From the National Book Award-winning author of Waiting, a new collection of short fiction that confirms Ha Jin's reputation as a master storyteller.Each of The Bridegroom's twelve stories--three of which have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories--takes us back to Muji City in contemporary China, the setting of Waiting. It is a world both exotic and disarmingly familiar, one in which Chinese men and women meet with small epiphanies and muted triumphs, leavening their lives of quiet desperation through subtle insubordination and sometimes crafty resolve.
It's difficult to think of another writer who has captured the conflicting attitudes and desires, and the still-changing conditions of daily life, of post-Cultural Revolution China as well as Ha Jin does in his second collection, which follows his NBA-winning novel, Waiting. These 12 stories attain their significant cumulative effect through spare prose penetrated by wit, insight and a fine sense of irony. One realizes in reading them that while human nature is universal, China's cultural and political repression exacerbates such traits as fear of authority (and the desire to circumvent it), male chauvinism and suspicion of outsiders. In "The Woman from New York," a young wife and mother who goes to the States for four years finds, on her return to Muji City (where most of these tales are set), that her child, her marriage, her job and her honor are forever lost. American business methods clash with Chinese traditions in "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town," in which Chinese workers' anger about the behavior of their boss, Mr. Shapiro, is redoubled when they discover one of their own countrymen practicing the strange ethics of capitalism. Such varied protagonists as college professors, a factory worker, a horny cadre member, two uneducated peasants and a five-year-old girl illustrate the ways in which hardship, lack of living space, inflexible social rules and government quotas thwart happiness. The title story is perhaps the most telling indication of the clash of humanitarian feeling and bureaucratic intervention. The protagonist, who has been taught to believe that "homosexuality... originated in Western capitalism and bourgeois lifestyle,'' is unable to credit his own sympathy for his son-in-law, who is sent to a mental hospital to cure his "disease." Ha Jin has a rare empathy for people striving to balance the past and the future while caught on the cusp of change. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 11, 2001
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Excerpt from The Bridegroom by Ha Jin
A Tiger-Fighter Is Hard to Find
We were overwhelmed by a letter from the provincial governor's office. It praised our TV series Wu Song Beat the Tiger. The governor was impressed by the hero, who fought the tiger single-handedly and punched it to death. The letter read: "We ought to create more heroic characters of this kind as role models for the revolutionary masses to follow. You, writers and artists, are the engineers of the human soul. You have a noble task on your hands, which is to strengthen people's hearts and instill into them the spirit that fears neither heaven nor earth." But the last paragraph of the letter pointed out a weakness in the key episode, which was that the tiger looked fake and didn't present an authentic challenge to the hero. The governor wondered if we could improve this section, so that our province might send the series to Beijing before the end of the year.
That evening we had a meeting and decided to reshoot the tiger-fighting scene. Everybody was excited, because if the series was sent to the capital, it meant we'd compete for a national prize. We decided to let Wang Huping take the part of the hero again, since the governor had been impressed with him in the first version. He was more than happy to do it. Now the problem was the tiger. First, a real animal would cost a fortune. Second, how could we shoot a scene with such a dangerous animal?
With the governor's letter in hand, we obtained a grant from the Municipal Administration without difficulty. Four men were dispatched to Jilin Province to bring back a tiger just caught on Ever White Mountain. By law we were not allowed to acquire a protected animal, but we got papers that said we needed it for our city's zoo. A week later, the four men returned with a gorgeous Siberian tiger.
We all went to see the animal, which was being held in a cage in the backyard of our office building. It was a male, weighing over three hundred pounds. Its eyes glowed with a cold, brown light, and its scarlet tongue seemed wet with blood. What a thick coat it had, golden and glossy! Its black stripes would ripple whenever it shook its head or stretched its neck. I was amazed at how small its ears were, not much larger than a dog's. But it smelled awful, like ammonia.
We were told to feed it ten pounds of mutton a day. This was expensive, but if we wanted to keep it in good shape, we had no choice.
Wang Huping seemed a little unnerved by the tiger. Who wouldn't be? But Huping was a grand fellow: tall, muscular, straight-shouldered, and with dreamy eyes that would sparkle when he smiled. I would say he was the most handsome young man in our Muji City, just as his nickname, Prince, suggested. A girl told me that whenever he was nearby, her eyes would turn watery. Another girl said that whenever he spoke to her, her heart would pound and her face would burn with a tickle. I don't know if any of that was true.
A few days before the shooting, Director Yu, who used to be a lecturer at a
cinema school in Shanghai, gave Huping a small book to read. It was The Old Man and the Sea, by an American author, whose name has just escaped me.
The director told Huping, "A man's not born to be defeated, not by a shark or a tiger."