one of the short stories that comprises The Bridegroom,
new collection by Ha Jin, a character refers to a Chinese proverb
about sparrows. Although the sparrow is small, says the proverb,
it possesses all the internal workings of any creature and is therefore
the equal of any creature. The same could be said of the short story.
Although brief, a good short story, like a good novel, is made up
of richly drawn characters, compelling situations and powerful themes.
But the smaller form can lend itself to intense moments of discovery
on the part of the characters and the reader.
With The Bridegroom,
returns to the short story after the success of his novel, Waiting
A native of mainland China, Ha Jin is currently a professor of English
at Emory University. His life in China has given him a wealth of
characters and stories upon which to draw. His studies of Western
as well as Eastern literary traditions have provided him with an
enviable set of writers tools. With his richly developed themes,
narrative voice, and imagery, Ha Jin proves himself once again to
be a master of the short story. And he leaves us with many memorable
All of the stories in this collection
are set in the city of Muji in modern-day China. The people of Muji
City live on the cusp of a great cultural and economic change. The
Communist system under which most of the characters grew up is still
in place, but Capitalism is also staking a place of its own. The
world of Mao, however, has defined most of the characters. In various
ways each of these tales shows how the Communist system has actually
created the people who live within it. In Muji City, not only are
a persons actions defined by the dictates of the system, but
his or her hopes and dreams for the future are also circumscribed
by that system.
In Alive, for example,
a supervisor in a local cannery wants to be promoted, not because
of a desire for personal gain but because one of the perks of a
higher position is a larger apartment, which would allow his son
to marry and move in with his new wife. Likewise, he calls upon
his daughter to give up on her dream of becoming a veterinarian.
The job that he could secure for her if he receives his promotion,
he thinks, is far better than a job she might find elsewhere. In
Muji City, marriage can only take place if the system can accommodate
it. Likewise, ones choice of professions is dictated, not
by an individuals desire, but by circumstances the system
But in spite of the all the pressures
to conform, the inhabitants of Muji City manage to defy the system,
sometimes overtly but more often covertly, sometimes successfully,
In A Bad Joke, a derogatory
joke about a minor official is misconstrued as a joke about Deng
Xiaoping, landing the teller in jail. In After Cowboy Chicken
Came to Town, local workers at an American-owned fast food
restaurant react to unfair treatment by taking that most American
of actions, going on strike.
Although all of the stories in The
are set in modern times and explore contemporary
themes, most echo old world storytelling traditions in some way.
The layers of irony in Saboteur and The Bridegroom
are reminiscent of folk tales. Likewise, at the end of Alive,
a parable about a man who loses his memory in an earthquake and
is matched with a new wife and family, the reader is left to weigh
the implications of his fate as though the story were about a classical
hero instead of a person of our own time.
Similarly, in A Tiger-Fighter
is Hard to Find, Chinese mythology meets the modern media
as a television production company films a series about the mythic
tiger fighter, Wu Song. The actor playing Wu Song becomes so obsessed
with the role that he comes to believe he is the mythic hero.
In this collection, Ha Jin demonstrates
his ability to carefully choose visual images that speak beyond
the words of his narrators. In Saboteur, workers nap
in the middle of the afternoon at the feet of a statue of Mao. In
The Bridegroom, a woman en route to visit her husband,
who was been sent to a mental hospital for the crime
of homosexuality, holds his duffel bag as though it were a baby.
Taken individually, these stories
stand as superbly crafted works of short fiction. Ha Jins
writing style is spare and direct. Often using the first person
point of view, he allows his characters to speak for themselves
and their situations to play themselves out in their own way.
As a whole, this collection provides
a fascinating look at Eastern culture. At the same time, however,
it shows the essence of humanity in a way that is readily recognizable
to any reader, regardless of his or her cultural background. No
matter our country of origin, we see ourselves in these stories.
And no matter ones locale, in The Bridegroom
a selection of work from one of the best writers of short stories
to arrive in recent years.