Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827
From the day that handsome Huang Baowen proposes to Beina, his homely coworker at a sewing factory in northeastern China, Old Cheng, Beina’s adoptive father and the chief of security at the factory, begins to dread the failure of their marriage. However, when the couple marry after a short engagement, the old man begins to hope for the best. Eight months later, however, Beina is not yet pregnant, and Cheng fears the young man will lose interest in an apparently barren wife whose puffy face reminds even her own father of a blowfish. Consequently, when Beina rushes into Cheng’s office to report Baowen’s overnight absence, Cheng thinks his fears have been realized and starts to worry in earnest.
The reason for Baowen’s disappearance becomes clear when Cheng receives a call from Maio, the chief of public security of Muji, informing him that Baowen has been arrested for indecent activity. Cheng goes downtown to the public security office, where he learns that the young man has been detained on a charge of homosexuality. He does not know how serious the charge is, and Maio explains that homosexuality is a crime if intercourse has occurred and a social disease if it has not. Cheng is greatly relieved when Baowen tells him he did not act on his desires the previous night. Cheng pleads Baowen’s case before the factory manager and the Communist Party secretary, citing insanity as the young man’s defense. The men agree to support Baowen. The secretary is especially eager to keep the young man out of jail. The factory manager offers mitigating stories, comparing Baowen’s conduct to the behavior of emperors in the Han Dynasty.
Cheng goes to Beina’s apartment to deliver the bad news that her husband is a homosexual and the good news that he is insane and has a good chance for leniency. As he visits, Cheng looks around the room and is impressed by the decor, attributing its charm to Baowen’s good taste and fastidiousness. When her father asks, Beina confirms that her marriage to Baowen has not been consummated. When he expresses his sympathy, she says she does not mind because her husband has explained that he must refrain from lovemaking while practicing martial arts. Cheng does not contradict her statement, allowing his daughter to keep her fantasy while thinking her a fool.
Baowen is sent to a sanatorium, where he is to be treated for homosexuality. When Cheng visits him, he learns that his son-in-law is being treated with an electric bath. Curious about the young man’s anatomy, Cheng asks Dr. Mai, the attending physician, if he can view the bath and receives permission to do so. While Cheng waits in the treatment room for Baowen to enter, he meets Long Fuhai, the male nurse who is to supervise the bath. Long assures Cheng that his son-in-law is getting the mildest shock treatment available because he is such a good patient. When Baowen enters the room, he is wearing shorts, so Cheng sees only a bulge in his pants. The size of the bulge convinces Cheng that Baowen is a real man, not a hermaphrodite or eunuch as rumored at the factory. During the electric bath, he watches the young man squirm and grow increasingly agitated. With stoic determination, or erotic pleasure, Baowen endures piercing electrical sensations. Nurse Long wipes sweat from Baowen’s brow, and Cheng’s heart fills with pity for his son-in-law.
Two weeks before New Years’ Day, Cheng takes Beina to visit Baowen. While the couple chat happily, he delivers presents to Dr. Mai, who, in confidence, tells him that homosexuality is not a disease that can be cured by electric treatments or any other method but rather an orientation that is present from birth.
As the New Year draws closer, Beina begins cooking for the holidays. In the midst of her preparations, Cheng goes to her apartment and sees that she has turned the place into a mess. Beina talks about the possibility of her husband’s coming home for the holidays, but Cheng does not encourage her hopes. He realizes that if Dr. Mai’s assessment is correct, there is no future for the marriage.
While Cheng ponders what to do, Chief Maio calls to inform him that Baowen is being sent to prison because he had sex with a man at the sanatorium. This time, the evidence is incontrovertible. Nurse Long, scared by the possibility that someone saw him and Baowen together, has confessed that he was Baowen’s sexual partner. However, because Long successfully argued that he was seduced by Baowen, he received probation, while Baowen was sentenced to two years in prison.
After Cheng reports this information to Beina, he asks her to divorce Baowen. When she refuses, Cheng, who cannot bear further humiliation, says that if she stays married to a criminal, he does not want to see her again.