Yichang municipality, Hubei province, China, early 1970s. High-school student Jingqiu is one of many educated urban youth sent to the countryside to be "re-educated" under a dictate from Chairman Mao. Jing's father is a political prisoner somewhere in China, and her mother, a former teacher branded as a "capitalist," is now reduced to menial work to support Jing and her two younger siblings.
When Jing arrives with a group at Xiping village in the Yangtze River's Three Gorges region, she meets geology student Jianxin, nicknamed "Old Three," who is the son of a high-ranking military officer, but whose mother committed suicide after being branded a "rightist." Despite their disparate social backgrounds and a political atmosphere that forbids the relationship, Jingqiu and Jianxin fall desperately in love. But their budding romance is cut short by fate...
In Anna Holmwoods introduction she talks about how
"Under the Hawthorn Tree has been a publishing sensation in China since it first appeared on her website in 2007...It has sold millions of copies, which is particularly remarkable considering that Ai Mi (a pseudonym) makes it available for free on her blog so we can reasonably assume that the number of people who have read the story is even larger than the staggering sales figures suggest.".
She goes on to talk a tiny bit about the cultural background to the story, one very foreign to most westerners, and to explain how Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution shaped far more than just the day to day lives of the Chinese. It's a brief but intriguing intro to a book which crosses a staggering cultural divide from my comparatively safe and rich life in Canada. And I'm not sure it would have been an adequate background if I hadn't gone on a binge of Chinese historical non-fiction a couple of years ago.
A haunting tale of star crossed lovers, Under the Hawthorn Tree is a beautiful story. The translation seems to be very accurate, by which I mean it does not seem to have been westernized at all and keeps an unusual cadence and rhythm which I would assume is more in keeping with how it would be told in Chinese. Although this might throw some readers, I found it part of the poetry to the story, and also helped with the more unusual moments. If the story was told in a more north American way I think some of Jingqiu's naiveté would have been harder to believe, and it would have ruined the flavour of the love story.
For me, Under the Hawthorn Tree is not just a story about ill fated lovers, but also a tale to remind us of how free our lives are in our amazingly liberated countries. It's stories like these that make me appreciate, on a whole new level, the freedoms I take for granted every day. To be able to go out to the grocery store, buy whatever I can afford and feel like, with the husband I picked with no influence from others, to go to work tomorrow and know I'm protected by laws and unions, that nothing is dictated by what my mother or father has previously done or said, is an amazing thing. And nothing will make you appreciate it more than reading a story, fictional or not, where everything is a struggle in day to day life.
If you're not familiar with Chairman Mao's China, and are looking for some amazing reads to bring you up to speed I would highly recommend Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, and Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Wild Swans was lent to me by a neighbour and both the hubby and I have shared it far and wide since then. It follows three generations of Chinese women starting with the authors grandmother (who was a concubine), through her mother and herself who, between the two of them, lived through the entire Mao regime, ending with Jung's escape from China to the US. It's riveting and shows a very earnest perspective of the changes over three generations in Chinese culture. Mao: The Unknown Story is a dryer read, though no less fascinating, and between the two you'll be amazed by what life was like in China.
Also fascinating and pertinent to the background of Under the Hawthorn Tree, is a documentary from a few years ago, on CBC's Doc Zone about China's Sexual Revolution. If you don't buy Jing's naiveté then you really need to watch this documentary. It's eye opening.
Of course none of these things are necessary to enjoy Ai Mi's story as a simple piece of literature, so don't feel daunted. However, when you finish Under the Hawthorn Tree and find yourself dying for more information, make sure to check my suggestions out.
Under the Hawthorn Tree, by Ai Mi, translated by Anna Holmwood
Published by House of Anansi Press, February 14th 2012
My copy kindly provided by the publisher
Buy Under the Hawthorn Tree on Amazon
Buy Wild Swans on Amazon
Buy Mao on Amazon
Download CBC's documentary from DocZone