What makes for a love letter during the Cultural Revolution in China would have Heathcliff and Catherine shaking their heads.
Maybe two or three pages of discussing China’s excellent international and domestic circumstances, then the fortunate conditions of provincial and city life, and those of friends and class-mates.
These formalities cannot be overlooked, and, indeed, one love letter might look a lot like the next.
But, at the end, one might speak of admiring and respecting another’s talents, as one intelligent person observes another, recognizing and validating.
Finally, a simple request to be their girlfriend. The shift from comrade to “something more” is regimented, monitored and restrained.
This is what love amounts to on paper.
Millions were persecuted and displaced throughout China’s Cultural Revolution, but Ai Mi’s narrative takes place in its waning years (the last of the Maoist reforms were abandoned by 1978).
It is a love story, but the changes in the political climate — the instability and remnants of tyranny — directly affect the characters in Under the Hawthorn Tree.
So it is not a love story that the Brontë sisters could have told from their Yorkshire parlour, but a love story which will challenge many readers’ expectations of a romance.
Still, Jingqiu has read Jane Eyre. In the earlier years of the Revolution, she would have never dared to touch, let alone read such a book, but she has read it and embraced it, like many young girls her age.
She remembers one scene in particular, wherein “in order to let go of her love for Rochester, Jane looks in the mirror and says something like, You’re a plain girl, you’re not worthy of his love, never forget that.”
Jingqiu tries to apply this restraint to her own emotions and takes an oath herself.
“I promise to draw a line between myself and any capitalist thoughts, and put all my efforts into studying, working, writing this textbook, and taking concrete actions to thank the leaders of my school for the trust they have put in me.”
Jingqiu knew what she meant by capitalist thoughts; she meant no more imagining what it would be like to be loved by Old Third and to love him in return. No more capitalist thoughts.
She met Old Third when she travelled to West Village in 1974 as a senior high school student. With three other students, she worked to compile a new school textbook, gathering the tales of the poor and lower peasants, reforming the traditional textbooks which were spoiled with stories of capitalism, feudalism and revisionism.
West Village is a world apart from the life she knows in the city, where she lives with her mother, who ekes out a living as a teacher in a local school, her earnings not even enough to cover food and shelter for the two daughters and the son who has been “sent down”, since her father was imprisoned for political crimes.
“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.”
Readers share Jingqiu’s sense of having been carried elsewhere. Discovering it along with her, it is doubly strange.
“Jingqiu was mesmerized; she felt that she had been transported into a fairy tale. Dusk enveloped them, kitchen smoke curled up to the sky, and village smells drifted through the air. Her ears with filled with the sounds of the accordian and the low rumbles of the men’s voices. This strange mountain village was at once familiar; its flavour had to be savoured, she thought, as she struggled to express it in words. Her senses were steeped in what she could only think to describe as a petty capitalist atmosphere.”
Jingqiu is constantly struggling to make sense of the lines that she draws. Between herself and her capitalist thoughts. Between herself and her erroneous expectations.
“That’s not what the characters from the books he lent me would have said, she thought, disappointed.” ”
Even once she does permit herself the most tentative of motions in Old Third’s directions, she continues to draw lines, in her attempt to keep herself (and her family’s reputation) pure, even while yearning for something that she can barely articulate privately.
“Why doesn’t he sound like the young men in those books? The books may well be politically poisonous, but they do describe how love ought to be, at least.”
This is what love amounts to on paper.
But, really, that’s only the barest hint of what Anna Holmwood’s translation of Ai Mi’s narrative contains.
Readers are pulled into Jingqiu’s daily life wholly (from collecting stories in West Village to the various gruelling temporary jobs that she holds after graduation, her efforts to support her family, and beyond, but that would be spoilery).
The view ranges — from the immediacy of an evening’s sights and sounds to the vast perspective from a cliff-side — contributing to the sense of a single young girl’s experience of having glimpsed an era.
Readers will feel transported, as though they have been pulled across the line into the tale which begins in the “strange mountain village”.
Do you want to travel there?
Note: Ai Mi is a pseudonym. The novel has been a bestseller in China, and has been adapted for film by Zhang Yimou, and billed as “the cleanest romance in history”.