A Story of Us All: Ha Jin's Waiting

by Kenneth Champeon, May 25, 2001 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction, Ha Jin's Waiting is as universal, and deceptively simple as a fable, as gentle and innocent as a bedtime story. It tells the story of Lin Kong, a doctor in an army hospital, who is married to Shuyu, an old-fashioned, martyr-like illiterate whom Lin never loved. Instead, Lin loves Manna Wu, a nurse in the same hospital. For eighteen years, he petitions for a divorce but his request is denied, chiefly because Shuyu refuses. He returns dejected to Manna, who, afraid of becoming an old maid, grows increasingly impatient.

This saga of suppressed desires takes place under the repressive government of China's Cultural Revolution. Lin and Manna are not permitted to be together outside of the hospital compound; inside, they are constantly subjected to suspicious glances and malicious gossip. Looming over them is the threat of career stagnation, even banishment to menial work in distant communes. The closer they get, the severer the threats.

The government is not their only obstacle. Lin's fellow villagers, his dodgy brother-in-law included, reproach Lin for wishing to divorce such a long-suffering and loyal woman. Further, Lin would be defying the wishes of his revered parents, who had arranged the marriage. In spite of these pressures, the love of Lin and Manna endures, but unconsummated.

Waiting is more than a love story. Lin's conflict is China's - the conflict between its feudal past and what was then its Communist future. Shuyu and the village represent everything feudal: Shuyu's feet are bound in the old style; her devotion to her husband is absolute, even slavish; she can't read or write, and her speech is terse and unsophisticated; she is all but sexless. Life on the farm is coarse and monotonous, but relatively free and marked by simple joys. Manna, in contrast, is educated, willful, beautiful, and sensuous, at times manipulative. Life in the hospital is sterile and regimented; behavior is closely monitored; books are confiscated.

Lin's choice between these two women and lifestyles is as uncertain and qualified as China's choice between the two worlds they represent. One could easily imagine a sequel to Waiting in which the protagonist must choose between a Manna-like character, wearing her drab, outdated uniform and toting around her collection of Mao buttons; and a politically progressive techie in modern-day Shanghai, who wears Nikes and eats at McDonald's.

Jin manages to make his novel a moral fable and a political parable without sacrificing the demands of his art. His prose is not pyrotechnic or ground-breaking, but it is wholly without the affectation characterizing so much modern fiction. He is not out to demonstrate how great a writer he is; the story prevails. Everything is told plainly; sights and smells are described with a sweetness not saccharine. It is as if a fairy tale had been exploded to novel scale while retaining the tale's brisk pace, economy, and omniscient tone.

This does not prevent Jin from showcasing the richness of Chinese culture, especially its food and folk medicine. Waiting confirms the stereotype of the Chinese who will eat anything: pig's foot soup, salted jellyfish, donkey meat. And for any ailment there is a similarly nauseating, or simply bizarre remedy: for impotence, seahorses steeped in wheat liquor; for dysentery, mashed taro mixed with white sugar and egg yolk.

Waiting came out when the fickle relationship between China and the West seemed to be settling down, just as China seemed ready to abandon Communism. Very little is known about the inertial giant; now that it has begun to overcome this inertia, many fear the direction it will take. The Western press has only multiplied these fears, making China the symbol of all that is antiquated and oppressive, just short of making it the new, necessary Evil Empire.

Waiting's author seems to demur. If he condemns Communism, he does so gently, satirically, never losing sight of the players' humanity. The bureaucrats are all caricatures; they laugh even at themselves. The central characters may fear the law, but they fear their families, their lovers, their own gabbling consciences just as acutely. The book's only true villain is an unrepentant capitalist.

Lin Kong is trying to make a happier life for himself without stirring up trouble, but he mistakes the proper means. Happiness is not a matter of personal liberty, of getting what you want; Ha Jin seems to suggest that happiness is comfort and custom: the smile of a familiar face, the sharing of a well-cooked meal and drink. In this respect, he favors feudalism, because it preserved families. Communism sundered families for the coherence of the nation; capitalism sunders them for the GNP.

In this era of giddy self-congratulation by the West for its defeat of Communism, the rationale behind Communism has already been forgotten. It was a vision, however impractical, of a humane world, of putting others above oneself, of coerced sympathy. The coercive aspect proved self-destructive, but the unchecked selfishness characterizing capitalism promises little better. These two forces in human nature, sympathy and selfishness, have always been and will always be at war.

Which is why Waiting, to its author's credit, has no clear resolution. Lin is as unsatisfied at the end as at the beginning, because the consequences of his selfish choice are less pleasant than those of his enduring sympathy. He founders, as it were, on this double human nature. He is, in the words of the Tao Te Ching, "confused, confused." We cannot help but love him, because so are we all.

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Look for Waiting on Amazon.

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