The China syndrome

Ha Jin's "The Bridegroom: Stories" beautifully explores matters of tyranny in contemporary China, set against the powers of capitalist America. These 12 stories capture daily struggles of Chinese people torn between matters of self and society.

With sentences simple, short and to the point, Jin writes to be understood, not to dazzle readers with words. All the stories take place in Muji City, and though discrete, they all work together to reveal the variations of Communist repression in China. Episodes range from police throwing people in jail for no reason to giving a man electric shock in a mental ward for being gay.

Although such treatments may sound harsh, they are not written in a dark manner. In fact, at times Jin's writing can be humorous and absurd. For instance, one of the brighter tales, "A Tiger Fighter Is Hard to Find," addresses the lengths individuals will go to please Chinese officials.

A classic Chinese tale is made into a TV series called "Wu Song Beat the Tiger." The governor, concerned with keeping the story true to tradition, writes a letter to the producers to point out a "weakness in the key episode, which was that the tiger looked fake and didn't present an authentic challenge to the hero." The governor is, however, impressed with the tiger fighter Huping, a well-sculpted hunk skilled in kung fu. Hence, instead of the fake tiger, the filmmakers re-shoot the scene with Huping fighting a partially tranquilized 300-pound Siberian tiger.

However, the beast passes out before Huping gets a chance to ride on it, thus endangering the authenticity of the story. Even though the tiger merely passes out, Huping believes he really finished it, and with crazed eyes spouts "I killed another tiger! I'm a real tiger-fighter!" Out of concern, Huping is taken to a doctor who diagnoses him with mild schizophrenia and hospitalizes him. Huping is put at risk a second time to redo the scene, which eventually reveals the tale's moral: Government pressures to uphold Chinese traditions tend to infringe on the people's spirits. Such themes are common in all of Jin's stories.

The book ends with Jin's most educational story, "After Cowboy Chicken Came To Town." The opening of a new fast food restaurant, Cowboy Chicken, (equivalent to our KFC), brings controversy to Muji City. Besides rotting Chinese bellies with foreign staples such as grease and gravy, the store policy follows American ethics, forbidding employees to take home leftovers at the end of the night. In a communist country where people scrape by, the employees are appalled that leftovers are taken to the countryside and burned.

To further emulate America, the restaurant adds a buffet priced at 19 yuan and 95 fen. The confused employees ask: "Why didn't he price it 20 yuan even?" The manager tells them: "this was the American way of pricing product. You don't add the last straw to collapse the camel."

"The Bridegroom: Stories" addresses the struggle of living in a society that pits the sentiments of modesty against the private impulses of self indulgence. Using characters of different morals and values, each thought-provoking tale delivers a fresh message. And there is no need to have previous knowledge of China prior to reading Ha Jin's book. The author clearly recognizes the political layers of two highly contrasting societies, and these stories address fundamental human concepts through pleasant and entertaining episodes.


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