A novel of China between old and new

Ha Jin is a writer who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and writes novels in English about China.  I liked his novel WAITING (1999), which I read after picking it up in the free book exchange at my local public library.

The novel is about life in China and about Lin Kong, a Chinese army doctor, who is torn between the old China of arranged marriages and subordination of the individual to the family and the new China of supervision of personal morality by the state.

Ha Jin depicted a China much more tranquil than I imagined.  The 1960s saw the tail-end of the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution, but, in the novel, all this happens off-stage.

Nobody is forced into a collective farm at gunpoint, nobody is dragged off by the police, nobody is forced to confess their political sins at a mass meeting.  The worst thing that happens to Lin is that, during the Cultural Revolution, he turns in some of his books and puts covers on the others so that the titles don’t show.

He’s considered daring for owning a copy of the war memoirs of Marshall Zhukov in the original Russian.  Later on he encounters a high-ranking officer who is privileged enough to own a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Everybody in the novel enjoys a modest prosperity.  The characters, except for a few high-ranking officials, all lead austere lives, but nobody lacks food, clothing or shelter.  Lin’s parents own a small piece of farmland, which nobody challenges their right to have.

That doesn’t mean that critical accounts of China such as Simon Leys’ essays or Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts  are wrong, or that, on the other hand, the novel gives a false picture.  It means that China is a vast country, and not all one thing.

In 1962, Lin’s parents pressure him into an arranged marriage with the good-hearted, but illiterate and unattractive Shuyu, so that someone will be available to take care of them in their declining years.  She is one of the last Chinese women to have bound feet.  Lin has no desire to marry her, but goes along rather than defy his parents.

His military duty keeps him far from home, except for 12 days leave a year.  An attractive educated army nurse, Mannu Wu, falls in love with him, and, after a struggle with his feelings, he returns her love.  His superiors tolerate the relationship to the extent of allowing the couple to take walks together in private, but not to the extent of allowing adultery..

Each year, for 18 years, he  returns to his home village to ask Shuyu for a divorce, and each year she refuses.  He waits for the 18th year, when he can legally obtain a divorce without her consent and marry his true love.

His feeling for Mannu gradually comes to feel less like a passion and more like a duty.  By the time she reaches her late twenties, she has passed the age when she is considered marriageable.  He encourages her to find some other suitable husband, but two attempts at matchmaking fall through at the last moment.  She is subjected to sexual harassment because of her ambiguous status.  But finally, in 1984, the day arrives.  He divorces the old wife and he marries a new one.

He sells the family farm and relocates Shuyu to the city near his army base, which he could not do before because he lacked seniority.  His adult daughter also relocates and gets a job in a factory there.  Neither shows any bitterness.

But Lin does not enter into married bliss.  Having lived as a single man for decades, he finds adjustment to married life difficult.  He and Mannu are not sexually compatible.  She is more passionate than he is.

Her pregnancy is difficult and painful.  She gives birth to twin boys.  Since China’s one-child policy is in effect, Lin is regarded as having hit the jackpot.  But Mannu suffers complications from the pregnancy, and the boys suffer diarrhea.  His fellow doctors are unable to help.  In the end Shuyu provides a folk remedy that works.

It turns out that Mannu has a chronic condition that will cause her to die young.  Lin humbly goes to Shuyu to ask her help in raising the boys, which she is pleased to do.

Lin takes stock of how selfish and passive he has been all his life, without knowing it.  He then realizes, with gratitude and astonishment, how much he is loved in spite of everything.

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