Under the Hawthorn Tree
This novel first appeared on the pseudonymous author’s website in 2007, sold millions of copies, has been filmed, and is now available in English translation. Translator Anna Holmwood’s introduction says the book is an example of “scar literature,” a genre that tries to come to terms with the Cultural Revolution period in Chinese history.
In the early 1970s, high school student Jingqiu’s mother struggles to feed her daughters on a teacher’s salary. Jingqiu gets sent to a small village for a protracted school assignment. Her host family introduces her to Sun Jianxin, nicknamed Old Third, as he is close enough to them to be like a third brother. Because of her own family’s political taint of being “bad class,” Jingqiu is afraid both of gossip and of incriminating Old Third by association. So she tries to keeps him at arm’s length, refusing gifts and avoiding being seen together with him. But when Jingqiu may have a chance at a teaching job upon graduation, the political situation requires that she choose between supporting her family and a future with Sun Jianxin.
Jingqiu will seem unbelievably naïve about sex to Western readers, but Holmwood says that “it shows the startlingly intimate reach of politics in that period.” The romance is Romeo-and-Juliet bittersweet. I liked learning about life during the Cultural Revolution, such as Jingqiu having to refuse payment for sewing clothes for her neighbors so she wouldn’t be accused of running a black market. Recommended to both romance fans and those interested in Chinese history.