The expression “May you be cursed by living in interesting times” has been attributed to the Chinese. No doubt by their history, they have had their share of interesting times. Political upheaval, war, revolution has dotted their history. But the Chinese are also human like us. They endure love, hate, gossip, desire and so forth like we do. Ai Mi’s Under The Hawthorn Tree not only enlightens us in the west about life in China in the 1970s but also enlighten us about the human condition in general, making us not feel alone with our fears and desires.
She couldn’t remember ever before being so aware of what she was wearing: it was a first for her to worry about making a bad impression in this regard. She hadn’t felt so self-conscious for a long time. When she was at primary and secondary school, the other students bullied her, but once she got to senior high school none of them dared look her straight in the eye. The boys in her class seemed scared of her and turned red when she spoke to them so she had never given any thought as to whether they liked the way she looked or dressed. They were silly, just a bunch of little monsters.
But the well-dressed man before her made her so nervous her heart hurt. His brilliant white shirt sleeves peeped from under his unbuttoned blue overcoat. His shirt, so white, so neat and smooth, must have been made from polyester, which Jingqiu definitely couldn’t afford. His rice-grey top looked homemade, and Jingqiu, who was good at knitting, could see that the pattern was difficult. On his feet he wore a pair of leather shoes. She looked down at her own faded ‘Liberation shoes’ and thought, he’s rich, I’m poor, it’s like we’re from different worlds.
The plot of this book is quite lyrical. It is set in the middle of the Cultural Revolution and a new set of norms are being set down on the people. High-school student Jingqiu meets up with Jianxin and they fall in love. They come from opposing social backgrounds and live in a political atmosphere that forbids the relationship. Yet in spite, of all the trials and tribulations against the relationship, their love endures.
The scenes from their walk on the mountain road flashed through her mind, one by one, like a film. She couldn’t make them stop. A whole string of them flashed by, her head was spinning, she didn’t know what to think, say, or do. The memories went round and round like a stack of photos, each one capturing its own moment. The image that appeared and reappeared was when Old Third had startled her, telling her there was a ghost that looked like him under the tree, and before she had known what was happening he had grabbed her, kissed her and tried to press his tongue in her mouth.
Knowing now that he was engaged, it was as if the photos had aged, their clarity faded. Whenever she was with Old Third she felt lighter, as though her proud judgement, her restraint, were falling away. He was a strong wind that blew her feet from the ground when they walked together.
She thought of the day she had left West Village, when they walked together over the mountain and he had told her stories. He had used the story of Romeo and Juliet as an example to defend a man who had dumped his fiancée, but now she knew he had been talking about himself. The next evening he also admitted, inadvertently, to having held someone else’s hand. She was eaten up with regret. Why didn’t I understand? Had she understood, she would have lost her temper with him when he came to hug her, she would have stood her ground and shown him how much she hated him doing that. The worst of it was, not only had she not lost her temper, she had admitted to liking holding his hand. She couldn’t understand why she had done such a stupid thing.
While Under The Hawthorn Tree by Ai Mi is quite the lyrical novel, it isn’t something that should be rushed through in reading. The details in the thought-processes of the protagonist gives a reader enlightenment in the human condition of love and desire. It is a book that should be pondered, considered and reflected on over and over again.