Although Ha Jin’s writing style is mainly straightforward and unadorned, he focuses metaphorically on sparrows twice in the story to show the ill effects of social homogenization on the individual. First, after Baowen has been arrested, Ha Jin allows Cheng to interrupt his train of thought to meditate on a sparrow, the most common of birds. Cheng imagines that a single renegade sparrow, having a complete set of organs like the others, can disrupt the order of its entire society, just as a political dissenter can disrupt human society. Thinking along this line allows Cheng to prepare himself to accept the full measure of the law, whatever the offense warrants, applied to Baowen.
Second, Ha Jin evokes sparrows to acknowledge the awful price an individual pays for having an unusual, perhaps handicapping, trait. Right after the doctor tells Cheng that Baowen has a congenital orientation, not a curable disease, Cheng looks out a window and sees a flock of birds in flight. He notices one flying out front with food in its mouth and the others seeming to give chase. Soon Cheng spots a loner trailing well behind the masses, and as he studies the lone bird, he notices a yellow string tied to its leg. Cheng realizes that with such a visible handicap, it will never catch up. By extension, the reader gets Ha Jin’s larger point: Regardless of social designs that are meant to keep people in formation, class stratification is inevitable. For, as in the universe of sparrows, in the universe of humankind, there will always be someone who will outfly the masses and become a leader and someone who will lag behind and become an outcast.