

THL: I’m wondering what it’s like to have this book come into publication during this particular time, given the pandemic and the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes lately. How might a novel that brings the past back to life in such vivid detail teach us to ponder its history or implications in the present?

VH: Even before the pandemic, tensions had been rising between the United States and China over trade relations. Then the blame fell upon China over the origins of the coronavirus, which in turn sparked anti-Asian hate in this country. Relations are still deteriorating. And if we go all the way back to 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first federal law barring immigration based on race and class; it prevented Chinese immigrants already here from becoming citizens. For more than a half century, Chinese immigration slowed to a trickle. The legalized xenophobia ended in 1943, when China became an ally in WWII.

I hope my novel can help illuminate a country that’s been demonized in the past and present. Historical fiction not only teaches us about the past, but has the power to make us reflect: what is the legacy? How can I better understand the times that we live in?I’ve been thinking about the current violence against Asian women. At a vigil, someone carried a sign that read “It’s exhausting to go from invisible to fetishized to model minority.” Whether in the present day or in the past, Asian women have been stereotyped, denied their humanity, or erased altogether. Hopefully, fiction can help foster empathy and inspire a change in thinking and change in action. Placing yourself in someone else’s body, mind, heart, and dreams—all of it—you begin to understand.


Tammy Heejae Lee is a Korean American writer from Davis, California. She holds a BA from University of California—Davis and an MFA in fiction from the University of San Francisco, where she received a post-graduate teaching fellowship. A Tin House Summer Workshop, VONA/Voices and Sewanee Writers’ Conference alum, her writing has appeared in Sundog, The Offing, and PANK, among others. She is currently a 2021–22 Steinbeck Fellow in fiction at San Jose State University, where she is working on her first novel about expat and hagwon culture in Seoul.

Vanessa Hua is an award-winning columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of Deceit and Other Possibilities, winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and NYT Editors Pick, and the national bestsellers A River of Starsand Forbidden City. A National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, she has also received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing, as well as honors from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association. She has filed stories from China, Burma, South Korea, Panama, and Ecuador, and her work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She has taught, most recently, at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.