About this guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Ha Jin’s first novel, In the Pond, and two of his short fiction collections, Ocean of Words and The Bridegroom.
• Discussion questions about In the Pond
• Discussion questions about Ocean of Words
• Discussion questions about The Bridegroom
• Comparing the three works
• Also available: Waiting reading group guide
About IN THE POND
In the Pond is the story of Shao Bin, a young man who works as a pipe fitter in a fertilizer factory in a northern provincial commune. He is also a self-taught scholar and artist, convinced he is worthy of a better fate than he has been assigned. As the tale opens, he and his wife have again been denied an apartment in Workers’ Park, a relatively luxurious new apartment compound, and for at least another year must continue living with their child in a dirt-floored dormitory room. Enraged at the injustice of being passed over once again, Bin lampoons the commune’s two Party secretaries in a satirical cartoon, which is published in a newspaper, effectively making them his enemies. The conflict escalates in a series of surprising and often amusing events, as Shao Bin proves himself capable of taking his grievance all the way to Beijing—and eventually winning himself a position of which he can be proud.
For discussion: IN THE POND
1. Ha Jin has chosen a quotation from Gogol’s Dead Souls as the epigraph to In the Pond. In what sense is Shao Bin a rogue? In what sense, if any, is he a virtuous man?
2. What does the way Shao Bin handles his grievance against his superiors reveal about his character? He thinks to himself, “Who were Liu Shu and Ma Gong? Two small cadres with glib tongues, uncouth and unlettered. They were wine vessels and rice bags, their existence only burdening the earth, whereas he had read hundreds of books and was knowledgeable about strategies” [p. 35]. Do you consider him heroic and principled, or arrogant and foolish? Is he, on the basis of his talents and energies, truly deserving of a better position than he has?
3. In many ways this novel is about the workings of power and how people go about getting what they want. Given that the novel portrays a political system very different from our own, do you consider that issues of power and influence work differently in this novel than they do here in America, say, in a corporate setting?
4. If one of the purposes of art is to awaken people’s minds and to change society, do you find it odd that artists are employed in this novel to create propaganda for the state? Would you consider this novel a satire? What would you guess is the author’s perspective on the events of the novel, and on the communist system that he left behind?
5. What does Shao Bin’s description of his ink stone [p. 64] tell us about him? Does his dedication to his art redeem the less positive aspects of his character?
6. There are several scenes, particularly in Chapter 9, in which physical brutality is used to comic effect. Why does Shao Bin engage in such behavior, in light of his feelings of superiority to Liu Shu and Ma Gong? To what purpose is Ha Jin using humor in this novel?
7. After creating one of his best drawings, Shao Bin realizes that “it was the misery and rage that had driven the brush to make such a breakthrough in his art. He realized anger was also a source of power, which the artist ought to convert into creative energy” [p. 122]. Is Shao Bin in fact saved by his anger? If you have read Waiting, how would you compare the characters of Shao Bin and Lin Kong?
8. Are you surprised, given Shao Bin’s abrasive personality, that he is embraced so readily by the friends of Yen Fu? Are you surprised that his cause is adopted by the journalists in Beijing? Why do you suppose this is?
9. Yen Fu calls attention to the novel’s title when he wonders why Bin is working in the fertilizer plant: “How could a small pond like this contain such a big fish? He had vaguely heard that Bin was teaching the fine arts somewhere” [p. 63]. How does Ha Jin’s choice of title affect your sense of the events that take place? Does the novel’s ending change the meaning of “the pond”?
10. As Shao Bin prepares a letter of complaint to the Party secretary, “A strong sense of justice and civil duty rose in him. An upright man ought to plead in the name of the people. He believed he was going to voice not only his own discontent and indignation but also the oppressed brothers’ and sisters’. Yes, he wanted to speak for all the workers in the plant” [p. 20]. How does the ending of the novel—the resolution of the plot’s conflicts—resonate with these inspired thoughts? How does Ha Jin leave you feeling about his protagonist?
About OCEAN OF WORDS
The central characters in the stories of Ocean of Words are men serving in the People’s Army on the northern border with Russia in the 1970s, as China and Russia are poised for war. Whether dealing with personal crises or guarding Russian prisoners, mediating conflicts with local villagers or trying to find a little solitude, Ha Jin’s soldiers are always clearly drawn, giving us a very real glimpse into what is, for most Americans, an unimaginable world. Reminiscent of Chekhov and of Hemingway in their luminous realism, these stories compose an unforgettable volume, often poignant, often funny, always true to life.
For discussion: OCEAN OF WORDS
1. Ha Jin has said, “I do believe in universals. I believe literature works on similarities, not differences” [Atlanta Journal]. The characters in these stories are soldiers and officers in a world to which American readers have had almost no access. How does Ha Jin manage to make you intimate with, and sympathetic to, their concerns and dilemmas? What is universal about these characters, and what, if anything, do you find difficult to identify with?
2. In the story “Dragon Head,” the militia sings a song based on a quotation from Mao Tse-tung: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another” [p. 53]. The activities Mao mentioned are ones we would associate with leisure and with culture, both of which are highly prized in American life. Would you consider a class revolution, such as the one Mao tried to create, at all possible in the United States? Can you imagine Americans engaging in the political study sessions and self-criticisms that characters are involved with in Ha Jin’s work? What do people do for fun and relaxation in these stories, since activities like reading and painting solely for personal pleasure are forbidden?
3. What techniques does Ha Jin use to reveal the inner lives of his characters? How does his use of narrative voice and point of view create a sense of variety and affect your response to various stories?
4. Though it is always purely speculative to identify a work of fiction as autobiographical, would you say that “Ocean of Words,” has the feeling of something that actually happened to its author? What do you find most moving about this story? Why has Ha Jin positioned it as the final story of the collection?
With these tales—three of which have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories—he 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.
For discussion: THE BRIDEGROOM
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 naivete 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?
For discussion of the works of Ha Jin:
1. What do you notice about the way Ha Jin describes the physical details of everyday life, such as food, housing, clothing, and people’s bodies? How does the material culture of these works differ from that of America? Do you feel that because Ha Jin is consciously writing for an American audience in his adopted country, such details have greater resonance?
2. Sometimes the power of Ha Jin’s work comes from the juxtaposition of all-too-human characters with the lofty ideological task of social transformation they are expected to be engaged in; characters must continually be on the alert for symptoms in themselves and others of what are called, in the language of Marxism, “counterrevolutionary tendencies.” In which stories and novels do you find self-interest, individual ambition, or the search for happiness—as opposed to selfless devotion to the communist ideology—causing particularly funny, or particularly sad, conflicts and situations?
3. How would you characterize the style of these works? Does it change from book to book, from story to story? What details and choices by the author contribute to the way the people and situations he has created come across to you? Are there moments when the writing is more spare, more lush, more descriptive, more terse? How is the realism of these works achieved?
4. In the preface to his first book of poetry, Between Silences: A Voice from China, Ha Jin wrote, “As a fortunate one I speak for those unfortunate people who suffered, endured, or perished at the bottom of life and who created the history and at the same time were fooled or ruined by it.” Despite the facts that Ha Jin does not write in Chinese and that his books are not published in China, do you consider that he has been writing, in a sense, for those who remain? How does this quotation relate to the stories collected in Ocean of Words and The Bridegroom, and how does it reflect as well on In the Pond?
Suggestions for further reading
Lan Samantha Chang, Hunger; Anton Chekhov, The Chekhov Omnibus: Selected Stories; Susan Choi, The Foreign Student; Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary; Nikolai Gogol, The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol; Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure; Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day; Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle; Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land; Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior; Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life; Thomas Mann, The Black Swan; Alice McDermott, Charming Billy; Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient; Lisa See, On Gold Mountain.
About Ha Jin
Read an author bio and view a complete list of titles by Ha Jin available from Random House here.