Excerpt of The Bridegroom by Ha Jin
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A Tiger-Fighter Is Hard to Find
We were overwhelmed by a letter from the provincial governor's office. It praised our TV series Wu Song Beat the Tiger. The governor was impressed by the hero, who fought the tiger single-handedly and punched it to death. The letter read: "We ought to create more heroic characters of this kind as role models for the revolutionary masses to follow. You, writers and artists, are the engineers of the human soul. You have a noble task on your hands, which is to strengthen people's hearts and instill into them the spirit that fears neither heaven nor earth." But the last paragraph of the letter pointed out a weakness in the key episode, which was that the tiger looked fake and didn't present an authentic challenge to the hero. The governor wondered if we could improve this section, so that our province might send the series to Beijing before the end of the year.
That evening we had a meeting and decided to reshoot the tiger-fighting scene. Everybody was excited, because if the series was sent to the capital, it meant we'd compete for a national prize. We decided to let Wang Huping take the part of the hero again, since the governor had been impressed with him in the first version. He was more than happy to do it. Now the problem was the tiger. First, a real animal would cost a fortune. Second, how could we shoot a scene with such a dangerous animal?
With the governor's letter in hand, we obtained a grant from the Municipal Administration without difficulty. Four men were dispatched to Jilin Province to bring back a tiger just caught on Ever White Mountain. By law we were not allowed to acquire a protected animal, but we got papers that said we needed it for our city's zoo. A week later, the four men returned with a gorgeous Siberian tiger.
We all went to see the animal, which was being held in a cage in the backyard of our office building. It was a male, weighing over three hundred pounds. Its eyes glowed with a cold, brown light, and its scarlet tongue seemed wet with blood. What a thick coat it had, golden and glossy! Its black stripes would ripple whenever it shook its head or stretched its neck. I was amazed at how small its ears were, not much larger than a dog's. But it smelled awful, like ammonia.
We were told to feed it ten pounds of mutton a day. This was expensive, but if we wanted to keep it in good shape, we had no choice.
Wang Huping seemed a little unnerved by the tiger. Who wouldn't be? But Huping was a grand fellow: tall, muscular, straight-shouldered, and with dreamy eyes that would sparkle when he smiled. I would say he was the most handsome young man in our Muji City, just as his nickname, Prince, suggested. A girl told me that whenever he was nearby, her eyes would turn watery. Another girl said that whenever he spoke to her, her heart would pound and her face would burn with a tickle. I don't know if any of that was true.
A few days before the shooting, Director Yu, who used to be a lecturer at a cinema school in Shanghai, gave Huping a small book to read. It was The Old Man and the Sea, by an American author, whose name has just escaped me.
The director told Huping, "A man's not born to be defeated, not by a shark or a tiger."
"I understand," said Huping.
That was what I liked most about him. He wasn't just handsome, like a flowered pillowcase without solid stuff in it; he studied serious books and was learned, different from most of us, who merely read picture books and comics. If he didn't like a novel, he would say, "Well, this isn't literature." What's more, he was skilled in kung fu, particularly mantis boxing. One night last winter, he was on his way back to his dorm when four thugs stopped him and demanded he give them his wallet. He gave them a beating instead. He felled them with his bare hands and then dragged the ringleader to a nearby militia headquarters. For that, he got written about in the newspapers. Later, he was voted an outstanding actor.
Excerpted from The Bridegroom by Ha Jin Copyright© 2000 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.