Waiting, Ha Jin’s second novel, has received much critical acclaim, including the 1999 National Book Award and a 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award. Harnessed on cultural, political, and personal themes from the home country of the writer—from which he had escaped in 1985—Waiting is a history lesson on the People’s Republic of China before and after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
The novel examines a dual split in culture through the protagonist’s journeys between Goose Village and Muji City. The character of Lin Kong is conflicted between the restrictions that exist in the old and new cultures of his contemporary China. In the agricultural suburbs, Lin encounters the ways of the old country, ways that existed prior to the Cultural Revolution. In these suburbs, he finds certain comfort, but also is frustrated by the narrow-minded traditions, such as the customs of arranged marriages and of binding women’s feet, and the preference for boys over girls. The never-ending intrusion of his greedy brother-in-law in the matters of his family also belongs to the old ways.
The urban ways, in some contrast, are influenced by the teachings of the Chinese Communist Party, but they, too, have ideology-driven rules of conduct that constrict a person’s liberties. For example, celibacy and lack of privacy are imposed upon Lin’s relationship with Manna, eventually suffocating their emotional lives and eliminating all dignity in their courtship. A lifetime of following the rules turns Lin into a dispassionate person. Seemingly lacking any drive or ability to make a decision, he goes along with orders and rules no matter their ridiculousness.
Dreams, which repeat as a literary device in the novel, are the only truthful expressions of the story’s characters’ needs and wants. Critic Louis J. Parascandola, in his article “Love and Sex in Totalitarian Society” (2005), compares Waiting to George Orwell’s famous futuristic novel Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949). In both novels, totalitarian regimes are criticized for ridding their citizens of personal liberties, including their freedom to love or to pursue sexual pleasure. Lin experiences love and passion neither in his arranged marriage to Shuyu nor in his obliged...
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