(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Jim, the eleven-year-old son of an English cotton-mill owner in Shanghai, accustomed to the privileges of colonial life, finds his comfortable existence shattered by Japan’s declaration of war on the Allied forces in December, 1941. After wandering through war-torn Shanghai for several months as one of the few Europeans overlooked by the Japanese, Jim is held for three years in a prison camp. There he learns the art of survival, while thousands die around him. Empire of the Sun in many ways resembles a boys’ adventure story but is actually much more. It is more, too, than reminiscence by J. G. Ballard, who states in a foreword that the novel describes his experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945.

Ballard suggests by the end of the novel that World War II was an ominous illustration of mankind’s propensity to destroy itself. During the last days of the war, Jim is drawn into a new series of adventures, roaming the countryside as the lackey and dependent of a cosmopolitan crew of bandits. A strange notion takes the mind of the boy, who is by that time age fourteen. He believes that World War II has ended simply so that a third war can begin. That notion arises partly because Jim is naive, confused as a result of hunger and illness, and influenced by the profiteer bandits. Most influential, however, is Jim’s impression when he sees in the sky the glow of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, some five hundred miles to the...

(The entire section is 577 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Jim Graham is an eleven-year-old schoolboy from a privileged expatriate family living in Shanghai, China, on the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Jim is fascinated with the coming war; he loves airplanes and admires Japan’s military strength. In early 1942, amid the chaos of the first days of Japanese attacks on the Americans and British living in Shanghai, Jim becomes separated from his parents.

Jim returns to his family’s mansion to find his parents and the servants all gone. The Japanese occupying Shanghai have not yet restored order to the city, so Jim is able to live undetected for weeks in residences vacated by the Americans and British whom the Japanese army have arrested. When his food supplies become exhausted, Jim is forced onto the streets of Shanghai. With no friends or protectors, Jim finds his way to scuttled merchant ships in Shanghai’s harbor. There, he chances on two American merchant seamen who, like Jim, are trying to avoid capture. Basie, a cabin steward on passenger ships, takes an interest in Jim.

Basie provides Jim with food and shelter. Jim hopes Basie will be a protector who helps find his family, but he soon realizes that Basie intends to sell him to the highest bidder. No Chinese want a young British boy, however, and Jim is told he is worthless.

Japanese soldiers come upon Jim and his companions and arrest them. Jim is glad to escape from Basie and feels safer with the Japanese. He is sent to a detention center in an open-air movie theater. During a three-week stay there, Jim sleeps under a concrete overhang and becomes ill with a fever. Jim sees that the stronger detainees are being assigned to various prison camps, but he is always left behind with the older and weaker detainees. He thinks he will die there.

A severely beaten Basie arrives at the detention center, and Jim nurses him back to health. The Japanese guards prepare a truckload of detainees for a prison camp at Woosung, on Shanghai’s northern outskirts. Basie is assigned to the truck but makes no effort to take Jim along. Jim realizes that he remains disposable, but at the last minute he manages find a place on the truck.

The Japanese driver fails to locate the Woosung camp. Lost, the truck wanders through Shanghai’s outskirts for several days. Among the truck’s prisoners is a young British physician, Dr. Ransome, who tries to get water for the other prisoners. The Japanese guarding the truck have no provisions for the prisoners, but Jim shows initiative by cadging both water and food for himself and the others. Dr. Ransome appreciates Jim’s initiative and courage. Jim, who seemed worthless at the start of the trip, has shown he has value.

Some of the missionaries among the prisoners die of sickness and exposure, but Jim, Basie, and Dr. Ransome all survive. The truck finally ends up in Lunghua, on Shanghai’s southern outskirts. The surviving detainees are placed in a new concentration camp located next to a Japanese air base.

In late 1943, Jim, Dr. Ransome, and Basie have all become accustomed to regular...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)