Described as utopian in nature, the Chinese culture is often in pursuit for the perfect individual, a harmonious and structured society where the citizens as a whole create the ideal culture. In a collection of short stories entitled The Bridegroom, author Ha Jin documents this aspect of reality in homeland China. Primarily for the purposes of instruction and satirical verse, Ha Jin, shows how people are trying to find themselves in a society that focuses on the ‘whole’ of the country rather than the individual.
He is able to interconnect this theme of individualism through four major stories in the book while presenting ‘Chineseness’ or satire of fictional verse as a way to focus on the changes throughout China and the political discourse that its citizens face. In the short story Alive, Ha Jin depicts individualism, or the loss thereof and its impact on a Chinese family. Headed to Taifu City to collect money at a coalmine, main character Tong Guhan develops amnesia after an earthquake devastated the community and impaired the memory of its citizens.
Since the government felt that all people must work together for the betterment of the community, people like Guhan were forced to re-marry, adopt an orphan, and start a new life. For the Chinese government, this was a unique opportunity to create a new movement and “since this was an emergency [measure], love wasn’t taken into account; so long as the couple didn’t dislike each other, a marriage certificate was issued to them (29). Although as time progresses, Guhan happens to pass by the smell of dumplings and in a flash, instantly remembers his past life.
At that point, he decides to return to Muji City where he encounters his original family. What can only be considered as satire, Ha Jin structures this story around wit in his literary style of writing. Who would conceive that the smell of dumplings could suddenly force an individual to remember the past? The amnesia and the government’s reaction to the aftermath of the earthquake show the loss of individualism. Furthermore, the dumpling’s echo Ha Jin’s desire to structure the story around unconventional circumstances and assert a sence of identity to Guhan’s character.
The Chinese government was organized and wanted to do what they thought was right for the state as a whole. Unfortunately for Guhan, he was loosing his identity and individualism for the greater good of China. Abnormal behavior is never more apparent than in the story titled In the Kindergarten. When Shaona becomes the second child of her household, she is forced to live outside the city limits in a rural foster home. It is my assumption that Ha Jin is referring to the second child as a male since they are heavily praised in the Chinese Culture.
The story depicts how children at a young age do whatever they want to do, inherit bad language and often misbehave. Social conformity and propaganda have yet to be ingrained, as quoted when Weilan, another student in the kindergarten is caught saying “Big asshole” (47) to another student, who in reply says, “Say that again, bitch! He went up to her, grabbed her shoulders, pushed her to the ground, and kicked her buttocks” (47). Compared to Alive, this story focuses on the Chinese attempt to secure conformity for all of its citizens.
In my opinion, the Kindergarten story is what Chinese life is like prior to the events in the short story Alive. It shows the purity of children at an early age and how social norms are not necessarily inherited; they are learned. Main characters Beina and Haung Baowen join hands in matrimony as a marriage of convenience in the story, Bridegroom. Ha Jin uncovers the truth behind homosexuality in China and the need for Baowen to become protected under the guise of marriage to Beina. To the Chinese society, “Homosexuality originated in western capitalism and Bourgeois lifestyle.
According to [our] law, it’s dealt with as a kind of hooliganism” (96). In this story, Baowen was caught in a club called “Men’s World” that was a type of salon that only admitted men. He was subsequently arrested and sent to a mental hospital to cure his supposed illness instead of serving a jail sentence. While in the mental hospital, Ha Jin structures the story around Baowen’s accounts of electro-shock therapy as a way to stop homosexual acts and maintain harmony and uniformity amongst the Chinese citizens.
Ha Jin is specific about the torture when he mentions how “Baowen was noiseless in the electrified water, with his eyes shut and his head resting on a black rubber pad at the end of the tub. He looked fine, rather relaxed … Then the nurse gave him more electricity” (106). Unfortunately, Haung repeated the crime of homosexual acts and was subsequently sent to prison. Ha Jin uses this brutal story to show how the government intends to mold its citizens into a ‘family unit’ or community. For the government, there is an image, or structure in which an individual is to conform to so that the community as a whole is structured.
The irony is that there is no real mention or word for individualism although it is apparent that the oppressive social values that Ha Jin illustrates through the story of Baowen, shows how a government can undermine a person’s happiness and individualistic nature. In the story, Women from New York, Chin Jinli goes to America to seek a better life for her family. Unfortunately, her trip back to China is faced with the harsh realities of life under Communist China and their perception of American culture; believing that “Wall Street was paved with gold bricks” (173).
Jinli’s family does not take well to her New York trip since she obtained money and wanted to get her teaching job back. To them, “She looked like a different woman, wearing a gold necklace, her lips rouged, her eyelashes blackened with ink, and even her toenails dyed red … In a way, her makeup and manners verified the hearsay that she had become the fifteenth concubine of a wealthy Chinese man in New York City” (172). Fearing that she had disrupted the delicate balance of harmony, the Chinese government refused her job. Her family shunned her and at every attempt to be become re-acclimated, Jinli’s family looked at her as an outsider.
Ultimately, Jinli found herself as an individual, counter to the Chinese, who were so encapsulated in a one-person, one-idea state. It is without notice that Ha Jin interconnects the four stories with fictional accounts of individualism and the struggle the Chinese people have gone through to maintain it, or even imagine it. Form the stores of Guhan’s dumplings, to the accounts of Baowen’s troubled battle of homosexuality, Ha Jin identifies the characters, shares their life story and defines a commonality all through the use of satire.