Under the Hawthorn Tree

Under the Hawthorn Tree - Ai Mi, Anna Holmwood 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.

(More about what readers can discover in this novel here, on Buried In Print. Please check out my full response, with additional quotes and commentary.)