On a friend’s advice, the first Ha Jin novel I read was Waiting. It’s about an army doctor who works in the city and has a wife (who was chosen for him when he was seven) and daughter in his village, but the woman he wants to marry at the army hospital in the city. He spends 18 years separated from his wife, trying every year to divorce her. Every year she agrees until they get to the courthouse when she changes her mind. Meanwhile the girl at the army hospital is waiting chastely for him. They’re concerned about propriety so there’s no sex or even leaving the hospital grounds in each other’s company. And they wait and they wait.
When I think about Chinese love stories this is the kind of thing I think of. People separated by duty or propriety without indulging what they feel they really want. Maybe that’s what all romances do. It seems like it would be. That’s where conflict comes in, right? But in the Chinese versions the rules seem more concrete than the unwritten codes of propriety in a Jane Austen novel. Or maybe I’m misremembering Jane Austen. But it feels different (to me) when it’s the state and glorified peasant ideals.
Anyway, sad and beautiful. I liked it a lot.