Under the Hawthorn Tree, page 1
Translated from the Chinese by
Copyright © 2007 Ai Mi
Translation copyright © 2011 Anna Holmwood
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This edition published in 2012 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Under the hawthorn tree / Ai Mi.
Previous title: Hawthorn tree forever.
Translation of: Shan zha shu zhi lian.
I. Title. II. Title: Mi, Ai. Hawthorn tree forever.
PL2833.I24S5313 2011 895.1’352 C2011-903981-8
Cover design: Sian Wilson - LBBG
Cover images: Tree illustration © Bernard Jezowski;
Images © 2010, Beijing New Picture Film Co., Ltd and Film Partner (2010) International, Inc.
We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.
The translator would like to thank the British Centre for Literary Translation and the Translators Association for their support throughout the translation mentoring programme, and she would also like to give particular thanks to her mentor, Nicky Harman, for her professional attention and kind friendship.
Ai Mi’s Under the Hawthorn Tree has been a publishing sensation in China since it first appeared on her website in 2007. The media attention intensified with the release of the film version by China’s premier director Zhang Yimou (of Raise the Red Lantern fame) in 2010, and it continues to be the subject of impassioned debates on the internet. Somewhat unusually for a story set during the Cultural Revolution it has had real cross-generational success. It has sold millions of copies, which is particularly remarkable considering that Ai Mi (a pseudonym) makes it available for free on her blog so we can reasonably assume that the number of people who have read the story is even larger than the staggering sales figures suggest.
The Cultural Revolution (1966–76) looms large in the Chinese books that have been translated in recent years, and yet even now this period of political turmoil remains alien to Western readers. It was a world dominated by sloganeering and awkward political labels and at the height of Chinese Communist zeal every citizen was encouraged to make revolution. Chairman Mao’s Red Guards were called on to challenge their parents and elders, and while some young people experienced it as a time of unbridled freedom, for many more it was filled with violence, political persecution and distress. While political sensitivities have continued to limit full historical and political analysis, novels were for a while – and perhaps even still are – the most fruitful way of coming to terms with this period. They became known as ‘scar literature’ or ‘literature of the wounded’ – a term coined after the publication of Lu Xinhua’s novel The Scar. But for younger Chinese people born during the 1980s and afterwards, who have enjoyed greater personal freedoms, a nascent sexual revolution, and the lure of global consumerism, there has been a marked shift away from stories about the Cultural Revolution. That Under the Hawthorn Tree has proved so popular with them demonstrates how this story of thwarted love has transcended the political and historical, becoming a national story that touches the heart.
Some of this passionate response from readers in China is because Ai Mi tells her readers that it was inspired by a true story and that she was given Jingqiu’s memoir. Many of the place names in the book were disguised in the original Chinese novel, resulting in an industry of speculation on the Chinese blogosphere as to the ‘real’ locations. In consultation with the author, I have chosen to follow the consensus that has formed on the web, one that bears scrutiny, and have used real city and village names in this translation.
Under the Hawthorn Tree has taken its place as part of China’s collective project of remembering and yet this is not the story of national political struggles but an intensely personal story of the way those struggles affected human relations. Jingqiu’s sexual naivety may strike the Western reader as rather incredible, yet it shows the startlingly intimate reach of politics in that period. Often referred to as the ‘purest and cleanest of love stories’ by Chinese critics, what is at stake in Under the Hawthorn Tree is innocence, both of the individual and of society at large, in the face of the corrupting influence of extreme politics.
The story starts as Jingqiu travels to the countryside to help her Educational Reform Association write a new history textbook based on the stories told by the local lower and middling peasants. This is where her education in love begins . . .
During the first weeks of spring 1974, when Jingqiu was still at senior high school, she and three other students were selected to take part in a project to compile a new school textbook. They were to travel to the homes of poor and lower peasants in West Village and interview them, turning their stories into a history book for use at No. 8 Middle School. Before the Cultural Revolution, textbooks were full of feudalism, capitalism and revisionism and, as Chairman Mao gloriously proclaimed, marked ‘the rule by gifted scholars and fair ladies, emperors, generals and ministers, through the ages’. Now education ‘needed reforming’.
The chosen few were students whose grades in essay writing were above average. They were collectively named the ‘No. 8 Middle School Educational Reform Association’.
The four students struggled up the path across the mountain after Mr Zhang, the head of the village which would be their new home for the next few months, and their three teachers. It was not a large mountain, but with their packs tied to their backs and string bags in their hands they began to sweat heavily and it wasn’t long before Mr Zhang became steadily weighed down with their luggage. Two of the three girls, even though now rid of their backpacks, still panted and puffed up the mountain.
Jingqiu was strong, and although she too was exhausted by the weight, she insisted upon carrying her own rucksack. The ability to endure hard work was the standard by which she measured other people, and she redeemed any political shortcomings by her reliably good performance, by not fearing hardship and by making sure that she never lagged behind.
Observing that each breath sounded like their last, Mr Zhang was endlessly encouraging. ‘Not far now, just a bit further, once we get to the hawthorn tree we can take a rest.’
The fabled hawthorn tree reminded Jingqiu of the plum tree in the ancient story in which General Cao Cao made empty promises of refreshing fruit juice in order to spur his soldiers on. She also thought of a Soviet song she had learnt some years previously thanks to a trainee Russian teacher, Anli, who arrived at No. 8 Mi
Anli’s father was some kind of chief in the second division artillery but, following the disgrace of Mao’s second-in-command, Lin Biao, he was targeted and demoted, and Anli had suffered. Afterwards, her father came into favour again, and so he was able to recall Anli from the countryside and squeeze her into the provincial teacher training college. It was a mystery as to why she had decided to study Russian as by that time it was a subject that had long since ceased to be popular. Just after the Liberation, in the early 1950s, there had apparently been a craze for it, but then Sino-Russian relations soured, and the Soviet Union was branded revisionist because of its attempts to ‘reform’ Marxist Leninist theory. So then those same teachers changed back again to teaching English.
Anli took a liking to Jingqiu, and when she had time, she would teach her Russian songs such as ‘The Hawthorn Tree’. Of course, this had to be done in secret. Not only had everything associated with the Soviet Union become dangerous but, just as importantly, anything contaminated by the idea of ‘love’ was considered the bad influence and the putrid remains of the capitalist class. ‘The Hawthorn Tree’ was deemed ‘obscene’, ‘rotten and decayed’, and of ‘improper style’ because the lyrics spoke of two young men who were both in love with the same young maiden. She liked them both and could not decide who she should choose. In order to make her decision she asked advice from the hawthorn tree. In the last lines she sang:
Oh! Sweet hawthorn tree, white buds on your branches,
Ah! Dear hawthorn tree, why so troubled?
Which is the bravest? Which is lovelier?
Oh, I beg you, hawthorn tree, tell me which one.
Anli had a lovely voice trained in what she called the ‘beautiful Italian style’ and it suited this song very well. At weekends she would come to Jingqiu’s house and have Jingqiu accompany her on the accordion while she sang.
When Mr Zhang mentioned the hawthorn tree Jingqiu was surprised, but then she quickly realised that he was referring to a real tree, not the song, and that he had designated this tree the goal for the seven of them struggling up the hill.
Now Jingqiu’s rucksack pressed hot and heavy on her sweaty back and the straps of her string bag dug hard into her palms. In order to relieve the pressure she passed it back and forth left to right, right to left. Just as she began to feel she could go no further Mr Zhang announced, ‘We’ve arrived, let’s rest our feet for a while.’
There was a collective sigh from the group – like the sound of men who have just been read their amnesty order – and they collapsed to the ground.
After they’d regained their strength one of them asked, ‘Where is this hawthorn tree?’
‘Over there,’ Mr Zhang said, pointing to a tree not far away.
Jingqiu saw a rather unremarkable tree, six or seven metres tall. The air was still cold, and so not only were the white flowers yet to bloom, it was even bare of green leaves. Jingqiu was disappointed; the image the song had given her was far more poetic and charming. When she’d listened to ‘The Hawthorn Tree’ she imagined a scene of two handsome young men standing beneath the tree waiting for their dearest maiden. A young girl, wearing one of those dresses favoured by Russian women, walked towards them in rainbow-infused twilight. Which one should she choose?
Jingqiu asked Mr Zhang, ‘Does this tree have white flowers?’
This question seemed to arouse something within old Zhang. ‘Ah, this tree! Originally the flowers were white, but during the war against Japan countless brave men were executed beneath it, their blood watering the soil at its roots. From that time on the flowers on this tree started changing until all the flowers were red.’
The group sat silently, until Mr Lee – one of their teachers from the city – said to the students, ‘Still not writing this down?’
Realising with a start that their work had begun, the four rushed to find their notebooks. Four or five scratching pens seemed to be an everyday occurrence for Mr Zhang, so he continued talking. Once he had told the story of the tree which had borne witness to the glorious deeds of the people of West Village, it was time to set out again.
After a while Jingqiu looked back to the hawthorn tree,ﾠnow faint, and thought she could see a person standing beneath it. It wasn’t a soldier from Mr Zhang’s story, tied upﾠtightly by those Japanese devils, but a handsome young man . . . She scolded herself for her petty capitalist thoughts. She must focus on learning from the poor peasants, and work hard on writing this textbook. The hawthorn tree story would definitely be included in the textbook, but under what title? What about, ‘The Blood-stained Hawthorn Tree’? Perhaps that was too gory. ‘The Red-blossoming Hawthorn Tree’ might be better. Or, simply, ‘The Red Hawthorn Tree’.
Jingqiu’s backpack and string bag felt heavier after the rest, not lighter. She thought, perhaps it’s like clashing flavours: a little bit of sweetness before a mouthful of bitterness makes the bitter taste much more bitter. But not one of them dared to complain. To be afraid of struggle and exhaustion was for capitalists and to be labelled a capitalist was the one thing that scared Jingqiu. Her class background was bad, so she mustn’t go around exploiting the peasants, making them carry her bags – that would mean elevating herself above the masses even more. The Party had a policy, ‘You can’t choose your class background, but you can choose your own path.’ She knew that people like her had to be more careful than those with good class backgrounds.
But struggle and exhaustion didn’t go away just because you didn’t talk about them. Jingqiu wished that every aching nerve would wither and die. That way she wouldn’t feel the weight on her back or the pain in her hands. She tried doing what she always did to help dismiss pain: she let her thoughts run wild. After a while she would almost feel that her body was elsewhere, as if her soul had flown away and was living a completely different life.
She didn’t know why she kept thinking of the hawthorn tree. Images from Mr Zhang’s story of the soldiers tied up alternated with the handsome young white-shirted Russian men from the song. In her imagination she became an anti-Japanese hero, punished by her enemies, and then she was the young Russian girl, wracked by indecision. Jingqiu couldn’t honestly say if she were more of a Communist or more of a revisionist.
Eventually they reached the end of the mountain road and Mr Zhang, halting, pointed down the mountainside. ‘That’s West Village.’
The students rushed to the edge of the cliff to admire West Village spread out before them. They could see a small jade-green river that snaked down from the foot of the mountain and circled the village. Bathed in early spring sunlight and surrounded by bright mountains and crystal water, West Village was beautiful, prettier than the other villages Jingqiu had previously worked in. The panoramic view showed fields spread like a quilt across the mountainside in patches of green and brown scattered with small houses. A few buildings were concentrated in the middle, alongside a dam, which Mr Zhang said was the army base. According to the system in Yichang county each village had a large army detachment, and the head of the village was actually the army unit’s Party secretary, so the villagers called him ‘Village Head Zhang’.
The group walked down the mountain, arriving first at Mr Zhang’s home which was located at the river’s edge. His wife was at home and welcomed them, asking them to call her
Once they were all rested, Mr Zhang began to arrange where they would stay. Two teachers, Mr Lee and Mr Chen, and the student Good Health Lee, were to live together with one family. The other, Mr Luo, would only be here for a short while, providing guidance on the writing – within a day or two he would need to return home to get back to school – so he would just squeeze in somewhere. One family had agreed to give one of their rooms to girls, but they only had space for two.
‘Whoever is left over can live with me,’ Mr Zhang said, deciding to set an example. ‘I don’t have any spare rooms, I’m afraid, so that girl will have to share a bed with my youngest daughter.’
The three girls looked at each other, dismayed. Jingqiu took a deep breath and volunteered. ‘Why don’t you two live together? I’ll stay at Mr Zhang’s.’
There were no activities planned for the rest of the day so they had time to settle in and have a rest. Work would start officially the next day. As well as interviewing the villagers and compiling the text, they knew that they would be working in the fields with the poorest farmers, experiencing peasant life.
Mr Zhang led the others to their new homes, leaving Jingqiu with Auntie Zhang. Auntie took Jingqiu to her daughter’s room so that she could unpack. The room was like the other rural bedrooms she had been in, dark with a small window on one wall. It had no glass, just cellophane pasted to the frame.
Auntie switched on the light, dimly illuminating the room which was about fifteen square metres, tidy and clean. The bed was bigger than a single bed but smaller than a double. With two it would be tight, but adequate. Newly washed and starched, the sheets, more like cardboard than cloth, were spread tightly across the bed, on top of which lay a quilt folded into a triangle, the white lining turned out at two corners. Jingqiu pondered how it was folded and couldn’t for the life of her work it out. Feeling a little flustered, she thought she would use her own blanket so that she wouldn’t have to struggle to refold the quilt the next morning. Students who were sent to the countryside to live with lower and middle-ranking peasants knew they were to take their cue from the protocol used by the 8th Route Army during the civil war: use only that which the peasants use and return everything intact.