Originally discovered from an online blog, Under the Hawthorn Tree has sold more than one million copies in China alone. It has been made into a feature film, directed by the well-known director Zhang Yimou, and has been bought by publishers in more than 15 countries. Adding to the excitement, Ai Mi is a pen name, and no one knows exactly who this author is. Rumour has it that she is between the ages of 50-60, was born in China but now lives in Florida, and that she based this novel on the journals of someone she was friends with in China.
Under the Hawthorn Tree is a tragic love story that takes place during China's Cultural Revolution, a socio-political movement to enforce socialism that took place between 1966 and 1976. The novel begins in the spring of 1974, as Jingqiu and three other teenage students from the city are sent to the country to interview people for a textbook they are writing. Young Jingqiu is incredibly sexually innocent. From a 21st-century Canadian perspective, her naiveté seems unbelievable, but this novel comes from a time and place where this might well be true. She is also politically and financially doomed. Her father is a political prisoner and her mother, a teacher, has been branded as a "capitalist."
When Jingqiu falls in love with Old Third, the son of a powerful army general, the relationship is hopeless from the outset. Not only do they come from different classes, but marriage between youths, who should be concentrating only on the general good, is hugely discouraged. Jingqiu struggles to interpret Old Third's advances but is left confused and worried. Jingqiu does her best to put Old Third out of her mind, but their love is too strong, and soon they are sneaking around to see each other.
In a series of moves and visits between country and city, through summer temporary work and school work, Old Third and Jingqiu develop a fraught romantic relationship. Miscommunication abounds. This is the stuff of Romeo and Juliet: romance and tragedy. The ending is heartbreaking.
This is a simple book about tragic love. But set in this time period, in this culture, the novel takes on a very complex topic: romantic versus political belief. How selfish to be in love. Ai Mi portrays the era in stark relief. Every step taken is one that could ruin your life and your family's. Every step not taken does the same. And when you are ignorant about sex and love, every little movement becomes magnified.
Quite a few love stories are melodramatic, and this one is no exception. Jingqiu's innocence, her confusion and suffering, are discussed by Anna Holmwood, the translator, in her introduction. She states that Jingqiu's sexual innocence "shows the startlingly intimate reach of politics in that period." This book could, therefore, be more about the Cultural Revolution than about romantic love. Holmwood, rightly, says that Under the Hawthorn Tree holds at stake "innocence, both of the individual and of society at large, in the face of the corrupting influence of extreme politics." For this, if nothing else, this book should be read.
Michelle Berry teaches creative writing for the University of Toronto/The New York Times. Her most recent book is I Still Don't Even Know You.