Under the Hawthorn Tree is what is known in the trade as a ‘publishing phenomenon’ because of its bestseller status in China. Defying expectations, because it had already been published for free on the author’s blog, it generated massive sales, which then became a catalyst for bestsellerdom in the rest of the world. Ai Mi, whose name is a pseudonym, was brought up in China but now, surprise, surprise, she is resident in the US. The novel is a sentimental romance with a two-possibly-three-hankie conclusion, which has apparently been made into a wildly successful film by the Beijing New Picture Film Co.
You are right, dear reader, sentimental romances are not my usual reading fare at all. So why did I buy it, I hear you ask, and then persist with reading it?
Well, I’ve read very few contemporary Chinese novels, and nothing by a woman since Jung Chang’s Wild Swans*. Under the Hawthorn Tree is set during the last years of the Cultural Revolution, an historical period in China which has always mystified me. I was interested to see how this period could be represented by a contemporary female Chinese author.
The snag, of course, is that nothing seems to be known about the real Ai Mi. The whole thing could be a literary fraud. For all we know, she could be a man. She/he may be an old woman who lived through this period or she/he may be a young author whose perception of the Cultural Revolution has been shaped by the memories of others and/or from the still-censored media in China. She/he might not have written it as historical fiction, but perhaps have written it during the Cultural Revolution, or soon after it during what is called the ‘Scar Literature’ period. She/he might not even be Chinese. The pseudonym adds to the hype.
But in the throes of reading The Unknown Industrial Prisoner by David Ireland – which is challenging to say the least – and having just read Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces which is a demanding novel in multiple ways, I was in the mood for something lighter. The doomed love story of Jingqiu and Old Third was absorbing enough, but *phew* it didn’t keep me awake till late at night. (BTW Old Third is not old, he is young and cute. He’s the third eldest).
Most of the reviews I have glanced at blame the Cultural Revolution for the sabotage of this appealing relationship, but perhaps because I am
a bit a lot older than the target readership, I thought it had more to do with Jingqiu’s extreme innocence, her uber-romantic ideas about love and everybody’s ideas about her reputation. Of course, yes, the strange and arbitrary Maoist machinations of moving hapless people around from city to country in order to satisfy obscure ideas about re-education, impacted on whether these two were together. But the plot shows that they do in fact have plenty of opportunities to be together, including plenty of time alone.
Then there is the problem of the disparity in their political and social background. He’s the wealthy son of a high-ranking military commander, she ‘s the poverty-stricken daughter of parents who were denounced for being landowners. In the hands of the kind of author I usually read, the irony of this disparity in a society that’s supposed to be a model of equality would probably have been dealt with differently but in Under the Hawthorn Tree it’s treated more like an Elizabeth Bennett/Mr Darcy disparity.
Yes, there is ‘pride and prejudice’ in this novel, but the misunderstandings between the couple lack Jane Austen’s sparkling wit, and Jingqiu is no Lizzie. She is so naïve, it’s almost painful, but somehow she has absorbed an idealistic and hyper-romantic view of love which sabotages the relationship right up to the very end. Her real problem is that she is always trying to second-guess what Old Third really thinks, really means, and really wants – but she doesn’t ask him. (In a different sort of novel I would interpret this reticence as a metaphor for the populace trying to second-guess the political leadership, but unless such subtlety is buried very deeply indeed, in Under the Hawthorn Tree, I don’t think so). Right through this overlong novel, Jingqiu agonises over whether he is sincere or not, but quixotically, while convinced that if he really loved her he would know what she was thinking, she does not understand that Old Third is equally bemused about her feelings. Yes, adolescent girls would love this sort of stuff.
But despite its limitations, I quite liked Under the Hawthorn Tree. It reminded me of Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (a more sophisticated novel) and the depictions of life under the Cultural Revolution were interesting in the same way. Jingqiu is forever quoting political slogans to herself and she treasures Mao’s Little Red Book. Old Third’s tentative efforts to make her think about things differently seem to go right over her head despite her intelligence. There were missed opportunities in this novel to explore her resistance to questioning these ingrained ideas: was it because she had been so thoroughly brainwashed or, given her family’s ‘dubious’ background, because she could not afford the luxury of questioning the status quo? The third-person narration is entirely from her point-of-view, so the reader always knows what she is thinking; it’s not a case of Jingqiu being too afraid to speak up; she genuinely does not understand what Old Third might be on about. What’s interesting is why this curious, intelligent girl doesn’t continue the conversation to find out. The author doesn’t tell us this.
I find it fascinating (and, of course, a bit creepy) to think about the logistics of a society in transition trying to transform the way the citizenry thinks about things, in order to achieve social, economic and political goals. Changing thought was obviously thought essential in the Chinese transition to communism under Mao, but self-evidently sloganeering needed to be supplemented with repression, surveillance and violence and still brave people were resistant to unquestioningly absorbing the communist philosophy. There are plenty of novels satirising the way that advertising and the media manipulate Western thought and behaviour to encourage us to be compulsive consumers and compliant citizens – but I don’t know of any that explore the use of language as a political tool in China during the Cultural Revolution. If George Orwell were still alive he would write the satire this awful social experiment deserves. (Ouyang Yu writes beaut satires, but the ones I’ve read have been about contemporary China).
Under the Hawthorn Tree is not the satire that the Cultural Revolution deserves, or anything like it. Perhaps repression in China still militates against any authentic reappraisal at this time. But the novel is a pleasant, easy-to-read and poignant love story in (for western readers) an exotic setting. Have a hankie on hand for the ending…
*I tried Love and Vertigo and Falling Leaves and abandoned them both.
Author: Ai Mi
Title: Under the Hawthorn Tree
Publisher: Virago UK, 2011
Source: Personal library, purchased at Benn’s Books Bentleigh