The twelve short stories collected in UNDER THE RED FLAG, which won author Ha Jin the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 1997, provide the reader with extraordinary insight to living conditions and mentality of the people of rural Northeast China. This is the area where author Ha Jin grew up during the brutal times of the Cultural Revolution, when the Communists tried to disrupt traditional society, often replacing ancient customs of repression with a savagery of their own.
Ha Jin’s stories show people living without privacy. In addition to private jealousies and gossip, they are beset by Communists who often misuse their power to further private acts of vengeance or aggression. “In Broad Daylight” shows the public humiliation and near-lynching of a sexually frustrated woman turned occasional prostitute. Because she beat one of the juvenile Red Guards for failing to pay her, his comrades descend upon her under the mantle of party authority, leading her husband to kill himself out of shame.
While living conditions are often grim and many characters outrightly selfish, UNDER THE RED FLAG also shows the common people’s will to endure and survive. The young boys of the stories have to cope with vicious neighborhood bullies, or even their own jealous fathers; yet most of them survive with their spirits intact.
Ha Jin also reveals the random nature of life under Communist repression. In “Again, the Spring Breeze Blew,” the young widow Lanlan becomes a hero after the rapist she killed turns out to be an escaped criminal instead of the nephew of a party official.
Overall, UNDER THE RED FLAG is a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating collection which takes the American reader on an insider’s tour of a harsh place. When Ha Jin left Communist China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, his craft as a skillful writer quickly earned him the 1997 PEN/Hemingway Award for fiction, and UNDER THE RED FLAG continues this fine tradition.