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Under the Hawthorn Tree by Ai Mi

What is it:

Jingqiu, an innocent young woman from a poor and politically questionable family in the city, is selected as one of a small group of students to be sent to the countryside to work on a glorious new education project that will further the Cultural Revolution. Clever, curious and eager, she wants to fit in with her hosts and the rural way of life (as not fit in will be seen as reactionary and capitalist). In her mind, it is not appropriate to fall in love. Duty above love. But she did, she fell in love with the son of an army general, Old Third (Sun JianXin). Perceived as a different world from Jingqiu’s.

Why I read it: “A major film directed by Zhang YiMou” is the catch phrase that entices me to read this.

What I thought:

I thought the writing was a little choppy. Not sure if it is due to the translation from Chinese to English or the original text. There is nothing lyrical or beautiful about the prose but what drew my attention was the story line.

To be honest I was slightly bored at the beginning. Yeah, yeah, another Chinese Cultural Revolution story. Not only that but it seems every boy in the country wants to earn Jingqiu’s favour. Perceived as a more sophisticated and pretty city girl, Jingqiu was seen as a more superior species in the countryside. Unfortunately, Jingqiu didn’t quite see herself that way. Imbued with the strong belief that she is of a ‘bad’ class of a landowner father, she feels it is to her advantage to marry “low” to be part of the right class. Her low self esteem doesn’t help her to sail smoothly in the uncharted territory of love either.

I always have to shake my head in disbelief every time I read stories about the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). I can’t believe how people became so myopic as to believe that every word their leaders said are sacred and to be taken at heart as truest form of wisdom. I can’t believe how much people then are willing to sacrifice blood ties and reputation to stay on the right side of the revolution and to refute heart’s desire at all cause without using their rational mind to distinguish what is right and what is wrong. Normal human yearnings are denied and seen as reactionary. I don’t understand why Jingqiu is so afraid of letting people know that she is in love with Old Third. This fear in turn creates more misunderstandings.

Whether one sees such behaviour as cultural difference or the cowardice as fear of their lives and part of survivals, this book cannot be read with the western eyes. You cannot because you will be horrifyingly shock at the sexual naivety of Jingqiue at 18 because she doesn’t know how babies are made. As forewarned by the translator, it seems incredible, yet it shows the startlingly intimate reach of politics in that period. What is at stake in this story is innocence, both of individual and the society at large, in the face of the corrupting influence of extreme politics.

Jingqiu appears to attract the opposite sex easily and has no shortage of young men who will go out of their way to help her yet Jingqiu has her heart only for Old Third. What moves me the most was her improverish state of her family and sister, with the father and brother cast off in countryside, and her sincere intention to secure temporary work, dangerous work that are usually taken up by men, to feed her family.

The story gripped me towards the end as the book keeps me guessing until the very end. Did Old Third lie or did not lie to Jingqiu? Is his love genuine? What would the future of this two lovebirds be?

Favourite line:

My father is always saying that Chairman Mao understood life when he said, “Victory comes only after further struggle.” sometimes when you feel you have reached an impasse, when you think there is no hope left, if you struggle on a bit more, and a bit more, you’ll see the glimmer of success.  – Old Third page 49

The strange thing was that as soon as she had seen through him, seen him for what he was, her heart no longer ached and she was no longer consumed by regret over her actions. Wisdom comes from mistakes. Knowledge doesn’t just come from nothing. People may draw on their own experiences to tell you what to do, but you can’t learn everything that way. True wisdom can only really come from your own experience. and so every generation must make its own mistakes. – page 326

Final words:

The book has a mysterious origin. the author’s identity remains unknown to readers and publishing houses alike. We do know Ai Mi first published this work as a blog. We also know the original book was published in 2007 and went on to sell over one million copies in China alone. English-language editions of the book confirm Ai Mi was born in China and now resides in the United States, but beyond these details, the author’s life remains a secret. Some readers speculate this novel is based on a real person’s experiences with names and places disguised.

This is a love story rather than a story about struggles in the Cultural Revolution. Inevitably the political agenda influence every aspect of the people’s life then. Even romance. I can imagine how beautiful the movie would be under Zhang YiMou’s hands. I can imagine the Hawthorn tree and the Chinese rural countryside and the community of Chinese who lives under Cultural Revolution era then. I just don’t think it is that great to read it as a novel. I’m sure it would be different if I read it in original text but until that happens, I think it’s better to stick to the movie. I have a lot more confidence in Zhang.


Paperback. Publisher: Virago 2011, originally published in Chinese in 2007; Length: 352 pages; Setting: YiChang, West Village, China. Source: Reading Battle Library copy. Finished reading on the 20th October 2012. Translated by Anna Holmwood.

Reviews from this blog tells you a little more about the relationship of the lovers in further heartbreaking details: The litoverse


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


4 thoughts on “Under the Hawthorn Tree by Ai Mi

  1. The writer Ai Mi 艾米 is also on WordPress and she has a huge audience. Her blog is absolutely entertaining, with all her novels. She has a habit of telling readers off if their comments are not intelligent enough, therefore I dare not leave any comment so far! She hasn’t got time for time-wasters.

    Here is the link to this book in Chinese, if you fancy comparing the English and Chinese versions. http://aiyuan.wordpress.com/2008/10/26/艾米:山楂树之恋(47集)目录/

    Ai Mi is believed to be a statistician in America, and her husband Huang Yan is believed to be lecturing in a university. They have 2 small children (boy and girl) and are living with grandparents. Her blog contains vast information about her writing and family life, though Ai Mi herself doesn’t accept interviews. Her husband also writes well. Information about her and her family is normally obtained from her own blog. Ai Mi has a novel 十年忽悠 -- shi nian hu you, which is believed to be autobiographical, based on her love story with Huang Yan.

    Posted by Janet Williams | October 20, 2012, 10:17 pm
    • Janet,
      oh! I will be anxious to leave any comments as well. I look at some chapters of the book, it is definitely different from reading it in English. Richer. More depth. I would find it hard to read on the computer, I’ll find an alternative! Thanks Janet, this is brilliant!

      Posted by JoV | October 20, 2012, 10:31 pm
  2. This does sound interesting. Did you watch the movie too?

    Posted by Athira | October 22, 2012, 3:10 am

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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