Both books I am writing about are set in China, but in very different times. One is set at a time when the country is in the throes of a civil war and on the road to becoming a communist state. It is still a time when private ownership of land is permitted and those who have money can spend lavishly while the other is set in a new China where communism is well engrained and almost everything is state controlled, where everything from getting a divorce or taking a lover has become more a public business than a private affair.
The books are The Good Earth written by Pearl S. Buck, an American national who spent many years in China, first with her parents who worked as missionaries there and later with her husband, and Waiting by Ha Jin, a Chinese American author who was born in China but later moved to the USA and began writing on life in a communist state.
The Good Earth (1931)
The Good Earthis the story of a peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-Lan. The book begins with the marriage of Wang and O-Lan, following which their fortunes turn for the better due to sheer hard. In between working the fields, O-Lan delivers babies, attends to her ailing father-in-law and plays the role of the ideal wife. Their lives are seriously disrupted, midway when a drought strikes the region they live in making them flee to the city where they endure the worst forms of poverty, begging on the streets to stay alive. But through it all O-Lan, who for me is the hero of the book, stands courageously to safeguard her family. They later return to their former lands and once again prosper with Wang Lung acquiring more and more land and finally even the home of the former aristocratic landowner of the region who has fallen into ruin by then. But with the new-found fortune comes temptation and Wang Lung seeks pleasures outside his home, falling in love with a pretty concubine who he takes home to live along side O-Lan. Towards the tail end of the book, more interesting happenings unfold which I shall not write about as a reader should discover them on their own.
The life of a peasant farmer family who lives in a remote area in China will appeal to almost everyone because it is the story of human endurance that anyone, anywhere can relate to. The book also details to the reader many old Chinese customs and traditions, their superstitions, their taboos which adds to the flavor of the book.
Waiting by Ha Jin is set in communist China and is the story of Lin Kong, a military doctor who spends a good part of his life trying to get a divorce from his wife after falling for a another woman .He had agreed to an arranged marriage early on to Shuyuwho despite not being the best looking woman is considered ideal wife material as far as his family is concerned. She is hard-working and has big hips which is a sign of fertility and hence he agrees to the marriage. Later he leaves his wife and daughter and has to move to many miles away to work in a military hospital where he falls for a pretty nurse named Manna Wu. Wanting to legitimize his relationship with Manna, Lin Kong tries 18 times to get a divorce but finds it a complicated process. During their long courtship, the doctor and nurse duo have to abide by the strict code of behavior for those living within the military camps, where anything more than holding sands could lead to dire consequences for both.
It’s again one of those books I picked up because I fancied the cover page and liked the little I read in the back cover but it was well worth the price.
Even though the books are set at least three to four decades apart, one in the early 1930s and the other around the 1970s, there is similarity in the loyalty, strength and endurance of two of the female charter, namely O-Lan and Shuyu. Despite the indiscretions on the part of their husbands, the women remain fireclay loyal.
But it’s hard for me to dislike any of the characters in these books. . Be it the “other woman” or the “unfaithful husband”, they are all likable and very human characters. Naturally many readers will empathise with the two wives because even though they are strong in character, they are also portrayed more as the victims.
So if you haven’t yet read these two books, I would suggest you do because they will not disappoint.