Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1793
Most teachers of writing encourage students to avoid using clichés, largely on the basis that they have become so familiar that they have lost any power to grab the reader’s attention. At times, however, a cliché can be appropriate; in the case of novelist Ha Jin, the idea that “necessity is the mother of invention” seems most apt to describe his meteoric rise to prominence in American letters and to suggest something about the power that underlies his second novel, The Crazed.
Although the novel is not strictly autobiographical, understanding something of the novelist’s life may help illuminate both the story and theme of this work. When Xuefei Jin was fourteen, he joined the Chinese Army. When he was twenty, he left the service to take up a career as an educator. In 1985, after earning his master’s degree in China, he obtained a fellowship to Brandeis University in Massachusetts to pursue a doctorate in literature. His plans, as he told John Thomas in a 1998 interview for Emory Magazine, were to earn his degree and return to teach in his native country. In 1989, however, events there changed his plans. He and his wife watched on television as the Chinese army quashed the student rebellion in Tiananmen Square. Xuefei Jin realized then that Thomas Wolfe was probably right in his case: He could not go home again.
The necessity to earn a living for his family drove Xuefei Jin to writing and, to risk another cliché, the rest has become literary history. Writing under the pen name Ha Jin, within a little more than a decade the Chinese expatriate produced several collections of short stories and two novels, all of which generated significant praise from reviewers and critics in America. His 1999 novel Waiting won the PEN/Faulkner prize and his short story collections were recognized by literary associations for their compelling analysis of human nature. Ha Jin would say they are compelling because they emerge from the blend of experience and imagination that produces fiction which has the ring of authenticity.
The Crazed is such a novel. Set in Shanning, a provincial city, the novel chronicles the struggles of a young graduate student, Jian Wan, who is assigned by the university to care for his adviser, Professor Yang, the victim of a stroke. Jian finds that he must divide time between studying for qualifying examinations that would allow him to be admitted to doctoral study in Beijing and caring for Yang at the local hospital.
What makes Jian Wan’s job difficult is that his mentor seems to have been affected in a strange way by his stroke. From time to time Yang launches into strange ravings that include commentary on religion, literary criticism, political statements about communism and the Chinese Communist Party, and descriptions of sexual exploits. At times he seems jocular, at others deadly serious, and a large portion of his commentary is simply cryptic. The graduate student is not sure how to respond to his teacher’s behavior. For example, Jian Wan is confused by Yang’s creative restatement of the story of Genesis, the professor’s version of which is a fable about how the donkey (a beast of burden) and a monkey (a playful free spirit) both gave up years of their life span to the acquisitive “man”; in this way Yang explains how humankind has been cursed with long life so that people can suffer the infirmities of old age. Yang cries out, too, about the virtues of reading Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802, 3 vols.), telling Jian Wan that it is the one work that can comfort humankind. Both stories leave the young scholar perplexed, since the ideology of both the Christian Bible and Dante’s poem are at odds with the pronouncements of communism, which Professor Yang has always seemed to support.
In fact, on more than one occasion Yang launches into long speeches denouncing those who oppose Chairman Mao Zedong and the party, calling for punishment of those who stand in the way of a communist utopia. On the other hand, shortly before he dies, Yang confides to his pupil that he believes his life has been wasted because scholars in China are merely clerks carrying out the commands of a totalitarian government interested more in indoctrinating its people than in promoting real scholarship.
The professor’s rantings about his sexual exploits form the center of a mystery for Jian Wan to solve. In this way Ha Jin has an opportunity to create a surprise ending of sorts, something that is characteristic of much of his work. Jian Wan is simultaneously fascinated and repelled by his professor’s repeated ravings about sexual liaisons. As the delirious Professor Yang describes his encounters with women, Jian Wan becomes aware that Yang is not speaking of his wife. Who is this other woman? Has there been more than one? The answers surprise Jian Wan but will not necessarily surprise readers, for hints regarding the professor’s amorous adventures with at least one woman are there for all—including the obtuse Jian Wan—to see. Far from being a simple plot device, however, the mystery of Professor Yang’s love life reveals something of his character and explains much about the relationship between teacher and student. Long accustomed to seeing Yang as some sort of disembodied intellect, Jian Wan learns that his revered teacher is a man like other men, concerned about fulfilling his personal needs. Yang’s ravings about his time in a Chinese rehabilitation camp perform a similar function, allowing Jian Wan and readers some insight into the complex personality that lies beneath the inscrutable face of the university professor.
Like all of Ha Jin’s work, there is a political subtext in The Crazed. In fact, as he has done in previous works, such as the story “Saboteur,” Ha Jin uses illness as metaphor: The professor’s breakdown mirrors that of post- Maoist China, a country exhibiting signs of schizophrenia as capitalism competes with communism at the end of the twentieth century. Jian Wan is not able to discern whether Professor Yang’s ravings are the delusions of a madman or the uninhibited truth-tellings of a man no longer able to live with the hypocrisy of the communist system. So it is with China, Ha Jin suggests: The stresses on the country eventually lead to catastrophe, one manifested in the real-life events of the summer of 1989.
Looming in the background throughout Jian Wan’s struggle to understand his professor is the specter of conflict between university students and the government that culminates in the massacres in Tiananmen Square in June, 1989. Being in the provinces, Jian Wan and his colleagues hear rumors of the growing turmoil. Jian Wan gradually becomes aware that many students believe the government’s restrictive policies on education have been stifling the country’s intellectual growth. Naïvely, these would-be activists believe that once they present their issues to the central government in Beijing, reforms will follow. Confident in their cause, Jian Wan and fellow graduate students agree to chaperone a group of undergraduates who wish to travel to the capital to demonstrate in the Square. The final chapters of the novel describe the horrifying consequences of their miscalculation.
Readers familiar with history know what to anticipate as they completeThe Crazed, but the brutality exhibited by the army in dealing with the student demonstrators shocks Jian Wan as he experiences it. He is amazed and demoralized to see those he expected to be defending China turn upon its citizens. Ironically, as he moves about Beijing in an effort to escape the army, Jian Wan experiences what might be called an epiphany, allowing him to put into perspective not only the events of his own life but those of the country as well: “Essential personal motives” lie at the root of many political activities. “It’s personal interests,” he muses, “that motivate the individual and therefore generate the dynamics of history.” While the insight may not be revolutionary for readers, it is for the young graduate student who finally realizes that his naïveté and idealism have made him a target for others wishing to advance personal agendas.
The dramatization of such themes has done much to endear Ha Jin to Western critics. Not everyone has been kind to him, however; woven into the generally laudatory commentary on his work are two criticisms raised succinctly by one reviewer of The Crazed. “For all its efforts,” Gail Caldwell writes, “The Crazed contains some awful prose and some shockingly naïve sentiments.” Like Caldwell, some have claimed that the praise the Chinese novelist has received is based more on his meteoric rise to competency with the English language; what is celebrated in his work, critics argue, would hardly be noticed in native speakers.
Supporters may dismiss this charge as an issue of style, but Caldwell’s second criticism is more stinging: “Jian’s running commentary on women, from Mr. Yang’s disinhibited sexual shenanigans to his own affections for Meimei and others, is comical in its puerile sensibility; one assumes this effect was not intended.” This observation demands response. While it may be true to say that Jian Wan seems puerile, the same need not be assumed about his creator. Assuming the imperceptiveness of a character indicates that the author is similarly limited in his perceptions of human nature seems wrongheaded. Whether Ha Jin shares his character’s naïve views about the opposite sex is neither apparent nor relevant. Instead, one should conclude that Jian Wan’s inability to understand women—his fiancée, the female professors and graduate students, Dr. Yang’s wife—is indicative of his inability to effectively perceive what is happening around him on many fronts. Concentrating on preparing for his doctoral examinations, he is unable to see that he is being manipulated by others: Dr. Yang, the department chair and the political officer associated with the university, his friends, even his fiancée.
When he realizes his predicament, Jian Wan becomes disillusioned, abandoning hopes of studying in Beijing and eventually deciding to give up the study of literature in favor of a career as a bureaucrat. When he faces the soldiers in Tiananmen Square, he is first unable to believe that he has been so deceived by his government, then unable to do anything to help the victims of the army’s violent actions. The novel ends on this demoralizing note, creating the mood its author intended. For Jian Wan, and for China, the future is indeed most gloomy.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 99 (September 1, 2002): 6.
The Boston Globe, November 3, 2002, p. D6.
Library Journal 127 (September 15, 2002): 91.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (October 27, 2002): 7.
Publishers Weekly 249 (September 30, 2002): 47.