Waiting (1999) is a novel written in English by Ha Jin, a Chinese author who as of 2006 was teaching creative writing at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. The book is based on a true story that Jin heard from his wife when they were visiting her family at an army hospital in China. At the hospital was an army doctor who had waited eighteen years to get a divorce so he could marry his long-time friend, a nurse. But now his second marriage was not working. Jin thought that this situation would make a good plot for a novel, and he began working on Waiting in 1994.
The plot revolves around the fortunes of three people: Lin Kong, the army doctor; his wife Shuyu, whom he has never loved; and his girlfriend at the hospital where he works, the nurse Manna Wu. Beginning in 1963 and stretching over a twenty-year period, Waiting is set against the background of a changing Chinese society. It contrasts city and country life and shows the restrictions on individual freedoms that are a routine part of life under communism. But Waiting is primarily a novel of character. It presents an in-depth portrait of a decent but deeply flawed man, Lin Kong, whose life is spoiled by his inability to experience strong emotions and to love wholeheartedly.
Ha Jin was born on February 21, 1956, in a small rural town in Liaoning province, China, the son of Danlin and Yuanfen Jin. His father was an army officer. In 1969, when Jin was fourteen, he volunteered to serve in the Chinese Army, stationed at the northeastern border between China and the Soviet Union. The minimum age for enlistment was sixteen, but Jin lied about his age because he wanted to leave home. This was during the time of upheaval in China known as the Cultural Revolution; the schools were closed so there was nothing for Jin to do in his hometown. He found army life quite exciting at first, since tensions between China and the Soviet Union were high and there were rumors of an impending Russian attack.
Jin remained in the army until 1975. After leaving the army, he wanted to go to college, but they were still closed. So he worked for three years as a telegrapher at a railroad company in Jiamusi, in northeast China. During this time, he began to learn English, listening to an English study program on the radio.
In 1977, when colleges reopened, Jin passed the entrance exam and enrolled at Heilongjiang University in Harbin. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1981 and then studied American literature at Shandong University, where he received a Master of Arts degree in 1984. In 1985, Jin came to the United States to begin a Ph.D. program in the English Department at Brandeis University.
After 1986, when his scholarship ran out, Jin supported himself by working odd jobs, including night watchman, housecleaner, and busboy. During this time he first began to write in English. His poems impressed the poet Frank Bidart, who was teaching at Brandeis, and this recognition led to a series of events that together resulted in the publication of a volume of Jin's poetry, Between Silences: A Voice from China, by the University of Chicago Press in 1990.
When he first came to the United States, Jin had every intention of returning to China on completion of his studies. But when he saw on television what happened in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989, he decided to remain away. At Tiananmen, the Chinese government ordered the army to attack pro-democracy demonstrators, and hundreds of people were estimated to have been killed.
Jin received his Ph.D. from Brandeis in 1993 and became assistant professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1996, his first collection of short stories, Ocean of Words: Army Stories, was published, quickly followed by a second collection of stories, Under the Red Flag,
in 1997. These stories are set in a rural town in China during the Cultural Revolution. Jin's first novel, In the Pond, was published in 1998. Like all Jin's works, it is set in China. It tells the story of an artist who has to spend his time working at a fertilizer plant to support his family.
Jin's second novel, Waiting, was published in 1999. It won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. After that, Jin continued to publish poetry, short stories, and novels regularly, including the novels The Crazed (2002) and War Trash (2004). As of 2006, he remained in the position of professor of creative writing at Boston University, Boston, a role he assumed in 2002.
Waiting begins in Goose Village in China in 1983. Lin Kong, an officer and doctor in the Chinese army, has returned from the army hospital in Muji City, where he works, with the intention of divorcing Shuyu, his wife of twenty years. He has been doing this every summer for many years. The court always turns down his request because at the last minute Shuyu changes her mind and refuses to agree to it. Lin's marriage was arranged by his parents, and although he does not dislike his wife, he has never loved her either, and they have not had sexual relations for seventeen years.
In the courtroom, Shuyu's brother Bensheng protests that Lin is acting unfairly to his wife, and the judge declines Lin's request. Lin returns home and tells his girlfriend Manna Wu that he will seek a divorce the following year, because according to the law an officer could divorce his wife after an eighteen-year separation, with or without her consent.
In 1964, Manna is a nursing student at the military hospital in Muji, where she falls in love with a lieutenant named Mai Dong. An immediate marriage is not possible, but Manna promises Mai Dong she will marry him sooner or later. Mai Dong is transferred to a new regiment eighty miles away, and after several months, he tells her he is going to Shanghai, where he will marry his cousin. Manna is heartbroken. At the age of twenty-six, she despairs of ever getting married.
From her earliest days at nursing school, Manna had been friends with Lin Kong, one of her teachers. He seems to her to be a scholarly man, and she borrows books from him. She is also impressed by the fact that he can read Russian. He invites her to his dormitory to help him make dust jackets for his books. She finds him easy going and good natured.
In the winter of 1966, hospital staff go through a training exercise in which they march four hundred miles through the countryside, practicing treating the wounded and rescuing people from a battlefield. Lin is the head of a medical team, and Manna also takes part in the training. During a forced march, Manna can barely walk because of blisters on her feet. Lin helps her. At the farmhouse where the nurses are billeted, Lin drains Manna's blisters and then helps her for several days until her feet are healed.
Manna grows curious about Lin and wonders what his wife is like. She thinks she should distance herself from him, but her interest continues to grow. One evening, she sees Lin in the company of Pingping Ma, the hospital librarian, and she grows agitated, wondering whether they have a romantic relationship. She decides she must do something to stop Pingping Ma from taking Lin away.
Manna leaves an envelope on Lin's desk. Inside is a ticket for an opera which is to be performed that evening in the hospital theater. He decides to go and is surprised when he finds Manna sitting in the seat next to him. During the opera, which is about a battle between Chinese and Japanese forces, Manna places her hand on top of his. That night, Lin wonders whether this is the beginning of an affair. When he encounters her the next day and she suggests they go for a walk on Sunday, he is willing to begin an affair.
During their walk they talk about the social and political upheaval in China. Within a month they are meeting several times a week in the evening. By August they see each other frequently during the day, and people begin to gossip about them, saying they are having an affair. Ran Su, vice-director of the hospital's political department, tells Lin he is heading for trouble, and Lin promises that he and Manna will not have sexual relations. Worried, he regrets having started a relationship with her. The next day, Lin tells Manna that although he loves her, they cannot be together.
- In 2004, Waiting was adapted by Brilliance as an audio book. As of 2006, it was available from Amazon.com.
In 1968, Manna sees a photograph of Lin's wife. She teases him that Shuyu looks like his mother rather than his wife. The picture confirms her belief that Lin cannot be attached to his wife and will eventually leave her. Manna's friend Haiyan suggests she should sleep with Lin and gives Manna the key to her sister's house, saying that her sister will be away over the weekend. Manna is thrilled, but when she tells Lin about the idea, he says it is too risky. He insists that she return the key to Haiyan before the weekend. Manna reluctantly agrees but worries that Lin does not love her enough to take a risk.
That night, Lin reviews his decision. He convinces himself that he loves Manna but that the bond between them need not be sexual. He dreams that he makes love to an unknown woman in a field, and he ejaculates in his sleep. In the morning his roommates find out about his "wet dream" and tell him he should not be ashamed of it. But Lin is confused by the dream because in real life he could never imagine doing such a thing.
Lin wants to divorce his wife, although he feels guilty about deserting her. Manna has become tired of waiting and says that if he does nothing, it is over between them. For a while they stop seeing each other, but Lin is in turmoil over the situation.
Lin sees Manna at a formal banquet. When he stops at her table and advises her not to drink too much, she responds with a hostile remark. After the banquet, she embraces him and apologizes, but she is drunk and says she wants him to make love to her. After he takes her home, Lin thinks seriously about getting a divorce.
Lin visits his wife and daughter and finds it relaxing to be with his family again. In the evening, Bensheng, his brother-in-law, asks Lin to lend him some money. Lin does so with the agreement that Bensheng will help them thatch their roof in the fall. Lin is amazed at how well Shuyu manages the money he sends her each month, but during his ten-day leave, he cannot bring himself to ask for a divorce. One night Shuyu says that she wants to sleep with him so she can give him a son, but he says he has no need of one.
A week after his return, he confesses to Manna that he failed to ask for a divorce. When he suggests they break up, she storms out of the room. A week later, Lin apologizes and says he will seek a divorce in the future. The following summer, when Lin returns home again, Manna has high hopes. But when Lin returns he tells her that Bensheng threatened to retaliate if Lin divorced his sister, so Lin had not pursued it. He promises to figure out some way of getting a divorce.
By 1972, Lin is pessimistic about being able to obtain a divorce, having failed the previous year. He offers Manna the chance to meet his cousin Liang Meng, who lives about eighty miles away and wants a girlfriend. Manna is unenthusiastic about the idea but agrees to meet him in June.
When Liang Meng arrives, Lin introduces him to Manna, and the three of them talk for a while at the hospital. The next morning, Liang Meng and Manna meet at Victory Park in the city and take a walk. When they sit on a bench, he shows her some of his drawings, which do not interest her. When she returns home she tells Lin that she is not attracted to Liang Meng and does not want to see him again.
The next summer, Lin and Shuyu again go to the divorce court. But after Lin refuses to reveal the name of the woman he plans to marry, the judge refuses to consider the case. Outside the court a hostile crowd has assembled, stirred up by Bensheng, but Lin leaves without being harmed. The next afternoon, Ren Kung, Lin's elder brother, visits and tries to persuade Lin not to leave Shuyu, since a divorce would affect everyone in the family.
A week later, Ran Su informs Lin that Commissar Wei has asked the hospital to recommend a woman for him to marry. The Party Committee has been considering recommending Manna. Lin raises no objections, saying he is a married man and should not hold her back. Manna agrees to meet the commissar. Secretly, Lin is upset at the prospect of losing her and angry at the commissar. At the same time, he has a feeling of relief, since if he loses Manna he will not have to continue to ask for a divorce.
Commissar Wei meets Manna at the army's hotel in Muji. He is courteous and a good listener. He asks her what books she has read recently. Taking a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass from his briefcase, he says he has read it four times. He then lends her the book for a month. When she has read it, she is to tell him what she thinks of it. In the evening, Manna and the commissar go to a movie together. At the theater she is introduced to a stern-faced officer named Geng Yang.
Manna does not understand Leaves of Grass and asks Lin to help her. He writes a report on the poems, which Manna copies out in her own hand in a six-page letter and sends to Commissar Wei. In anticipation of moving to Harbin and marrying the commissar, she gets Lin to teach her how to ride a bicycle. After a few weeks, however, Manna is informed that the commissar will not pursue the relationship because he was not satisfied with her handwriting. He needed someone with good handwriting to help him with secretarial work. Manna feels humiliated and returns to Lin, her passion for him rekindled.
Lin is taken ill with tuberculosis and is quarantined in the hospital's tuberculosis building. His roommate is Geng Yang, who has almost recovered from the illness. Lin takes Manna to visit him. Later, Geng Yang urges Lin to take decisive action regarding his divorce.
After Lin recovers, he is sent to Shenyang City on an army program. Before he leaves, he and Manna take Geng Yang out to dinner in a restaurant. Geng Yang again urges Lin to seek a divorce and suggests that he use money to accomplish his goal. That evening Lin devises a plan to pay his brother-in-law two thousand yuan to ensure that he does not oppose the divorce. But he does not have enough money, and Manna refuses to contribute.
While Lin is away, Manna visits Geng Yang, who is about to leave the hospital, in order to pick up some books that Geng Yang borrowed from Lin. In his hospital room, Geng Yang rapes Manna. She runs back to her dormitory and weeps. She fears that if she reports the crime, she will not be believed, since she went to his room voluntarily.
The next morning, she learns from the hospital that Geng Yang has checked out of his room. She knows he has already left Muji. Not knowing what to do, she consults Haiyan, who tells her she should keep quiet about what happened and not even tell Lin until some time in the future. Over the following days, Manna is depressed, but she is relieved when she discovers she is not pregnant.
Lin returns six weeks later, and within two weeks, Manna tells him about the rape. He is angry at Geng Yang but also angry with himself, thinking that had he been more decisive he would have married Manna by now, and Geng Yang would not have been able to get at her. He also fears that Haiyan will not keep Manna's secret.
Word gets out about Manna's rape, and Mrs. Su insults her. Manna blames Haiyan, but Haiyan tells Lin it was her husband's fault: he let the secret slip out when he was drunk. The years go by, and each year, Lin fails to obtain a divorce. Finally, in 1983, he decides to bring Shuyu to the People's Court in Muji. After eighteen years' separation, he is going to divorce her, whether she agrees to it or not.
Shuyu arrives at the army hospital and receives medical treatment. The nurses are intrigued by her bound feet. She also has a haircut that makes her look ten years younger. The hairdresser tells her to sneak into Lin's bed at night, then he will not be able to divorce her. But she says she would not do that.
Lin tells Shuyu that in the divorce court she must tell the judge that she wants Lin to find a good job for Hua in the city. At the court, the divorce is approved within half an hour. After the divorce, Shuyu remains in Muji, living on her own in the dormitory house. Lin writes a letter to Hua, begging her to come to Muji, where a job awaits her. She replies that she does not want to live in the city, so Lin decides to return to his village to try to persuade her.
In the village, Bensheng informs him that a man named Second Donkey wants to buy his house. But Second Donkey has offered only three thousand yuan, whereas Lin thinks the house is worth four thousand. He also finds out that Hua has a boyfriend in the navy who is encouraging her to move to the city. That night, he and Second Donkey agree to a price of thirty-two hundred yuan for the house and furniture. Lin gets close to his daughter, which pleases him, and also quarrels with Bensheng.
Hua returns with Lin to Muji and starts a new job. Her mother goes to live with her. In November, Lin and Manna marry at a ceremony attended by half of the hospital staff and their families. Manna becomes emotional and has to go home early during the festivities. Lin finds the wedding boring.
Lin finds Manna to be passionate in bed, and he has to work hard to satisfy her. He feels he owes this to her, since she waited so long for him. His colleagues tease him because he is losing weight. He tells Manna that they should slow down and save some energy for work, and they agree to have sex less often.
In February, Manna finds she is pregnant at the age of forty-four. Lin worries about her health and suggests an abortion, but she insists on having the baby. Her pregnancy is hard. She vomits a lot and her face becomes bloated. Lin finds their married life tedious and chaotic.
Manna resents the fact that Lin goes out twice a week in the evenings to teach chemistry to a group of orderlies. She begins to feel wretched and lonely. One night she follows him and observes him through an open window as he teaches the class of young women. He seems to be enjoying himself, and she thinks he is flirting with them. The next day she rebukes Lin for taking the teaching position without consulting her. They quarrel but are later reconciled. However, Manna still feels lonely on the evenings when Lin goes out.
As her pregnancy advances, Manna grows irritable. She goes into labor prematurely, and she and Lin walk to the hospital. Haiyan, who is an obstetrician, arrives to help. After an excruciatingly painful labor, during which Manna seems almost to lose her mind and curses her husband, she gives birth to twin boys.
In the weeks following the birth, Manna gets weaker and weaker. A cardiogram indicates that she has a heart condition. Many visitors arrive with food and congratulations on the birth of the twins, who are christened River and Lake. Manna's health continues to deteriorate, and also after a couple of months, both babies develop dysentery. A number of remedies fail until a folk remedy cures them.
Lin and Manna watch a television program about people who have responded to an instruction by the party and acquired wealth through entrepreneurship. Formerly this way of making money was illegal. Manna and Lin are shocked to see Geng Yang on the screen. He has made big money by reorganizing a construction company. Manna weeps and Lin comforts her. From then on, they sleep in the same bed again, which they have not done since Manna became pregnant.
Manna's heart grows weaker, and a doctor tells Lin that she does not have many years to live. Manna's temper grows worse, and Lin struggles to get the housework done. He is grateful that Hua comes on the weekends to help. Manna eventually returns to work part-time. When Manna yells at Lin over a pot of burned rice, he storms out and asks himself whether marrying her was a wise decision.
Lin bicycles to visit Shuyu and Hua two days before the Spring Festival. They greet him warmly, and he has a feeling of being at home. But he finds their kindness hard to bear and feels he has made a mess of his life. For the first time, he expresses some affection toward Shuyu and confesses to her his sadness. He returns to Manna the next day, and together they prepare for the Spring Festival. Hua arrives and tells her father that Shuyu says she will wait for him. He says he is not a man who is worth waiting for.
Mai Dong, a young lieutenant, is in charge of a radio station at the headquarters of the Muji Sub- Command. In 1964, he meets and falls in love with Manna Wu. He wants to marry her immediately, but she persuades him that they should wait. Manna regards him as a gentle but weak man, and she wishes he were stronger. Mai Dong's radio station is transferred to a newly formed regiment nearly eighty miles away, but he is not happy there. He gets a discharge and breaks Manna's heart when he tells her he is returning to his hometown of Shanghai to marry his cousin.
Fengjin is Hua's boyfriend. He and Hua are former classmates, and he is now in the navy.
Hua Kong, the daughter of Lin and Shuyu, grows up working in the fields in Goose Village. Later she works in Bensheng's grocery store. Lin wants her to get a job in Muji City, but initially she is reluctant to do so. Eventually she agrees to make the move, and she works for the Splendor Match Plant. She lives in an apartment with her mother and proves to be a dutiful daughter. Lin is pleased that he is able to establish a warm relationship with her, despite the many years in which he barely saw her.
Lin Kong is an army officer and doctor at the army hospital in Muji City, where he has been since 1963. He is also a teacher, and one of only four medical school graduates on the hospital staff in the 1960s. Lin is a tall, quiet, good-natured man who is on good terms with everyone. For the first few years of his tenure at the hospital, he is elected model officer every year. His fondness for books earns him the nickname Scholar or Bookworm. However, Lin has not found happiness in his family life. Although Shuyu is a good wife to him, he does not love her, partly because he does not find her physically attractive. He fathers a daughter by Shuyu, but after that he ceases to have sexual relations with her and lives alone in Muji, visiting his wife in Goose Village only on annual leaves.
Lin's life changes in 1966 when he begins a romantic relationship with Manna, who is four years his junior and was formerly his student. For seventeen years Manna is his girlfriend. He keeps promising that he will divorce Shuyu and marry Manna, but he allows something to thwart him, either Shuyu's last minute change of mind or the opposition of Bensheng, his brother-in-law. Since Lin is not ruthless in pursuing his goals, his situation tends to stagnate. His indecisiveness also seems to hold him back in his career. He is too passive, unable to shape his life in a positive way. Only once does he seem to acquire a leadership position, and that is in 1966 when he is in charge of twenty-eight people on an arduous training march. But his prestige dips when his nonsexual affair with Manna is noted by his colleagues at the hospital, who no longer elect him model officer. He holds much the same job in 1983 as he did twenty years earlier, whereas other characters in the story ascend the career ladder.
Lin is aware that he lacks passion and that he does not often feel intense emotion. He will not take any risks in his relationship with Manna, which is why their love affair remains unconsummated for seventeen years. He feels little resentment when Commissar Wei shows an interest in Manna, despite the fact that he may lose her. Lin's flaw is that he is unable to develop emotionally, so he never learns how to love his wife Shuyu, even though she is devoted to him. Nor is Lin able to make a success of his second marriage, and this weighs upon his mind. He knows he should have been more decisive and married Manna sooner. He also regrets that never in his life has he loved a woman wholeheartedly. He is always ambivalent, his mind going one way then another, trying to analyze things rationally from every possible point of view. In the end he refers to himself as "a useless man," a man who has not known himself well enough to strive for his own happiness or be aware of his desires or needs.
Ren Kong is Lin's elder brother. Unlike Lin, Ren did not receive an education, since his parents expected him to work in the fields. He and Lin are therefore not close, since they did not grow up together. Ren Kong is a good-hearted man who never complains about being deprived of an education. However, he appears to have had a hard life and looks fifteen years older than his age. He is married with three sons.
Shuyu Kong is Lin Kong's wife. She married Lin in 1962, but Lin has never been happy with her. It was a marriage arranged by his parents, and as soon as he saw Shuyu he was disappointed. Even as a young woman of twenty-six, she looked like she was in her forties, with leathery hands and a wrinkled face. She also has tiny, bound feet, which are no longer fashionable. By the time Shuyu is in her late forties, she is a small, withered woman who still looks much older than her age. However, Shuyu is devoted to Lin and performs all her duties as wife without complaint. She also nurses Lin's parents in their final illnesses. She is a simple, rather naïve, illiterate woman and is quite content with her life in the village. She is a good housekeeper and frugal with her limited resources. She even manages to save some money, and instead of keeping it for herself, she tries to give it to Lin, since she thinks he must need it. When the divorce finally goes through, Shuyu accepts it, but she still thinks of Lin as a member of her family. She is pleased, for example, when she hears that Manna is pregnant because that will mean their family will become larger. Lin arranges for Shuyu to move away from Goose Village into the city, where she shares an apartment with her daughter, Hua. Shuyu adjusts well to the change in her circumstances and is content with her lot. She never reproaches Lin for deserting her. On the contrary, she continues to treat him with great warmth and kindness.
Bensheng Liu, an accountant of the production brigade, is Shuyu's younger brother. He opposes Lin's desire to seek a divorce from Shuyu and on several occasions actively intervenes to prevent it. Lin is aware of Bensheng's hostility but maintains cordial relations with him because sometimes he needs Bensheng's assistance. Even so, he does not regard Bensheng as a trustworthy man. However, in Lin's absence, Bensheng and his wife, who are childless, develop a strong bond with Hua and treat her as their own daughter. Hua is fond of her uncle Bensheng, but she also knows how greedy he is. He thinks of nothing but money, and eventually he owns a prosperous grocery store. When he hears that Lin has fathered twin sons, he is extremely jealous.
Pingping Ma is a young librarian at the hospital where Lin and Manna work. Manna thinks she is ugly, but when she sees Pingping Ma out on a walk with Lin one evening in the mid-1960s, she fears they may be involved in a romantic relationship.
Liang Meng is one of Lin's cousins. An educated man who is a middle school teacher, he is also a widower with three children. In 1972, when he tells Lin that he is seeking a girlfriend, Lin introduces him to Manna, but after Liang Meng and Manna walk together in the park, Manna tells Lin she is not interested in developing a relationship with Liang Meng.
Haiyan Niu is Manna's friend when they are both in nursing school. Manna admires the streak of wildness in Haiyan's nature and sometimes turns to her for advice, although she does not trust her friend to keep secrets. Haiyan later takes one and a half years of training to become an obstetrician, and it is she who delivers Manna's twin sons. Haiyan marries Honggan and they have a son.
Honggan Niu is married to Haiyan. He is an officer in charge of recreational activities in the Propaganda Section and later becomes vice-chairman of a lumberyard in Muji.
Second Donkey gets his nickname from his donkey-like face. He lives in Goose Village and is a friend of Bensheng. Second Donkey buys Lin's house.
Snow Goose is a nursing student who has a reputation as a flirt. She was an actress with an opera troupe but was transferred to the army hospital in Muji after she had an affair with an officer. Snow Goose, who gets her nickname from her long white neck, is one of the young women who receive instruction in chemistry from Lin after he marries Manna. Manna is jealous of her when she sees her smiling at Lin.
Mrs. Su is the wife of Ran Su. After her son drowns in a river, she becomes deranged and unreliable. She takes to insulting Manna after she hears that Manna was raped.
Ran Su is the vice-director of the hospital's political department, who eventually becomes vice-commissar and then commissar of the hospital. He is a decent, fair-minded man who wins a lot of respect at the hospital when he declines to send his wife, who suffers from dementia, to a mental asylum. Ran Su is also a friend of Lin's, since they share an interest in books.
Commissar Guohong Wei
Commissar Guohong Wei is a well educated man in his fifties with good manners. He looks more like a professor than an officer. Wei has divorced his wife and is seeking to remarry. He makes an arrangement to meet with Manna but later decides not to pursue an interest in her. In 1981, Wei dies in prison, where he had been incarcerated for his connections with the Gang of Four, a group of out-of-favor politicians.
Manna Wu is the girlfriend and then wife of Lin Kong. Manna is an orphan whose parents were killed in a traffic accident in Tibet when she was three. Raised in an orphanage in Tsingtao City, she worked for three years as a telephone operator before enrolling in 1964 at the nursing school in Muji. When she graduates she remains at the hospital as a nurse. Eventually she becomes head nurse.
Manna is tall and quite athletic, playing table tennis and volleyball, and although she is not beautiful, she has a pleasant voice. When she is a student, she dates a lieutenant named Mai Dong, and they plan to marry. But Mai Dong returns to Shanghai and marries his cousin. Manna then has difficulty finding a husband since after graduation she is twenty-six years old and considered almost an old maid. All the other nurses are much younger and it is they who receive all the attention from the male officers. It is under these circumstances—without family or a home to go to when on leave, and without good marriage prospects—that Manna begins her long friendship with Lin Kong. She is the one who initiates the romantic development of what begins as a simple friendship between teacher and student. She knows that Lin is married but convinces herself that he will leave his wife and eventually marry her.
As the years go by, Manna presses Lin to get a divorce, but she has no power to compel him. Other suitors are presented to her, such as Lin's cousin, Liang Meng, and Commissar Wei, but she remains attached to Lin. However, the love affair with Lin is never consummated during seventeen years of courtship because the strict rules of the hospital prevent them from meeting outside the hospital compound, and they are unwilling to take any risks. She loses her virginity not to Lin, but in a brutal rape by Geng Yang.
When she and Lin finally do marry, Manna releases all her pent-up sexual passion, but she also becomes irritable, moody, and irrationally jealous. She gives birth to twins at the age of forty-four, and in the midst of her agonizing pain during labor, she reveals her bitter resentment that Lin had forced her to wait so long before being able to marry and have children.
After Manna becomes a mother, her health begins to fail. She has a heart ailment and a doctor says that she has only a short while to live.
Geng Yang is a heavily built, powerful, decisive man who is an officer in the army with the Third Border Division. He is introduced to Manna when she goes to the movie with Commissar Wei. She sees him again when he is recovering from tuberculosis and is Lin's roommate. Lin likes Geng Yang because he is straightforward and carefree. He speaks his mind and expresses himself in vulgar language. Manna likes him as well, but then when she calls on him in his hospital room when Lin is out of town, Geng Yang turns vicious and rapes her. Later, in the new political atmosphere that encourages capitalism, Geng Yang becomes wealthy by reorganizing a construction company.
Duty versus Desire
Lin Kong finds himself torn between what he really desires and the demands that duty places on him. To a lesser extent, the same is true for Manna Wu. For Lin, submission to perceived duty and the will of others is a pattern established early in his life. His marriage to Shuyu was arranged for him by his parents, who wanted Lin to marry so that his bride could look after his sick mother. Lin agreed "out of filial duty." When he met Shuyu in person and was not attracted to her, he protested but still yielded to his parents' desires. So Lin carries out his duty but finds himself trapped in a shell of a marriage.
When he begins his relationship with Manna and wants to marry her, he is constrained by his duty as an army officer not to break the strict rules the hospital imposes on relations between men and women who are not married to each other. Although at the hospital everyone knows they are a couple, they cannot live together. All they can do is eat at the same mess table and take walks within the compound. They must not be together outside. In this way the society depicted attempts to frustrate individual desires and prevent liaisons between men and women which threaten to disrupt the smooth functioning of the group. The same goal, to preserve a stable social structure even if it involves the thwarting of individual desire, is apparent in the obstacles that are placed in the way of anyone seeking a divorce. The rule that an officer must wait eighteen years before he can divorce his wife without her consent is one of these restrictions. It was invented by a high-placed army bureaucrat in 1958, but no one has had the nerve to challenge it. Also, when Lin tries to obtain a divorce, he first has to obtain a letter of recommendation from his army bosses. Even then, the authorities seek to discourage him by playing on his sense of duty. In 1983, the divorce court judge, for example, sternly reminds him of his social position:
[Y]ou are a revolutionary officer and should be a model for us civilians.… This is immoral and dishonorable, absolutely intolerable.… Do you deserve your green uniform and the red star on your cap?"
The approach taken to dissuading Lin has not changed much over the years. In the late 1960s, according to the village newspaper's report of the proceedings at the divorce court, the judge tried to make him feel guilty by spouting party propaganda: "You have forgotten your class origin and tried to imitate the lifestyle of the exploiting class."
Lin is susceptible to such appeals not because he is such a fervent revolutionary officer (he does not question party doctrine but he is no zealot either) but because he is a man easily swayed by what others expect of him. It is in this sense that duty holds him back from ruthlessly pursuing what he really wants in life. He is not willing to challenge the rigid system in which he lives, that allows little deviation from the personal and career path approved by the authorities. For example, Lin is worried that if Bensheng, his brother-in-law who opposes his desire to divorce Shuyu, follows through on his threat to report him to the army authorities, he will not get a promotion that would otherwise be almost guaranteed. When Ran Su, director of the political department, calls him in to his office, Lin is fearful that the divorce court may have reported him. He does not seethe with the injustice of it and resolve to pursue his desire with more determination; he simply fears for the consequences of what he has already done. Desire is thus quashed by an array of political and psychological customs and restraints that place duty and the perceived needs of the society above desire and the need of the individual to pursue happiness.
City versus Country
Throughout the novel, there is a contrast between the countryside and the city, the old feudalism and the new communism. As a young man, Lin believes he is living in the "New China," which is modernizing and outgrowing the old ways, but he is presented with a bride from the country who has bound feet, an unmistakable sign of China's backward past. Lin thinks that people in the city would laugh at her feet, and indeed, when Shuyu does visit Muji City many years later, her small feet are an object of great curiosity to the nurses at hospital, who also laugh at the simplicity of her approach to life. For her part, Shuyu is amazed at the creature comforts that she finds in the city, and she thinks the nurses have a wonderful life, working indoors instead of toiling in the fields and wearing smart uniforms. The simple Shuyu, who does not know how to dress properly or present herself in the best light, is contrasted with Manna, the educated career woman in the city. Manna (like Lin) reads books; Shuyu is illiterate. Shuyu has no sex drive, but Manna's, when unleashed, almost proves too much for Lin. In that regard, Manna is a liberated city woman (whatever the constraints on her behavior in other areas). While Shuyu is happy to maintain a simple, sexless devotion to her husband, Manna is demanding and chronically dissatisfied with Lin.
Topics For Further Study
- What role do dreams play in the novel? What is the significance of Lin's dreams in Part 1, chapters 4 and 8, and Manna's dream in part 3, chapter 10? Write an essay in which you present your interpretation.
- Discuss the dilemma faced by Manna after she is raped. Why does she not report the crime? Research the occurrence of acquaintance rape in the United States. Then imagine that a friend of yours has been raped by an acquaintance, and write a letter to her advising her what she should do and why in response to the crime.
- Compare attitudes and policies toward divorce in China, as depicted in the novel, with divorce in the United States. Research statistics of divorce rates in China and compare them to U.S. divorce statistics. What are the differences between the two countries, and what are the causes of the differences? Make a class presentation about your findings.
- Describe some of the ways that the government or army authorities intrude on people's personal lives in the China as depicted in the novel. How do these intrusions delineate a difference between Chinese and U.S. culture, society, and politics? Write an essay in which you discuss your findings.
Values and customs are different in the rural areas. Lin realizes that it "would make no sense to anybody in the countryside" for him to divorce a wife because he does not love her. Since Shuyu does everything that is expected of a wife in the village, she would be considered beyond reproach. Practicality rather than romantic love is the determining factor. Also, in the country, the extended family living in close proximity is a more significant factor than it is in the city. Lin's brother Ran King counsels him against divorce because it would affect everybody in the family; the boys in the village have already started calling Lin's nephews names over the matter. Lin, however, accustomed to army life in the city under the direction of the ruling Communist Party, is shocked by this news. "How ridiculous people are," he thinks. "What does my marriage have to do with my nephews' lives?" Lin's alienation from these more traditional notions of family is also noticeable when Shuyu suggests that she and Lin produce a son to carry on the family line. Lin regards this as a "feudal" idea; he does not care about such things, possibly because he has been taught by the communists that the continuance of the revolutionary spirit of the party is more important than old-fashioned notions about the maintenance of a family line. Thus in the contrast between country and city is seen the contrast between the traditional China and the changes wrought by communism and emerging modernity.
Waiting tells its story of thwarted and ultimately disappointing love against what to the American reader is an exotic backdrop of Chinese society in all its variety, in which the old and the new coexist. The contrast between old and new is often apparent. For example, when Lin goes home to the village, he visits the graves of his parents, taking with him some food Shuyu has cooked, which he offers to his deceased parents. He also places some paper money around the graves, but he does not burn it as the villagers do, which is the traditional way of sending money to the nether world. How different is the scene at the wedding of Lin and Manna, in which at the beginning of the ceremony bride and groom are invited to pay tribute to the Communist Party and Chairman Mao. The couple bows three times before the portrait of the late chairman of the party and a banner displaying the communist emblem of a crossed sickle and hammer. Only after the bows are completed can the actual wedding take place. Traditional customs are thus contrasted with the new customs and rituals of China under the communists.
Folk Medicine Motif
The old China is also seen in a number of motifs (recurring elements in a literary work). One of these is Chinese folk medicine. Various remedies for ailments are mentioned. Sesame oil and walnuts are used in a recipe for curing kidney stones; Lin wonders if to satisfy Manna's sexual desire he should resort to an aphrodisiac made up of ginseng, angelica roots or seahorses, and steep them in a bottle of wheat liquor; and, most prominently, the twins' serious case of dysentery, which seems to resist all medicines, is finally cured by a concoction made up of mashed taro mixed with white sugar and egg yolk.
Another recurring motif is foot-binding. This centuries-old, widespread practice in China only died out during the twentieth century. Small feet were considered extremely attractive and increased a girl's marriage prospects. Foot-binding was begun when the girl was as young as five. The toes were folded under the foot and tightly bandaged. The procedure was painful and resulted in a deformed and stunted foot that sometimes measured no more than three inches. In the novel, Shuyu's bound feet are four inches long, and she is in effect semi-disabled, unable to fetch water from the communal well. Lin has to have a well sunk in their yard to overcome the difficulty. For his part, Lin does not like his wife's bound feet, viewing the practice as a throwback to an earlier era. Not surprisingly, when Shuyu has treatment at the army hospital in Muji, her feet are an object of great interest to the nurses, who watch her tottering about across the square. They are surprised that a woman under the age of seventy should have bound feet.
China's Cultural Revolution
In the early 1960s, when Waiting begins, China had been under communist rule for a decade and a half, since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the nation made great strides during the 1950s in modernizing its backward economy, although this was not without setbacks. The failure of the Great Leap Forward, an economic plan in the late 1950s, contributed to the famine that devastated China in 1960 and 1961.
In 1966, the period known as the Cultural Revolution began. It was set in motion by Mao and was initially directed against senior Chinese leaders such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping who Mao believed were taking the country on a backward road to capitalism. He claimed that the communist bureaucracy was in danger of becoming no better than the exploiting class they had supposedly replaced. Mao encouraged large groups of radical young people, known as Red Guards, to tear down all the old structures of society, including old customs, old ideas, and old culture. Red Guards rampaged in mobs, targeting intellectuals. Students turned on their teachers and beat and humiliated them. Then the Red Guards turned their ire on Liu, Deng, and their followers. For several years China suffered into near anarchy and chaos. Factories and schools were closed; tens of thousands of people were arbitrarily accused of being counter-revolutionaries and were executed or imprisoned. In Waiting, Manna and Lin discuss the Cultural Revolution in 1967 (part 1, chapter 6). At the army hospital in Muji, the staff had divided into two factions and would argue, each accusing the other of deviating from Mao's teachings. Manna and Lin also talk about the fighting in large cities. At one point in 1968, virtual civil war broke out as Red Guards attempted to seize government and party headquarters around the nation.
The period of violence and instability came to a gradual end during the early 1970s. The Red Guards were disbanded and sent to work in agriculture in the countryside. China remained, however, a repressive, totalitarian society. As Alan Hunter and John Sexton state in Contemporary China, China under communism was
one of the world's most regimented states. The population was organized into structures that facilitated social and political control. The mass media served as propaganda instruments, cultural life was stultifying and dissent virtually impossible."
Compare & Contrast
1960s: The Cultural Revolution produces chaos in China as revolutionary Red Guards rampage the country, attacking old institutions and condemning thousands to death for being counterrevolutionaries.
1980s: In the late 1980s, China undergoes a period of political liberalization. In 1989, large peaceful crowds gather in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to demand democratic political reform. The Chinese government declares martial law and on June 4 orders the army to attack the demonstrators. Hundreds of people are killed.
Today: China is ruled by the Communist Party. There are eight registered small parties controlled by the Communist Party but no significant political opposition groups. The Chinese government identifies the Falungong spiritual movement and the China Democracy Party as subversive groups.
1960s: China suffers from famine and its population is rapidly growing. However, the government declines to introduce a population policy.
1980s: China adopts a one-child policy in order to curb population growth. Abortion is available on demand. Propaganda, education, incentives, and coercion are all used to promote the one-child policy. The goal is zero population growth by 2000.
Today: As a result of the one-child policy, China is one of the most rapidly aging countries in the world. The one-child policy is no longer applied so rigidly.
1960s: Tensions between China and Russia are high. In 1969, Chinese and Russian forces clash at the Ussuri River on the northern Chinese frontier.
1980s: Relations between Russia and China remain poor. Both countries fear that war could break out between them. Russia's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the war in that country that continued into the 1980s, is a reminder to China of the threat posed by Soviet expansionism.
Today: In 2005, Russia and China announce a strategic partnership on a range of issues in order to counteract Western military and fiscal influence. Russia provides a significant amount of China's energy needs, and China provides financial guarantees and loans to Russia.
This is clear from at least one incident in Waiting, when the hospital's political department orders all the staff to turn in any books they have that contain "bourgeois ideology and sentiments, particularly those by foreign authors."
China in the 1980s
In 1978, Deng Xiaoping, who had been under attack during the Cultural Revolution, returned to power. His goal was to modernize Chinese agriculture, industry, science, and technology and to encourage foreign investment. These policies bore fruit in the 1980s, during which China's annual economic growth rate was about 9.5 percent. Deng also allowed the introduction of capitalistic practices into the Chinese economy. Trade and prices were influenced by market forces rather than being determined by centrally planned government production mandates. These new policies were applied at first in what were known as Special Enterprise Zones (SEZs) in south China, which received foreign investment. When the SEZs were successful, the methods they practiced were extended to other industries and other parts of the country. A new breed of Chinese entrepreneurs emerged, and the accumulation of private wealth was no longer officially disparaged. This is the context in which the incident in Waiting in which Manna watches a television show entitled To Get Rich Is Glorious should be understood. The show features people who have become rich through innovative business practices. The narrator comments:
Every one of these entrepreneurs became a legendary figure. A few years ago their ways of making money were illegal, but now the nouveaux riches were held up as examples for the masses to follow.
Waiting was received respectfully by American reviewers. "[Q]uiet but absorbing," writes the reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who notes that the novel explores the "dilemma of an ordinary man who misses the best opportunities in his life simply by trying to do his duty—as defined first by his traditional Chinese parents and later by the Communist Party." For this reviewer, the strongest section of the novel is part 3, when Lin and Manna are married: "the final chapters are moving and deeply ironic."
Entertainment Weekly praises the author's "unnerving insight" and "elegant irony." A reviewer in the New Yorker writes admiringly of "This suspenseful and bracingly tough-minded love story" and notes that "No one questions the state's right to control its citizens' hearts—and loins—and Jin's characters are as free of Freudian insights as they are of the traditions of romantic love." In Time, Paul Gray notes that Jin "casts a wise, rather than a cold, eye on his characters' struggles, both with an inflexible social system and their own weaknesses." Gray also expresses the view that Waiting is a "deliciously comic novel," pointing out Jin's "impeccably deadpan manner."
Francine Prose wrote a long review of Jin's novel in the New York Times Book Review. Like Gray, Prose comments on the humor in the novel, especially in the section in which Lin writes an essay on Walt Whitman's poetry in order to help Manna. Prose is also full of praise for Jin's "deceptively simple fiction [that] resonate[s] on many levels: the personal, the historical, the political," and gives much insight in a small space to Chinese society from the 1960s to the 1980s. Noting that "Throughout the book, tender private dramas are enacted against the coarse backdrop of party ideology," Prose argues that the tension in the novel is generated by "the force with which [Manna and Lin] are constantly pulled in several directions."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, he analyzes Waiting as a novel of character, focusing on the protagonist, Lin Kong, and the foil with whom he is contrasted, Geng Yang.
Waiting is primarily a novel of character, and the character in question is Lin Kong. Like that other great literary procrastinator, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Lin is more suited to thinking than to acting. His chronic indecisiveness in pursuing his relationship with Manna condemns him, and her, to a life of "waiting." Too passive to initiate action, he allows his life to be shaped by others. Moreover, just as Hamlet has a foil in the character of Laertes, who does not hesitate to take decisive action, so Lin Kong has a foil in the character Geng Yang. (A foil is a character that sets off another character by contrast.)
Geng Yang is everything Lin Kong is not. When Manna first meets him, she finds him interesting because he is so unlike anyone else she has known, so "manly," which is not a word that could be used to describe the quiet, bespectacled, scholarly Lin. Lin is a rather refined man, whereas Geng Yang is coarse and vulgar in his speech. When he and Lin are both recovering from tuberculosis and share a room in the hospital, Geng Yang makes suggestive comments about the nurses and questions Lin about whether Manna is really a virgin. However, Lin does not allow this direct approach to offend him; on the contrary, he likes Geng Yang, seeing him as "a man full of certainty and capable of decisive action, a real go-getter." Since it is common for people to admire in others what they lack in themselves, it is perhaps not surprising that Lin is drawn to this no-nonsense military man who knows how to get what he wants and does not allow obstacles, whether internal or external, to stop him. Indeed, it is Geng Yang who comes up with the idea of bribing someone in the village so that Lin will be able to get the divorce he so badly wants.
Geng Yang is also shrewd in his assessment of others. He quickly takes stock of Lin, and his observation is absolutely accurate. This is what he tells Lin when they are both in the hospital:
I know your type. You're always afraid that people will call you a bad man. You strive to have a good heart. But what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat. Your problem originates in your own character, and you must first change yourself. Who said "Character is fate?"
When Lin replies, "Beethoven," Geng Yang's response is, "Yes. You know so much, but you can't act decisively." Geng Yang's point is that what happens to people in their lives is a product of their own character, not the result of external causes or some unalterable fate. He then goes on to produce a saying of Chairman Mao that says much the same thing. Geng Yang well knows how to get through to Lin, the obedient party member who has been known to lecture at the hospital on the work of Chairman Mao.
Of course, Geng Yang later demonstrates by his brutal rape of Manna that a comparison between him and Lin does not in the end come out in his favor. Lin is a moral man who would never force himself on a woman. But certainly his basic goodness is compromised by his inability to act decisively, with courage and determination. After many years of their long-drawn-out attachment, Manna is well aware of this aspect of his personality: "She knew the workings of his mind: he would always choose an easy way out." At one point she berates him for his attempt to think through their situation. "All you can do is think, think, think," she says with exasperation and rushes out through the door.
Lin's indecisiveness stems in part from the fact that he does not know how to love fully. He is incapable of loving his first wife, Shuyu, despite her many years of loyalty and devotion to him. He simply does not, until the very end of the novel, see her as a person in her own right, with desires and emotions of her own. Since he lacks empathy, he is stuck on the surface of things, influenced by relatively trivial matters such as Shuyu's unprepossessing appearance. During his long courtship with Manna, he thinks he loves her, but he loves her in a detached kind of way, without passion. It is as if all the passion has been bled out of him. For seventeen years, Lin is content not to have sex with either Shuyu or Manna (or anyone else), and in one of the book's richly comic episodes, he is barely able to satisfy Manna when her desire is finally unleashed after their marriage. Lin also realizes after finally entering into the marriage that he sought for so long that he cannot give his heart fully to Manna, or to anyone.
There may be a reason for Lin's personality flaws located in the society and the times in which he lives. In an interview published in Asia Week in 1999, the author himself, Ha Jin, commented that Lin's inability to love may
allegorically … sum up a sort of internal psychological damage to the Chinese [after the Cultural Revolution]. I think one of the major tasks of the Revolution was to disable people so they can't love others—disable emotions, so that psychological energy, sexual energy or creative energy could be focused on the revolutionary cause.
This is an interesting explanation, coming from a man who lived through the Cultural Revolution as a child. Certainly, much of Lin Kong's energy is channeled into his work. At one point, he deliberately wears himself out working, so that he will go straight to sleep at night rather than thinking endlessly about his situation with Manna. Although he does not come across as a man fanatically devoted to the revolutionary cause, he is quietly supportive of it. He does not question the wisdom of Chairman Mao or the right of the authorities to dictate to him what he should do. He is submissive to authority and scared of taking risks. He internalizes all the rules imposed on him and genuinely thinks they are for the best.
What happens in the case of Lin is that the psychic and sexual energy—to use Jin's terms—that should be directed outward gets turned inward and results in feelings of guilt, self-reproach, and self-doubt. Lin knows that he has failed those who are close to him. After Manna tells him about the rape, he blames himself for his indecisiveness, thinking that had he married Manna, Geng Yang would not have been able to commit his crime. "Such a wimp!" he curses himself. His laments gather force in part 3 of the novel, after his second marriage, when the consequences of his actions over many years become most painfully apparent to him. When he reads the passionate love letters Manna received from Mai Dong, he realizes that "Never had he experienced that kind of intense emotion for a woman; never had he written a sentence charged with that kind of love." He tries to figure out why that should be, concluding that perhaps it was because he had read too much or was better educated or that he was a scientist by training: "Knowledge chills your blood." By the penultimate chapter of the novel, when it is clear that his marriage is not destined to be a happy one, his introspection reaches its most profound level as he engages in a dialogue with himself about his feelings for Manna. A voice inside tells him that he has never really loved Manna and that he knows very little about love. He has never known his own mind or his own heart. This inner voice rises to a crescendo filled with regret and self-loathing: "Fool … Eighteen years, the prime of your life, gone, wasted, and they led you to this damned marriage. You're a model fool!"
What Do I Read Next?
- Da Chen comes from the same Chinese generation as Ha Jin. Like Jin, he writes in English and lives in the United States. His The Colors of the Mountains (2001) is an autobiographical coming-of-age tale that gives vivid insight into the devastating effects on a family of China's Cultural Revolution and tells of Chen's own triumph over adversity.
- Ocean of Words: Stories (1996) is Ha Jin's first collection of short stories. They are set on China's northern border in the 1970s, when tensions between Russia and China were high and many feared that war was imminent. Ha Jin draws on his own experience of army life at the border during this period to create stories about the lives of the Chinese soldiers who live in close proximity to one another and share emotions such as fear, curiosity, and embarrassment. Although the situations may be remote from the experience of American readers, Ha Jin writes with such insight and humanity that the reader cares about the characters.
- Spring Moon (reprint edition, 1990), by Bette Bao Lord, is a portrait of five generations of a Chinese family, from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century. It also gives vivid insight into the huge political and social upheavals that took place during this period. The main character is Spring Moon, a daughter of the wealthy house of Chang.
- The Three-Inch Golden Lotus (1985), by Chi- Tsai Feng, is a novel that focuses on the traditional but long-discontinued Chinese practice of foot-binding. Set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the novel follows the story of a girl called Fragrant Lotus, whose elegantly bound feet attract the attentions of the wealthy Tong Ren-an. Tong chooses his daughters-in-law based on what he regards as the beauty of their bound feet. After Tong's death, Fragrant Lotus, whose entire success in life has been based on her bound feet, has to deal with the rise of the Natural Foot Society, which calls for an end to foot-binding.
- Snake's Pillow, and Other Stories (1998), by Zhu Lin, consists of six stories set in contemporary China. Set in the rural area of Jiangnan in east-central China, most of the stories focus on the lives of women and how, in a changing society, they are exploited by men.
Against this background of Lin's remorse, the final scene of the novel, in which Lin visits Shuyu and Hua in their urban apartment, becomes deeply poignant. It is also replete with irony. As Lin and Manna sink into unhappiness, Shuyu flourishes, looking healthy and younger in her new environment. Lin is deeply touched by the peaceful life created by mother and daughter and feels he is at home, even though he is not at home—he is merely visiting the woman he deserted for another. When he drinks too much and calls Shuyu his sweetheart, it is the first time he has ever said an endearment to her. In an ironic reversal, he begs Shuyu to wait for him, since Manna has only a short time to live. Thus the wheel turns full circle, and the "waiting" which characterizes the life of this "superfluous man" (as he disparagingly refers to himself) goes on. This is a man who did not appreciate what he had until he threw it away. The final impression left on the reader is that the most appealing character in the novel is not the procrastinating, inadequate Lin but his ex-wife Shuyu, who in her quiet dignity and devotion, her simplicity, her optimism and her refusal to complain about her lot deserves far more than her emotionally crippled ex-husband ever gave her.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Waiting, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, Garner comments on Ha Jin's mastery of written English, his struggles with spoken English, and on how he is someone who seems to not have fully immersed himself in American culture.
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Source: Dwight Garner, "Ha Jin's Cultural Revolution: The Émigré Novelist, a Former Soldier under Mau, Still Has Trouble Speaking English. So How Can He Write like Henry James?" in New York Times Magazine, February 6, 2000, pp. 38-41.
In the following essay, Simon discusses how Ha Jin's characters struggle with the waiting imposed on them because of love, a repressive political structure, and social customs.
When Ha Jin came to America in 1985 to become a graduate student at Brandeis University, he and his wife left their two-year-old son in their native China. Four years later, the massacre at Tiananmen Square awakened Jin to the realities of Chinese politics and convinced him to change his plans to return home after completing his degree. Instead, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, he managed to extricate his young child from, as he put it, "the middle of the chaos." He would never return, he decided, as much for his son as for himself. "The government [is] so cruel," Jin told an interviewer later. "People died for no other reason, just for a bunch of old hooligans who want to keep in power. I was really very embittered. I wanted him to be American. That was very clear. That was one of the reasons I decided to stay."
Jin's feelings of embitterment and disillusion have informed his fiction: Under the Red Flag, which earned him the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 1996; Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1997; and now Waiting, the winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction.
In all these works, Jin explores the lives of ordinary men and women as they confront tensions between traditional values and new political imperatives. They struggle for status, power, and wealth in the baffling and threatening new social order generated by the Cultural Revolution.
Waiting focuses on the plight of star-crossed lovers whose public obligations conflict with their personal desires. More than a tale of thwarted love, the novel is an indictment of the repressive political structure and social customs, corruption, and deeply embedded psychological constraints that shape contemporary Chinese culture.
In simple, precise prose (Jin has been writing in English, his adopted language, since 1988), the novel tells the story of Lin Kong, a Chinese army doctor working in the small city of Muji, and his eighteen-year-long, unconsummated affair with Manna Wu, a nurse at the hospital, from the time they meet in 1966. The two cannot marry until Lin divorces his wife, which requires her consent, or until the couple has lived apart for eighteen years—an arbitrary number invented by a powerful bureaucrat. Each summer, Lin returns home to the hamlet of Goose Village to persuade his wife, Shuyu, to grant him a divorce. Each summer she agrees; but as soon as she faces the judge, she recants and refuses. Lin can do nothing, he thinks, but return to Manna and repeat the process the next year.
As Jin chronicles Lin's frustrated efforts to liberate himself from his marriage, we become intimately acquainted with village life and Shuyu's place within her culture. Unlike most modern women, Shuyu had her feet bound as a child, a process that she recalls as excruciatingly painful. But her mother was convinced that small feet— "called Golden Lotus, like a treasure," Shuyu explains—would make her a prize in marriage. "Mother said it's my second chance to marry good, 'cause my face ugly. You know, men are crazy about lotus feet in those days. The smaller your feet are, the better looking you are to them." But bound feet, far from attracting Lin, repulsed him.
He and Shuyu had been brought together by a matchmaker at the request of his parents, while Lin was a medical student. His mother was ill, and his father urged Lin to find a wife so there would be someone to help with housekeeping. Lin agreed, but when he finally met the woman chosen for him, he was deeply disappointed: Shuyu looked older than her years, she was illiterate, and her bound feet, he decided, made her a laughingstock. But when he tried to break the engagement, his parents reminded him that the village would censure him. They convinced him that Shuyu's kindness outweighed her lack of beauty.
After they were married, Lin never allowed Shuyu to visit him at the army hospital—her appearance embarrassed him—and although he returned to her every summer and had a child with her, they essentially lived apart. While he was away, she cared for her in-laws through their last illnesses, brought up her daughter, Hua, and remained devoted to Lin. Her refusal to divorce came not from anger or spite but out of an abiding love for her husband. Jin presents Shuyu as a woman whose life is bound by hardship and, despite Lin's financial support, relative poverty, yet she shows no resentment toward her husband, only hopefulness that one day he will return and love her.
Shuyu emerges as the most sympathetic character in this novel, capable of deep love and devotion, aware of her own feelings, yet necessarily resigned to powerlessness in her marriage and her culture. Her only power lies in her refusal to grant Lin a divorce, and here she does manage to exert her will and thwart her husband's plans. Lin, on the other hand, is overwhelmed by the constraints imposed upon him politically, socially, and culturally. As a man and an army officer, he would seem to have a position of power, but the reality is far different. He feels always subjected to the judgment of others: his fellow officers, his superiors, his roommates, and even Manna. Coveting yearly election as a model officer, he usually gains this prize. After his relationship with Manna becomes hospital gossip, he fails the election for the first time.
Lin is shaken when he learns the reasons:
Some people complained about his lifestyle. One officer reported that Lin once had not stood at attention like others when the national anthem was broadcast, even though they had been in the bathhouse, all naked in the pool. A section chief remarked that Lin shouldn't keep his hair so long and parted right down the middle. The hairstyle made him look like a petty intellectual, like those in the movies.
Immediately, Lin asks one of his roommates to give him a crew cut. Yet he knows that his appearance is only part of the reason others voted against him. He guesses that a much more serious offense is his reluctance, at political studies meetings, to disclose "his inmost thoughts, as though he were supposed to make a self-criticism."
Lin has little ability for self-reflection—even the self-criticism demanded by the political system. He never fully understands his feelings toward Shuyu, Manna, or his daughter. His plea for divorce becomes a rote activity, enacted largely to please Manna, who herself seems motivated as much by the public perception of her relationship with Lin as by her own feelings. In Manna, we see Shuyu's counterpart in a so-called modern woman, modestly educated and living independently. Still, Manna knows that her future lies in marriage—and not just to anyone but to a man of some stature in the community. Her marketability as a wife, however, depends heavily on her reputation: She must be a woman whose behavior and appearance are without blemish. And she must wait for a man to choose her.
During her protracted relationship with Lin, at one point she is singled out as a possible mate for Commissar Wei, a high-ranking official in his fifties who divorced his first wife and has asked his subordinates to recommend a replacement. Under the circumstances, Lin cannot object to the match, and Manna agrees that "this was an opportunity she shouldn't miss. The man was a top officer in the province—if her relationship with him developed successfully," she thinks, "he could arrange for her to be transferred. Possibly the commissar could place her in a crash program for training doctors or in a college to earn a diploma."
Wei meets Manna, they attend a showing of a sentimental Korean movie at the Workers' Cultural Palace, and he presents Manna with a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, with instructions that she write a response about it and send it to him. Manna is worried by this gesture, as is Lin: They both see the assignment as a test. "You must take the report seriously," Lin tells her and agrees to help her write it. Lin, one of the few men in his community who reads anything besides political tracts and the work of Chairman Mao, is gravely disturbed by the book:
To him, this was a bizarre, wild book of poetry that had so many bold lines about sexuality that it could be interpreted either as obscenity or as praise of human vitality. Moreover, the celebration of the poet's self seemed to verge on a kind of megalomania that ought to be condemned. But … on the whole this must be a good, healthy book; otherwise the commissar wouldn't have let Manna read it.
Lin decides to focus his attention on Whitman's celebration of the working class, but he is stumped when he tries to elaborate on the symbolic meaning of grass. Finally, he manages to assert that "the grass gathered the essence of heaven and earth, yin and yang, and the material and the spiritual, and that it unified the body and the soul, the living and the dead, celebrating the infinity and abundance of life. In brief, it was a very progressive symbol, charged with the proletarian spirit." As confident as they can be that Lin's report is satisfactory and politically correct, Manna copies it over and sends it to Commissar Wei. Then, as she has done in so many other circumstances, she waits.
Weeks later, Manna learns from a hospital aide that the commissar has decided not to pursue his relationship with her. Although her report impressed him, her handwriting did not. Wei, in the process of preparing a book manuscript, "needed someone whose handwriting was handsome to help him with secretarial work." Manna was not in love with or even attracted to Wei, but his reaction was humiliating, subjecting her to public ridicule. "What," she asks herself, "was more fearful than being surrounded by gossiping tongues?" In her world, nothing could be worse.
The next page
When Lin finally is granted his divorce, he feels that "a new page of his life" surely will open. But this new page contains some surprising revelations. First, the divorce inspires him to establish a relationship with Hua, whom he had neglected throughout her childhood and youth. Shuyu's only demand in agreeing to the divorce is that Lin find a job for Hua in the city, liberating her from the demeaning poverty of Goose Village. Hua, though, is not convinced that city life would be a benefit; she wants to stay in the country, she tells her father, and become "a socialist peasant of the new type." Lin is angered that his daughter has thoughtlessly swallowed such propaganda, and he goes to Goose Village to persuade her to start a new life for herself in Muji. Western readers are unlikely to believe that affixing labels to matchboxes at the Splendor Match Plant could offer a desirable future, but in fact, Hua discovers that the job, which comes with dormitory housing and a decent salary, offers her a new level of self-respect— certainly it is better than life in Goose Village.
Throughout the novel, Jin offers readers a vivid and indelible portrait of rural and provincial landscapes, realized in a few deft strokes. Here, for example, is what Lin sees when he returns to Goose Village to persuade Hua to come to the city:
On the ground, near the wattle gate of the vegetable garden, was spread a bloody donkey's hide. It was almost covered up by dead greenheads. Judging by the sweetish odor still emanating from the skin, a lot of dichlorvos had been sprayed on it to prevent maggots. The air also smelled meaty and spicy, with a touch of cumin, prickly ash, and magnolia-vine. Hua, a violet towel covering her hair, was stirring something in a cauldron set on a makeshift fireplace built of rocks.
What she is stirring is five-flavored donkey meat, the flesh of her uncle's prized possession, the animal on which he depended to transport groceries and supplies. No one can allow a dead animal simply to rot away, so, thinking he would get more money from cooked meat than raw, Hua's uncle enlisted her help in cooking a vat of stew to sell to villagers. From this scene, Lin is convinced, more than ever, that he must rescue his daughter; and he experiences, unexpectedly, a passionate and heartfelt impulse.
Besides becoming closer to Hua, Lin, once divorced, also discovers a new relationship with Shuyu, who leaves Goose Village to live with Hua in the city. For the first time in her life, Shuyu has her hair cut professionally, and as her appearance changes, so do her spirits and her outlook on life. Lin realizes that she is a woman with whom he could have a real friendship; he realizes, in the end, how much he loves her. But of course, it is too late.
Although Jin admits that he intended the novel to be a universal story of a man's inability to love and appreciate what he has when he has it, Lin is an unlikely candidate for Everyman. His passivity seems both anachronistic and connected to his unique historical and cultural context. With his limited perspective, circumscribed experiences, and lack of connection to literature, philosophy, art, and psychology—sources that might give him insight into his own feelings and behavior—Lin is unable to act on his own behalf or even to understand what he truly wants.
At the end of the novel, Lin engages in conversation with an inner voice that forces him to examine his feelings about Manna and his own responsibility for his fate. As Jin presents it, this is the first such reflection that Lin has ever had about his life, but it leaves him only "weary," feeling "too old to take any action," and wistful about the life he might have had. A visit to Shuyu and Hua intensifies his feeling of regret and impotence. But what can be done? He has married Manna, they are parents of infant twin sons, and he is caught, once again, in a web of circumstances. His only way out, he thinks, will come through external change: Manna has a bad heart; she cannot last much longer; and Shuyu lives just minutes away.
The story, then, ends as it began: Manna is waiting, only now, she awaits death; Shuyu is waiting, hopefully as ever, for her husband to return; and Lin is waiting: for love, liberation, or perhaps an inner revolution that, Ha Jin implies, is the only real basis for cultural enlightenment.
Source: Linda Simon, "Love among the Revolutionaries— Chinese Expatriate Ha Jin Writes of Love, Freedom, and Repression in His Native Land," in World and I, Vol. 15, No. 5, May 2000, p. 247.
Chun, Kim, "Author Ha Jin on the Rewards of Waiting; Emory University Professor Talks About His Novel," in AsianWeek.Com, Vol. 21, No. 17, December 16, 1999, http://www.asianweek.com/1999_12_16/ae_hajinwaiting .html (accessed September 5, 2006).
Gray, Paul, "Divorce, Chinese-Style: A Fine First Novel, Waiting, Revels in One Man's Comically Thwarted Quest for Personal Happiness," in Time, Vol. 154, No. 19, November 8, 1999, p. 144.
Hunter, Alan, and John Sexton, Contemporary China, Macmillan, 1999, p. 27.
Jin, Ha, Waiting: A Novel, Pantheon Books, 1999.
Prose, Francine, "The 18-Year-Itch: In Ha Jin's Novel, a Doctor and the Woman He Loves Must Wait Nearly Two Decades to Consummate Their Relationship," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 104, No. 43, October 24, 1999, p. 9.
Review of Waiting, in Entertainment Weekly, October 29, 1999, p. 107.
Review of Waiting, in New Yorker, November 1, 1999, p. 114.
Review of Waiting, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 34, August 23, 1999, p. 42.
Bonavia, David, The Chinese, Penguin, 1989.
Bonavia is a journalist who has lived and worked in China, and his book presents a realistic picture of life in China in the 1980s. Bonavia describes every aspect of Chinese life from city to country, covering such topics as education, crime, birth control policy, marriage, sex, and consumerism, as well as Chinese language and literature, economic and foreign policy, and the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.
Davis, Marcia, "Work of Heart: Honored for His Fiction, Ha Jin Considers the Facts of His Life," in Washington Post, May 14, 2005, p. C0l.
This is an interview with Jin after he was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for the second time, for his 2004 novel, War Trash. Jin speaks about his life, his literary achievements, and his plans for future works.
Geyh, Paula E., "An Interview with Ha Jin," in Boulevard, Vol. 17, No. 3, Spring 2003, pp. 127-40.
In this interview, Ha Jin discusses his life and work.
Sturr, Robert D., "The Presence of Walt Whitman in Ha Jin's Waiting," in Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, Summer 2002, pp. 1-18.
Sturr discusses the influence of Whitman on Jin, the prominence given to Whitman's Leaves of Grass in Waiting, and what purpose it serves. Sturr also discusses the Cultural Revolution in China and how it affected attitudes toward American poets and writers such as Whitman.