If Cheng tried to keep Beina and Baowen together simply because he was afraid that his daughter might suffer, the reader might consider his obsession understandable and perhaps even comical. However, even a cursory reading of the story reveals that his anxiety is not only personal but has deep social and political roots.
Because Cheng has built his life on appearances, he sees Beina’s marriage as related to his own standing in society. In the public eye, he would have failed as a father if his daughter remained single. However, Beina is not a pretty girl, and her appearance is a source of deep personal discomfort to Cheng. This embarrassment and ill ease manifest themselves in his constant, private criticism of the way his daughter looks and the anger he shows toward beautiful women who, unaware of Baowen’s sexual orientation, have tried to lure him away from Beina.
In the homogenized world in which Cheng lives, not only ugliness but also all individual differences, homosexuality included, stand out as undesirable and evoke dread and anxiety in people loyal to the government. To fit in, Cheng must constantly seek ways to reconcile human rights abuses inherent in the system to his tacitly held sense of morality. For Cheng, the conflicts cannot be easily resolved and, as a result, his life becomes an emotional roller coaster. That Cheng, a fearful conformist, is chief of security at the sewing plant is the ultimate irony on which the story turns.
The story is set in 1976, shortly after the death of China’s Chairman Mao Zedong and the arrest of his wife, Jiang Qing, for her role in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The old regime is crumbling, and Cheng, a product of the repressive government, will soon become an anachronism. Ha Jin uses contrasting imagery to depict the shift from a staid, agrarian society to a liberal, industrialized new world order. For example, Cheng bicycles across the countryside, overtaking a horse cart loaded with sheaves of wheat, and rides seamlessly into a city filled with new buildings and straight cement paths. Ha Jin depicts smokestacks, larch woods, and heavy fluffy snow as well as brick buildings, asphalt roads, and power lines.