Every summer for the past eighteen years, army doctor Lin Kong has returned to his house in Goose Village to try to divorce his wife, Shuyu, whom he had married by arrangement. Like years before, the separated couple travels to the court of Wujia Town to initiate the divorce, but Shuyu always changes her mind. On occasion, Shuyu’s brother, Bensheng, a greedy and simple-minded peasant, travels with the couple. In front of others, he shames his brother-in-law, Lin. He reminds him of Shuyu’s loyalty and her sacrificial care for his parents prior to their deaths. Defeated once again, Lin returns to his job at the hospital in Muji City and delivers the disappointing news to his girlfriend, Manna Wu, a nurse.
It is now 1964, and Manna enrolls at the hospital for studies in nursing. She is in her mid-twenties. During her studies, she gets romantically involved with a lieutenant from Shanghai. After a brief courtship based on camaraderie and celibacy, they two are engaged; but the affair suffers when they are separated by duty. Upon her graduation, Manna is assigned to stay at the army hospital, while her fiancé is transferred to a regiment on the Russian border. A correspondence ensues, during which Manna’s fiancé eventually breaks their engagement and marries his cousin in Shanghai. By that time, Manna is twenty-six years old, and because she is quite a plain woman, her chances of marriage are slim. In addition, the rules of conduct forbid the hospital’s doctors to date or marry their coworkers, so they seek their partners elsewhere.
In her first—and failed—relationship, Manna confides in Lin, her teacher and a married man of good reputation. At first, the two are no more than comrades, and she has helped him make dust jackets for his multiple books. One day, Manna’s feet are brutally blistered in a long-distance training march, so Lin takes care of her at a rest stop at a farmhouse. Because of his kindness, the young woman develops a crush on him. As a gift, she gives him a ticket to an opera of a patriotic theme, and on the day of the event, Lin is surprised to find Manna sitting in the seat next to his. Her affection for him becomes obvious: During the performance she touches his hand, a gesture, albeit bold and inappropriate, that inspires Lin to dream of the young woman that same night. The comrades begin spending more time together, but their friendship is strictly platonic.
As gossip at the hospital insinuates their affair, Lin is called into a meeting with Ran Su, the vice director of the political department at the hospital. Lin promises to maintain the propriety of their relationship until he can legally divorce his wife. Encouraged by her girlfriend, Haiyan Niu, Manna arranges for a place where she and Lin can be intimate. Lin rejects the idea, leaving Manna wondering about the nature of his affection for her. Lin is indeed uncertain about his love for Manna. The two go through a brief breakup, but after reconciliation, Lin seriously considers the option of divorce.
Lin and Shuyu’s marriage was never based on physical or intellectual intimacy. Still, he enjoys returning to Goose Village, where he finds comfort and peace in the old, simpler ways of living. Shuyu’s love for Lin is sacrificial. She is a simple woman, an obliging wife, a good homemaker and cook; she never nags him for money despite a very modest lifestyle that she and her daughter can afford on Lin’s allowance. However, she is a woman of the old ways. To Lin’s...
(The entire section is 1430 words.)