Reading guide for The Bridegroom by Ha Jin

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The Bridegroom

Stories

by Ha Jin

The Bridegroom
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2000, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2001, 240 pages

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of The Bridegroom, Ha Jin's latest collection of short fiction.

About this book

With these tales - three of which have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories - Ha Jin returns to Muji City, the same provincial city in northern China that was the setting of his National Book Award-winning novel Waiting. The stories take place in contemporary times, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, as the repressive years of Maoist reeducation give way to a new and often confusing set of circumstances. China remains an essentially communist nation, but begins cautiously to open itself to individual entrepreneurship in business. With the great majority of people still working in state-owned industries, political situations are inseparable from the details of everyday life. As the characters in these stories struggle to make a living, they cope with government bureaucracy and the occasional intrusion of communist party officials into their domestic affairs.

In the title story a handsome young man marries a homely girl, to the surprise and relief of her guardian. But good fortune gives way to grief when the man is found guilty of the "bourgeois crime" of homosexuality. In "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town," an American-run fried chicken restaurant creates conflict among its Chinese workers, who find to their dismay that American enterprise has its own set of injustices. And in "Alive," a man who has traveled on business to a distant city is injured in an earthquake, loses his memory, and marries a woman whose family has been killed, only to suddenly remember the family he left behind. When he returns to them, he finds that since he has been presumed dead, he has lost his job and his apartment, and he begins to regret his decision to come home. The stories in The Bridegroom, in all their humor and sadness, are expressions of their author's unswervingly realistic perspective on human nature and on life in contemporary China.


Discussion Questions
  1. In "Saboteur," the protagonist is victimized by a couple of police officers who arrest him on false charges and release him only when he agrees to sign the incriminating "self-criticism" they have written for him. His revenge is deliberate and ultimately murderous. Given that he thinks the situation is "ridiculous" [p. 10], are Mr. Chiu's acts of retaliation and anger even more unjust than those of the police officers who mistreated him? Does Ha Jin imply that Mr. Chiu's sort of rage is spurred by the particular abuses of power in Chinese society? How might such a story be transposed to an American situation?
  2. Revenge also figures powerfully in "Flame." When Nimei decided to marry Jiang Bing, Hsu Peng's last words to her were, "I hate you! I'll get my revenge" [p. 130]. What is lacking in Nimei's life that she is willing to indulge in romantic speculation about Hsu Peng's impending visit and allow herself to forget his promise of vengeance? What distinguishes the acts of revenge in "Saboteur" and "Flame"? Where are the reader's sympathies in "Flame"? What is so particularly fitting about the way Hsu Peng triumphs over Nimei?
  3. Which aspects of "Alive" are most cruelly ironic? Does Guhan do the right thing by leaving his new family and returning to his old one, or would he have been better off staying in Taifu? If you have read Waiting, how is "Alive" reminiscent of that novel?
  4. In several stories, a character's sexual activity is featured as a central problem, largely because sexuality is not a purely private matter. In "The Bridegroom," the title character is arrested for being homosexual. In "Broken," a young woman is put on trial for her active sexual life and eventually kills herself by drinking pesticide (a common form of suicide in rural China, particularly among women). What statement, if any, is Ha Jin making about the relationship between private sexual persona and public image? In each story, how does the narrator protect himself from the shame of contact with those who are sexually aberrant?
  5. From the questions Mr. Chiu is asked at the police station in "Saboteur" [p. 7], it is clear that one's profession, work unit, and political status are the most relevant official markers of an individual's identity. To what degree do they also determine a person's private sense of self? Does this story and others in The Bridegroom suggest that it is impossible to protect one's privacy or individual rights in Chinese society? How does the bureaucratic nature of life in these stories affect people's relationships with their peers?
  6. The path of love is never smooth in Ha Jin's world: think for instance of the ill-matched couple in "Flame," or of Guhan's two marriages in "Alive." What are the forces that determine--or undermine--romantic attachments in the stories of The Bridegroom? Why, for instance, does Ha Jin make the protagonist of "Saboteur" a man who is just returning from his honeymoon? What does his attitude towards his new wife tell us about his character?
  7. In the new China, people are freer to pursue entrepreneurial ambitions and even to travel if they choose to, as is seen in "An Entrepreneur's Story" and "The Woman from New York." Liu Feng, the narrator of "An Entrepreneur's Story," accounts for his sudden elevation in social status by explaining, "People love money" [p. 120]. On the other hand Jinli, in "The Woman from New York," gets nothing but disrespect for having gone to New York and acquired some wealth. What might be the reason for the difference in people's responses to Liu Feng and Jinli?
  8. Consider the use of narrative point of view in the story "An Official Reply." What is the narrator's motivation for presenting his former teacher in this way? In the end does he reveal more about himself or his teacher? What emotions underlie his letter? Are there other characters in this collection of stories who display a similar egocentrism?
  9. The often absurd situations described in "A Tiger-Fighter Is Hard to Find" are brought about by a letter the television production team has received from the provincial governor's office: "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" [p. 54]. How do the details of the story--and the fate of Wang Huping--compare in juxtaposition to this rhetoric? What might Ha Jin be suggesting about the relationship between art and ideology?
  10. What are some of the details that make "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town" such a memorable story? Here and in "A Bad Joke," how are human failings such as naiveté and wishful thinking used to humorous effect? What purpose does Ha Jin's use of humor serve?
  11. Evaluating the stories in The Bridegroom, one reviewer commented, "Laced with black humor, they refrain from entering fully into the human complexities of their characters: unjust power structures, rather than the individual experiences of his protagonists, are the focus of these tales" [Claire Messud, The New York Times Book Review]. How accurate is this observation? In which stories is human complexity most fully revealed?

Discussion questions provided courtesy of Vintage Books.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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