This whimsically-named novel came to my attention a couple of times before it finally stuck and I requested it from the library. The 2007 novel was published from anonymous online writing, it was adapted into a movie directed by Zhang Yimou of Raise the Red Lantern fame and released in 2010, and an English translation was published in just this year. I’m not entirely sure what drew me to this Cultural Revolution story that looks stick-serious. Perhaps what drew me in was the quirky title.
Why this particular title for Ai Mi’s Under the Hawthorn Tree? The protagonist, 17-year-old Jingqui, is caught up in her family’s unfortunate class position while she finishes her senior high school years and the Cultural Revolution is full-steam barreling ahead. Her life is directed by the (Communist) Party’s wishes (which has even appealed to couples to marry later) and the fear of dragging her already persecuted family into deeper trouble further keeps her actions in check. “Under the Hawthorn Tree” is a Russian song she learned in the past when Sino-Soviet relations were still good and there is one specimen of the tree in West Village where she spends several weeks, the first third of the novel.
As part of the gloriously named group of students, “No. 8 Middle School Educational Reform Association”, Jingqui travels to West Village to live with the locals and write about their history as well as work with them on the commune once a week since she is no better than they are by being from the city. The family that boards her has a very good family friend they also refer to as “brother”, Old Third, who is about seven years older and has more worldly knowledge than Jingqui has which she first classifies as “petty capitalism”. Old Third falls for Jingqui immediately and she also feels the first signs of affectionate but in her naivete does not recognize the signs. As one reviewer describes it, as a result of Jingqui’s extreme sexual innocence, their relationship is conducted “obliquely”.
In the next part of the novel, Jingqui returns home and to her real life. While her family background is sketched out in the West Village chapters, her desperate and completely impoverished situation is clearly shown with how often she has to go barefoot, her family’s utter lack of cookware and setting up house fashioning all of their furniture from old, discarded desks from the nearby school. Her father was categorized as a landowner thus father and son are sent off indefinitely to re-educations camps in the countryside. The entire family is deemed low in class status and Jingqui’s mother is a teacher but her position seems very precarious. When Jingqui brings her West Village friends to visit, they are surprised how poor her family can be and they are in comparative riches in the countryside. The influence of the Party on people’s was impressed upon me when Jingqui was appealed to consider marrying the other brother, Old Second, towards whom she feels no affection, in a strategic move. Despite being decorated at school for her writing and athletic abilities, upon graduation, Jingqui’s will be called to the countryside for re-education and stay there indefinitely. She could avoid that and improve her family’s political standing somewhat by marrying Old Second who is the son of a low-level Party official. Too high-level a Party official, like Old Third’s father, and the classes are too different so which road to think she pursues….?
Set in 1974, the Cultural Revolution was into its eighth year and is the only kind of education Jingqui has known. The social and political movement would end in two more years but they wouldn’t have known that. In addition to a thoroughly successful Communist education for young Jingqui (where romance is a “bourgeois indulgence” and Party-approved romance literature is not particularly informative but allegorical and the likes of Romeo and Juliet), I think her social situation does not put her amongst too many female friends who would explain the finer details about life so she fumbles along trying to interpret Old Third’s words and actions until halfway through, the air is cleared and they are a couple meeting clandestinely. Jingqui’s mother’s warning, One slip leads down a road to hardship, constantly echoes in the young girl’s head and I’m on tenterhooks wondering if it will be a “slip” between the lovers or their relationship is exposed. I had to chuckle when on the day they become a couple her mother sniffs out something is new and learns about Old Third’s existence and the kind of criticism the mother makes of Old Third once she does meet him. The mother is not just looking out for the family’s position to be wary of Jingqui’s alliance with Old Third but also truly trying to guide her daughter during her first relationship.
About two-thirds into the novel, I was very frustrated. I was frustrated with the injustices of politics from Jingqui being assigned to be kitchen staff upon graduation and tardiness of that position’s finalization to the temporary work office refusing Jingqui jobs out of jealousy and politics. Jingqui couldn’t interpret her world due to her small world view like when her boss is beat up and most likely has many enemies, she frets endlessly that the assailant must have been Old Third defending her honour and now they are doomed. I guess at least the former frustration was a point of the novel.
Reviews and the back of the book intimate that the romance is heartbreaking and the reason it works despite the unique setting and time period is the timelessness of romance despite all the odds. I kept wondering what kind of romance it would be. Utterly tragic like Romeo and Juliet? Would it be like Girl in Translation and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn where the female protagonist is the saviour for the family but only through most heart-wrenching sacrifice? I started to get a little irritated how it started to read like a fairy tale, when Old Third would drop in like a fairy godmother and fix things, like provide her with rubber boots to work on pouring asphalt and concrete.
And then Old Third does make a baffling move where his true intentions are not obviously clear, even to the reader. He has not thus far been known to lie but he told an unbelievable tale in a parting letter to Jingqiu. I was skimming at that point trying to reach the conclusion which I madly needed after the frustration. The reader also needs to know if Jingqiu’s sexual naivete ever gets shattered. Yes, his last action was sacrificing and done for Jingqiu’s sake but by then she is finally quite independent, fully accepting love and running around trying to find him. It all came to a head in a bit of a weird and definitely bittersweet way in the last two pages.
I think the translation by Anna Holmwood is beautiful and effective. While I do not read books in Chinese, the simple tone and structure seems familiar to me from Chinese speech and comes through in translation and characterizes the simple way in which life can be framed for a young and almost thoroughly indoctrinated female comrade. The new emotions she feels are complex but when she encounters them, she can only expressed them simply. Jingqui’s Party convictions are deep and she needs to be a good member and daughter but this is at crossroads with how affection and love makes one feel.
Next, I will watch the movie (which seems to follow the novel closely) and in searching for it, came across the many beautiful DVD covers below.