Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282
Although Ha Jin’s writing style is mainly straightforward and unadorned, he focuses metaphorically on sparrows twice in the story to show the ill effects of social homogenization on the individual. First, after Baowen has been arrested, Ha Jin allows Cheng to interrupt his train of thought to meditate on a...
(The entire section contains 1995 words.)
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Although Ha Jin’s writing style is mainly straightforward and unadorned, he focuses metaphorically on sparrows twice in the story to show the ill effects of social homogenization on the individual. First, after Baowen has been arrested, Ha Jin allows Cheng to interrupt his train of thought to meditate on a sparrow, the most common of birds. Cheng imagines that a single renegade sparrow, having a complete set of organs like the others, can disrupt the order of its entire society, just as a political dissenter can disrupt human society. Thinking along this line allows Cheng to prepare himself to accept the full measure of the law, whatever the offense warrants, applied to Baowen.
Second, Ha Jin evokes sparrows to acknowledge the awful price an individual pays for having an unusual, perhaps handicapping, trait. Right after the doctor tells Cheng that Baowen has a congenital orientation, not a curable disease, Cheng looks out a window and sees a flock of birds in flight. He notices one flying out front with food in its mouth and the others seeming to give chase. Soon Cheng spots a loner trailing well behind the masses, and as he studies the lone bird, he notices a yellow string tied to its leg. Cheng realizes that with such a visible handicap, it will never catch up. By extension, the reader gets Ha Jin’s larger point: Regardless of social designs that are meant to keep people in formation, class stratification is inevitable. For, as in the universe of sparrows, in the universe of humankind, there will always be someone who will outfly the masses and become a leader and someone who will lag behind and become an outcast.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1713
Ha Jin, a professor of English at Emory University, won the National Book Award for his novel Waiting (1999) and has also published In the Pond (1998), another novel, the short-story collections Ocean of Words(1998) and Under the Red Flag (1997), and the poetry collections Facing Shadows (1996) and Between Silences (1990). This is an impressive body of English-language work for a writer who only emigrated to the United States from his native China in 1985.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the characters of Ha Jin’s collection of stories, The Bridegroom, is how mean and nasty most of them are to each other. In “Saboteur,” the story which opens the book, Chiu Maguang and his young bride stop at Muji City’s train station on their return from their honeymoon. Without the slightest provocation, but perhaps out of jealously and hatred for the happy couple, a local policeman throws tea at them. When challenged by Chiu, the policeman verbally and physically assaults Chiu and proceeds to arrest him for disturbing the peace. In a chilling turn of events, Chiu has to spend a few nights in jail, and his lawyer, Fenjin, whom his bride sends to rescue him, is tortured by the policemen. Utterly confident that they are untouchable, the police force Chiu to sign a confession for a crime he never committed.
Typically for Ha Jin’s surprising stories, the narrative ends with a bizarre twist. While jailed, Chiu’s “acute hepatitis” has returned, and he uses this to exact a terrible revenge. Upon his release, he visits many restaurants in the city. At each place he orders a few bowls of food, eats a bit, and moves along. Laconically, the last paragraph of “Saboteur” states that soon thereafter, “over eight hundred people contracted acute hepatitis in Muji. Six died of the disease, including two children. Nobody knew how the epidemic had started.”
Here, the story implies how Chiu’s revenge worked. He was able to infect others with his disease because of the unsanitary conditions at the restaurants, which did not thoroughly clean their bowls and eating utensils. The greed of the restaurant owners, who resold the food he had tasted but not consumed, further enhanced his malicious ploy. In the end, victim Chiu turns victimizer himself, randomly affecting those living near the police station where he had been abused.
When characters refuse to act with pettiness or act against their best self-interest, this puzzles everyone, even their families. Beina, in the title story “The Bridegroom,” refuses to divorce her husband Huang Baowen after he is arrested for attending an underground gay club, whose “top leaders were executed” after the Communist police raided the place. Beina’s uncle, Old Cheng, can understand some aspects of a marriage of convenience. It gives Baowen a cover story, and Beina receives the status of a wife rather than ending as “an old maid.” The uncle also “secured them a brand-new two-bedroom apartment.” Yet unlike his wife, Old Cheng cannot understand why Beina would want to do without marital relations, and is baffled by her preference of celibacy over a potentially adulterous husband.
Committed to a mental institution by a society whose mid-level cadres view homosexuality as a “social disease,” Baowen eventually ends up in the arms of a male nurse, Long Fuhai. Surprised by a janitor, Fuhai informs on Baowen and blames him for the incident. For his cooperation the traitorous Fuhai is only put on probation, whereas Baowen is sentenced to three and a half years in jail, and is branded a criminal. Fuhai’s behavior echoes that of Shen Manjin, a character in “Broken,” who betrays his lover, Wang Tingting, to save his own hide. After she commits suicide Manjin drowns his sorrows in alcohol, but is not severely punished himself. Again and again in the pages of The Bridegroom, society tends to reward the more despicable of its citizens.
When Beina still refuses to divorce her husband and insists on his goodness and the inviolability of their marriage vows, her uncle is flabbergasted by her unselfish behavior. Out of his own selfish reasons, he becomes even more angry at Beina. Since her refusal to divorce Baowen means that the whole family is still tied to the unfortunate man, Cheng threatens to cut off all contact with Beina, ready to sacrifice her to avoid his humiliating family association with a criminal.
If many of Ha Jin’s characters display less than noble instincts and often behave extremely selfishly, there is nevertheless a certain humor in their often twisted and convoluted fates which seems to point out the folly of many a human endeavor. Tong Guhan, the fiftyish protagonist of “Alive,” comes to realize that his family preferred his assumed death in an earthquake, which gave them access to housing and a new status as the family of a “Revolutionary Martyr.” Wang Hupin, in “A Tiger-Fighter is Hard to Find,” goes mad after being forced to fight with a real tiger, and nearly kills the actor who wears the tiger skin after the film crew has killed the animal to reshoot the scene. On the other hand, the savvy if lecherous professor Fang Baichen manages to survive scandal after scandal, since his unswaying selfishness nets him surprising results, in “An Official Reply.”
Sometimes, the character’s actions effect ambivalent outcomes. When nurse Nimei, in the story “Flame,” receives a letter from Hsu Peng, her former lover, now an Army commissar, asking her to receive him at her home when he visits her city on business, she becomes inspired to better her life. Improving her home, losing weight, and gaining muscle tone, she obtains a higher position for her husband as well. Yet all is done merely to impress her old flame.
When they were young, Nimei loved Peng. Because of a near famine, her mother made Nimei marry her current husband, a “small mess officer” who won her mother’s approval with his access to the Army’s kitchen. With unsparing clarity, Ha Jin’s story shows what people may have to do to fend off starvation, and withholds any explicit moral judgement of the mother. Chosing food over love, the mother makes her daughter obey her. Peng leaves, swearing revenge “with a ferocious light in his eyes.” Seventeen years later, Nimei awaits his visit with trepidation.
Perhaps to humiliate her, Peng never shows up; instead two soldiers unceremoniously deliver four fat salmon and a can of soy oil to the house. Nimei breaks down and cries. Her shame at being thus disrespected weighs more heavily on her soul than the real progress she has accomplished in her life. With cruel irony, Ha Jin reveals that rich material gifts can also be used to insult a person when these gifts are not accompanied with genuine good will.
An obsession with revenge and constant jockeying for position and status in a harsh society characterizes the lives of many of The Bridegroom’s protagonists. The restaurant staff of “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town” persistently resent their American-educated, Chinese manager, Peter Jiao. In a twist typical of Ha Jin’s stories, before he became “Peter,” the Chinese boy Peihan had been a sickly outcast at school. Earning good grades, he is sent abroad to study in America and can change his life.
Pettiness abounds, as each worker despises the foreign company which, however, pays them wages far above those earned by even the father of Hongwen, the narrator. Called “American dogs” and “foreign lackeys” by resentful customers and jealous competitors, the Chinese staff sticks with the place until it “had almost become our work unit.” In Hongwen’s mind, this means that he is about to consider the restaurant as being like a similar Chinese institution, which would be responsible for all aspects of the welfare of its lifelong employees, ranging from housing to health care.
Indicative of their lack of understanding of all sides of capitalism, the workers’ resentment boils over once they discover that Peter is paid twenty times their salary, which conflicts with Communist ideas. Here, Peter nearly encounters the same tragedy as Chen Jinli in “The Woman from New York,” who is never forgiven her four-year stint abroad. Even though she has gained considerable wealth, Jinli is ostracized at home. Divorced by her mean husband, who steals their daughter, she leaves town again. Peter has better luck. Mr. Shapiro does not respond to the workers’ angry letter demanding that he fire Peter. Now, Hongwen’s group escalates the fight. Their poor English leads them to write in a second note spelling out that “Because you do not consider our demand, we decide to strike at Cowboy Chicken.”
The next morning, the workers find the restaurant surrounded by police guards and discover that they have all been fired. Too late do they realize that their note had been misunderstood. They were trying to say that they wanted to go on strike. In a climate of mutual mistrust, Mr. Shapiro read the note as if it promised a terrorist strike at his restaurant. This mischievous tale ends with the surprised and disgruntled ex-workers hatching various plots to try to get back at the enterprise.
Coming after stories which reflect on the fissures and cracks of a society slowly emerging from the nightmare years of the totalitarian Cultural Revolution, from the mid-1960’s up to Mao Zedong’s death in 1977, Ha Jin’s last story tells of new conflicts. As the People’s Republic of China begins to open itself to capitalist ventures, new troubles arise. On the one hand, the citizens of Muji City begin to like the rich, trendy food at Cowboy Chicken. On the other hand, they resent that this object of their desire is run by foreigners and not by their own people. Ha Jin chronicles the resulting conflicts with dark humor, sarcasm, and a keen eye for the ambiguous nature of humans forced to live less than perfect lives. The Bridegroom is a fascinating, if at times rather bitter, look at the darker side of humanity, and it offers a rich portrait of a changing Chinese society.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (September 15, 2000): 216.
Library Journal 125 (September 1, 2000): 254.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (October 22, 2000): 9.
Publishers Weekly 247 (September 4, 2000): 81.
The Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2000, p. W12.