China writes: The Bridegroom

Get started on reading China's best books, beginning with Ha Jin's latest

Ha Jin is best known for his decades sweeping novels of love, life and loss under Communist rule – most notably Waiting, which won both the 1999 US Book Award for Fiction and the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award. However, much less is known about his three works of short fiction, of which The Bridegroom is his most recent.

Born in Liaoning, northeast China, in 1956, Ha Jin spent six years serving in the People’s Liberation Army before moving to America in 1985. Somewhat unusually for a Chinese writer who learned English after reaching adulthood, Ha writes in English about prosaic rural life in China. In The Bridegroom he tells nine tales set in Muji town, a fictional village where Waiting is also set. The key themes are provincial life under Communist rule, the tyranny of arbitrary power, and human flaws, which reflects the murky morality that infests Muji.

The title story, ‘Bridegroom’, tells of Chen, a well-to-do sewing factory owner who promises to look after his dying friend’s daughter, Beina. At 23, marriage prospects for Beina, with her ‘fleshy face that reminds him of a fish’, don’t look particularly good. So when the local catch, Baowen, proposes, Chen happily concludes: ‘A fool always lands in the arms of fortune.’ However, public prejudices and professional disasters combine to scupper Chen’s dreams.

The other stories are equally vicious. In ‘Saboteur’, the protagonist wreaks a cruel vengeance after local party cadres arrest him simply for sport. And in ‘Tiger-Fight is Hard to Find’ an actor is forced to fight a real tiger after propaganda department officials commission the footage for use in their latest campaign. Each tale touches on contradictions and tragedy without ramming home Ha’s own political agenda; instead, scenes painted in simple language are left to hang poignantly in the air. The Bridegroom is a brilliant, bite sized introduction to this modern master’s startling signature style.

The Bridgegroom by Ha Jin is available from Amazon.cn, priced at 85RMB
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