Historical Context

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Starvation In general, Americans know little about China. For most of the time since China adopted a Communist form of government in 1949, it has been closed to visitors from the West. Travel in China has been restricted, and information about government workings has not been as accessible to journalists...

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In general, Americans know little about China. For most of the time since China adopted a Communist form of government in 1949, it has been closed to visitors from the West. Travel in China has been restricted, and information about government workings has not been as accessible to journalists working there. The Chinese government is actively involved in the lives of its citizens, determining such matters as where individuals will work or go to school or how many children a family may have. The government is faced with the imposing task of caring for one and a quarter billion people, with more than a fifth of the world's total population living within China's borders. Three quarters of the country is rural, living in conditions that Americans would consider below the poverty level.

In trying to handle a population of that size, the Chinese government has made some drastic policy decisions that have had traumatic effects. One of the great catastrophes in modern Chinese history was the economic program called the Great Leap Forward. Initiated in the late 1950s, it was intended to quickly increase the country's economic capacity. The Great Leap Forward entailed consolidating small farms into huge labor cooperatives and moving over 100 million citizens into new positions. In the first few years, 1956 and 1957, the program appeared to be an astounding success, far beyond what anyone could have anticipated. Agricultural production increased greatly, in some areas shooting up ten times what the farms had previously been able to produce. Plans for distribution of food were made, and purchases from other countries were cancelled. Only gradually did the sad truth become known: the reported figures were nowhere near the actual production figures. Pressured by the bureaucratic system, local commune leaders had exaggerated reports to their superiors, who had in turn added their own exaggerations to those reports on each level up the chain to the federal government. Additionally, economists and statisticians who would have realized that the reported increases were impossible had been fired from government positions for being critical of the government. Having planned for grain that did not exist, the country plunged into a famine of staggering proportions. Between 1959 and 1962—a period when Ha Jin, born in 1956, would himself have been in kindergarten—over 20 million people starved to death in China.

In the early 1980s, the government began to accept the fact that a purely communist economy could not feed all of China's citizens. The agricultural sector was restructured, and the large communes were broken down. Under the new system, each household was responsible for growing and then providing a certain quota of crops; anything that was produced over that quota could be sold on the open market, which ‘‘In the Kindergarten’’ implies Teacher Shen may be doing with the plants that she has her students gather.

Reproductive Policies
Even throughout the periods of food shortage, China's economy grew immensely throughout the last half of the twentieth century. Between 1949, when the Communist government was installed, and 1990, the population grew from 540 million people to more than twice that number. Recognizing that overpopulation was a serious threat, the government instituted a policy in 1971 restricting each family to only one child. In cities, where there is a stronger police element, families have become accustomed to this and tend to follow the law, even though it has never been popular. In rural areas, families depend on having boys, who can work harder in the fields. Because these areas are not as well scrutinized, the "one child'' law is frequently ignored. In a 1998 book about her ten-year experience as a foreign journalist in China, Linda Jakobson discussed her surprise at entering a country village and finding it populated with big families:

There seemed to be at least three or four kids in every household. I knew that the so-called one-child policy had, even officially in many rural areas, become a two-child policy. I also knew that, as a result of rising incomes, some families were prepared to pay the heavy fines for having more than the officially sanctioned number of offspring. But I had thought that these were exceptions.

This would explain why, in "In the Kindergarten, '' Shaona' s family is able to have a second child.
Because of the limit on children and the importance of male children for physical labor, there have always been rumors about female babies being abandoned or murdered at birth and mothers being forced to undergo abortions or sterilization. The government denies these rumors, making them difficult to confirm, although the country does have a high rate of infant girls who are put up for adoption annually. One fact that is clear is that abortion in China does not carry the social stigma that it does in the United States, where it is treated as a religious issue. In China, abortion is a practical issue. Having an abortion is treated like any other necessary medical procedure, so the ethics of it is not brought into question. A schoolteacher like the one in this story would not face the questions about her morality and would just have to face the financial burden of paying her doctor's bill.

Literary Style

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Point of View
‘‘In the Kindergarten’’ is primarily told from Shaona's point of view. The story is told in the third person, which means that the narrative voice refers to Shaona as "she" or "Shaona," rather than saying "I" as it would if Shaona were telling the story to the readers. Still, the information that is given to the reader is mostly limited to information that would have passed through Shaona's mind. For instance, when Teacher Shen is on the telephone at the beginning of the story, readers are given her exact words just as Shaona would have heard them, and the reader is also given the child's interpretation of what Shaona would have thought. The exact reasoning behind the teacher's behavior—whether she is taking the purslanes for her own consumption, for instance, or is taking them to sell—is never specifically explained, because Shaona does not have access to what goes on in Teacher Shen's mind. She can only interpret what she sees of the teacher's behavior.

Although most of the story is told from Shaona's point of view, it sometimes slips and gives information that Shaona could not know. Some of the story's information, such as the fact that the teacher used to sing a lot, seems unlikely to be from Shaona's consciousness: she is new to the kindergarten and would not know much about the teacher's former behaviors, although it could be explained as something that she heard from a classmate. Similarly, she could have heard that the teacher divorced her husband when he was sent to prison for embezzlement, but that is a fairly complex idea for kindergartners to be gossiping about. In some cases, the narrative clearly shifts out of Shaona's point of view to that of Teacher Shen. One example is when the readers are told that when Teacher Shen is cleaning the children's clothes, she ‘‘was unhappy because she couldn't take a nap.'' Another example is when she rushes to leave the turnip field at the end because she is "fearful that Uncle Chang [will] call her names.’’ These breaks from Shaona's point of view are extremely rare.

In literary works, symbols are items that have both a specific function in the reality of the story and also refer to a larger, abstract concept. For instance, characters in a story or novel might have to cross a bridge to get from one place to another, but the bridge, in addition to its logical place in the tale, might also be seen as a symbolic "bridge'' between the estranged people or hostile cultures that it helps bring together.

‘‘In the Kindergarten’’ makes much of the purslanes that Teacher Shen has the schoolchildren gather from the turnip field. In reality, purslanes are trailing weeds that are sometimes cooked and eaten, just as they are presented in the story. Symbolically, they tell readers much about the teacher's situation. Turnips are considered lowly roots that are eaten in poor cultures, but the purslanes here are so much lower in status than turnips that they are seen as an annoying clutter in the turnip patch. In the story, they grow so wildly among the turnips that a significant amount can be found on the second day of looking for them. As a symbol of Teacher Shen's starved desperation, the purslanes show that food can always be found if one lowers one's standards and seeks with enough effort.

Similarly, the wild rabbit can be considered a symbol of the children that Teacher Shen is trying to control. Even though the teacher would like her students to conduct their search for purslanes in an orderly way, disrupting as little of the turnip field as possible, she becomes excited about the rabbit and encourages the children to run around the turnip patch just as recklessly as the rabbit does. The fact that the rabbit is lame is a realistic element, in that this would be the only kind that the kindergarten children would have a chance of catching; it can also be considered symbolic of Teacher Shen's poverty, showing that she is so poor that even her fantasy meal is not anything grand—just a sick, injured animal.

The kindergarten setting of this story presents readers with a universal situation for childhood alienation. Children all over the world know that going to school for the first time marks a child's separation from the closed family society that he or she has known since birth. In this particular case, the familiar situation is magnified by the fact that the Chinese kindergarten is a boarding school, so that the children are forced, at the same time that they are socialized during the day, to deal with spending their nights in a strange place. Placing the story in this setting gives Ha Jin an opportunity to explore Shaona' s subconscious fears, which she faces while trying to sleep, in addition to exploring the traditional fears of a child thrown into a social setting for the first time.

One other aspect that marks this setting as distinctive is the school's close association with the turnip field. American schools do not mix commerce and education together in the same place, but in rural China the students would learn the value of tending crops at the same time that they learned more academic pursuits. Because the turnip field is part of the school, the children are familiar with Uncle Chang, and they see nothing unusual about being brought to the field to pick weeds. The fact that the school grows its own produce helps convince Western readers of the poverty that affects people in the story, showing this school to be a small, basic, rural one that does not buy all of the food that it serves its students. Set at another type of boarding school, the students' destruction of a field might be seen as a cause for some discipline: in this setting, though, readers are led to believe that the loss of the turnip crop will hurt the school significantly.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Jakobson, Linda, A Million Truths: A Decade in China, M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1998, p. 122.

Kinkley, Jeffrey C., Review of Waiting, in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 3, Summer 2000, p. 579.

McNally, John, Review of Waiting, in the Progressive, March 2000, p. 44.

Pearl, Nancy, Review of Bridegroom, in Booklist, Vol. 97, No. 2, September 15, 2000, p. 216.

Perlman, Bianca, Review of Bridegroom, in Entertainment Weekly, Issue 562, October 6, 2000, pp. 80f.

Quan, Shirley, Review of Bridegroom, in Library Journal, Vol. 125, No. 14, September 1, 2000, p. 254.

Review of Bridegroom, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 36, September 4, 2000, p. 81.

Further Reading
Jie, Zhang, and Li Xiaobing, eds., Social Transition in China, University Press of America, 1998.
This book collects essays from eleven Chinese scholars working in America, offering their assessments of how the country has changed in recent years.

Roberts, J. A. G., Modern China: An Illustrated History, Sutton Publishing, 1998.
This British publication provides readers with a comprehensive overview of Chinese history throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Weich, Dave, ‘‘Ha Jin Lets It Go,’’ in Powells.com Interviews: 22 Authors and Artists Talk about Their Books, iUniverse.com, 2000.
This interview with Jin covers his influences, his artistic views, and his feelings about having left China forever.

Wong, Jan, Red China Blues, Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1996.
Wong, a Canadian of Chinese descent, went to China in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution and then returned in the 1980s as a journalist. In this book, she offers an unparalleled look at the people and the culture.

Media Adaptations

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Jin's short story ‘‘After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town,’’ from the same collection as ‘‘In the Kindergarten,'' is read by Patrick Wang on Best American Short Stories of 2001, released on audiocassette and compact disk by Houghton Mifflin in 2001. This collection was edited by Barbara Kingsolver.

Jin's novel Waiting is available, unabridged, on a six-tape audiocassette set from Brilliance, read by Dick Hill.

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