Reading Guide Questions
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
. 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,"
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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.