First love – a time to worry.
First Published: 2007
Date Reviewed: 18th July 2014
Original language: Mandarin Chinese
Original title: 山楂树之恋 (Shan Zha Shu Zhi Lian – Hawthorn Tree)
Translated by: Anna Holmwood
Jingqiu’s family has been written off as the lowest of the lowest. Landowners, in the time of Mao they are hated. Jingqiu works hard to provide for her mother and sister and sees her future as one of inevitable manual labour. She would hope to return one day. On a field trip, as a writer for the new school textbooks, she meets Old Third, the so-called foster brother of her teacher’s family. He’s obviously not as poor as Jingqiu – there would be issues if they became more than friends.
Under The Hawthorn Tree is a book that starts very well and offers much to those interested in the history, but slowly descends into what is to all intents and purposes stupidity.
The stupidity can be found in Jingqiu’s choices. She is a fair enough character and works more than is healthy so that her family has money, but she declines all offers of support and legitimate ways to get around her situation. The love interest, Old Third, has much to offer and asks for nothing in return; he wishes Jingqiu out of danger. Jingqiu rejects his money and puts her life on the line working in factories that use poison and taking on heavy lifting duties that could kill her. Perhaps it is meant to be endearing, but instead it comes across as silly and selfish. It’s a miracle the character survives at all.
Some, only some, of Jingqiu’s concerns are valid. She worries about being seen with Old Third in a society that will reject her if they believe she’s lost her virginity out of wedlock. She worries about her family’s already low status. But by and large her worries don’t hold water. There are the constant musings on what people are referring to (metaphors and innuendo). Jingqiu’s innocence is believable up to a point, but it’s hard to believe that by 25 she still dismisses those happy to clarify matters and to be the only person (seemingly, at least) in her home town who has not learned anything. Personal experience doesn’t enlighten her, either. Sex itself is one of the few things that is discussed openly in the city, at least enough that everyone knows a good amount, everyone except Jingqiu.
Jingqiu’s love isn’t believable. She goes through some motions, and perhaps it is down to the lack of knowledge, but it’s hard to phantom that one day she won’t fall in love for real and relegate Old Third to a crush. Old Third loves her, that is certain, by Mi does not present the love on Jingqiu’s side very well.
The writing is hit and miss, however because we’re talking of a translation, it’s hard to say for definite whether or not the repetitive words and juvenile phrasing is down to the author or the translator’s choices. (The translator is Anna Holmwood.) It is safe to say that the translation needed editing, because you’d expect errors in the original text to have received some sort of mention, if just to clear the translator’s name.
What’s good about the book is the pace – it’s quick and easy to read – and the history. Beyond the silliness there is a lot of interesting information, and it’s localised to Jingqiu’s community. You can learn much from this first-hand account, albeit fictional, and its status as a best-seller (it was adapted for the screen, too) goes some way towards informing you about how much you should believe. Jingqiu may not be devoted to Mao but she refers to the rules and texts enough that you see how people were affected.
As an insight into the history it’s not bad, but you shouldn’t pick up Under The Hawthorn Tree expecting to be wowed. If you are, all well and good, but most likely you’ll be happy to move on.
July 18, 2014, 9:26 am
I guess I will just move on then
July 18, 2014, 4:59 pm
While the history part might interest me, I think the story and Jingqiu’s character would be too big a turn off for me.
I am sorry this one wasn’t better for you.
July 18, 2014, 6:22 pm
I’m sorry to hear this didn’t live up to it’s interesting premise.