Empire of the Sun

by J. G. Ballard

Start Free Trial

Point of View in Empire of the Sun

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In Charles Platt's Dream Makers: The Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, J. G. Ballard asserts, "Conventional life places its own glaze over everything, a sort of varnish through which the reality is muffled. In Shanghai, what had been a conventional world for me was exposed as no more than a stage set whose cast could disappear overnight; so I saw the fragility of everything, the transience of everything, but also, in a way, the reality of everything." Jim also sees "the reality of everything" in Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun. Through this young British boy's observant perspective, Ballard rejects traditional notions of the glories of war and instead reveals the true nature of its brutality and futility.

At the beginning of the novel, Jim is protected from the realities of war by the privileges of his race and class. "Life in Shanghai was lived wholly within an intense present," especially for the Europeans who lived in the affluent suburbs of the city. This intense present was created in part by the impending threat of war, but the Europeans remained curiously detached from its reality. Jim observes his parents and the parents of his friends fill their days with "dances and garden parties," and watches them consume "countless bottles of scotch...in aid of the war effort." He notes that "all over the western suburbs people were wearing fancy dress, as if Shanghai had become a city of clowns." The newsreels they all watch give Jim the impression that the British were "thoroughly enjoying the war."

At one of the parties, Jim watches Mr. Maxted, his friend's father, drink his whiskey by the drained swimming pool, a symbol of the impending death of the old order that Jim does not yet recognize. He imagines himself growing up like Mr. Maxted, an architect-turned-entrepreneur who had designed the Metropole Theater and numerous Shanghai nightclubs, "the perfect type of the Englishman who had adapted himself to Shanghai."

Separated and protected by their sense of superiority, the Europeans view the casualties of the early stages of the war with a cold objectivity as evidenced when they tour bombed airfields in "silk dresses" and "gray suits, strolling through the debris arranged for them" and stepping over "the bodies of dead Chinese soldiers."

Jim, more than the others, sees the suffering that surrounds him. He observes the extremes of affluence and poverty in the city as his chauffeur runs over or whips beggars in the streets. He sees the "regatta of corpses" on the waterfront, surrounded by paper flowers, wash back in with the tide. He also has glimpsed the results of the Japanese presence in Shanghai, how the "bones of the unburied dead rose to the surface of the paddy-fields" along with the "bloody heads of Communist soldiers mounted on spikes along the Bund."

Yet, at this point, his innocence and his sense of his own superiority separate him and thus prevent him from empathizing with the suffering he sees. Soon, however, the realities of war will touch everyone in Shanghai, and the hierarchies they have benefited from will be reversed and finally smashed. As a result, Jim and the other Europeans in China will no longer be able to maintain an objective distance.

Jim is forced to confront the horror of war when he is separated from his parents after the Japanese attack British and American ships in the Shanghai harbor. After wandering through the deserted homes in his neighborhood, a scared, sick, and starving Jim meets a shady American sailor named Basie, who teaches Jim how to survive in this...

(This entire section contains 1803 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

new, harsh environment.

Jim notes that his "entire upbringing could have been designed to prevent him from meeting people like Basie, but the war had changed everything...All his experience of the previous two months told him not to trust anyone, except perhaps the Japanese." Even after experiencing the deprivation and despair of the detainment and prison camp, Jim will retain his respect for the Japanese, an attitude that sets him apart from most of the Europeans who have demonized the enemy.

Jim goes through enormous changes even before he reaches the Lunghua prison camp. The deprivation and despair he has experienced in the detention center and on the long route to the camp has exposed him to a world from which he had previously been detached.

Before he reaches the camp where he thinks his parents will be, "to his surprise he felt a moment of regret, of sadness that his quest for his mother and father would soon be over. As long as he searched for them he was prepared to be hungry and ill, but now that the search had ended he felt saddened by the memory of all he had been through and of how much he had changed. He was closer now to the ruined battlefields and this fly-infested truck, to the nine sweet potatoes in the sack below the driver's seat, even in a sense to the detention center, than he would ever be again to his house in Amherst Avenue." When they are turned away from the first camp, "he felt a strange lightness in his head, not because his parents had rejected him, but because he expected them to do so, and no longer cared."

Jim's attitude also changes toward the British as he observes their behavior in the camp. He becomes annoyed "with their constant talk about prewar London." Now he condemns them for claiming "a special exclusiveness." He also reveals how much he has changed when he recognizes that "naming the sewage-stained paths between the rotting huts after a vaguely remembered London allowed too many of the British prisoners to shut out the reality of the camp, another excuse to sit back when they should have been helping."

Jim understands the reality of the camp and so works hard to keep himself and others alive. In strange twist, while learning these survival skills, Jim learns to "enjoy the war." He appreciates the relative safety of the camp, and doesn't want to venture into the unknown or known terrors he has seen. Time ceases at the camp, and a "curious vacuum" sets in as he focuses on the day-to-day task of survival.

Jim's experiences force him to view things from the perspectives of others, even those who have been cruel to him. When he returns to the camp, he lies down on Mrs. Vincent's straw mattress in the room that he had shared with her and her family. "Seen from Mrs. Vincent's vantage point, the past three years appeared subtly different; even a few steps across a small room generated a separate war, a separate ordeal for this woman with her weary husband and sick child."

Jim also comes to understand the cruelty of those affected by war. After observing Lieutenant Price, the officer who takes over the camp after the Japanese leave, Jim notes "that Lieutenant Price would have liked to get him alone and then beat him to death, not because he was cruel, but because only the sight of Jim's agony would clear away all the pain that he himself had endured."

After three years in the camp, Jim's notions of war have changed. When he sees prisoners collaborate with the Japanese guards, he realizes that "patriotism meant nothing. The bravest prisoners—and collaboration was a risky matter—were those who bought their way into the favor of the Japanese and thereby helped their fellows with small supplies of food and bandages."

When Dr. Ransome notes Jim's previous fascination with the machinery of war and his determination that the Japanese are the bravest soldiers in the world, Jim now admits, the war "had nothing to do with bravery. Two years earlier when he was younger, it had seemed important to work out who were the bravest soldiers, part of his attempt to digest the disruptions of his life. Certainly the Japanese came top, the Chinese bottom, with the British wavering in between...However brave, there was nothing the Japanese could do to stop" the American warplanes.

When Jim returns to the camp, he reads the magazines dropped by the American planes. He realizes "they described an heroic adventure on another planet, filled with scenes of sacrifice and stoicism, of countless acts of bravery, a universe away from the war that Jim had known at the estuary of the Yangtze." While reading a Life magazine he finds, "he studied a photograph of American marines raising the flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi after their battle for Iwo Jima. The Americans in these magazines had fought a heroic war, closer to the comic books that Jim had read as a child. Even the dead were glamorized, the living's idea of the dead." He recognizes that "unlike the war in China, everyone in Europe clearly knew which side he was on, a problem that Jim had never really solved." Jim has discovered that there are no clear victors or enemies in war.

At the end of the book, his recognition of the realities of war fills him with despair. This feeling is reflected in his thoughts after he comes across a dead Japanese fighter pilot, who he thinks is the same one he used to watch at the camp: "for so long he had invested all his hopes in this young pilot, in that futile dream that they would fly away together, leaving Lunghua, Shanghai, and the war forever behind them. He had needed the pilot to help him survive the war, this imaginary twin he had invented, a replica of himself whom he watched through the barbed wire. If the Japanese was dead, part of himself had died. He had failed to grasp the truth that millions of Chinese had known from birth, that they were all as good as dead anyway, and that it was self-deluding to believe otherwise."

Jim is reunited with his parents, but he will never be able to return to his prewar innocence. Back at Amherst Avenue, his home "now seemed as much an illusion as the sets of the Shanghai film studios." When he leaves, he recognizes that "only part of his mind would leave Shanghai. The rest would remain there forever, returning on the tide like the coffins launched from the funeral piers at Nantao."

He leaves his childhood behind in the final scene as he sees a child's coffin float in the stream, surrounded by a garland of paper flowers, taken out but then swept back by the incoming tide, "driven once again to the shores of this terrible city."

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Perkins is an Associate Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has published several articles on British and American authors.

A Boy Saved by the Bomb

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The first-rate science-fiction author, J. G. Ballard, has reached into the events of his own childhood to create a searing and frightening tale of wartime China. Indeed, Mr. Ballard declares in a foreword that this novel is based on his experiences in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center near Shanghai from 1942 to 1945. He has performed a heroic feat of memory to recover feelings that must have been tormenting to live through and can have been no less painful to relive in fiction.

Yet this novel [Empire of the Sun] is much more than the gritty story of a child's miraculous survival in the grimly familiar setting of World War II's concentration camps. There is no nostalgia for a good war here, no sentimentality for the human spirit at extremes. Mr. Ballard is more ambitious than romance usually allows. He aims to render a vision of the apocalypse, and succeeds so well that it can hurt to dwell upon his images. For Mr. Ballard seems to be against all armies and the ideologies that mobilize troops; he seems also to believe that the horror of his youth ended only when World War III began with a nuclear sunburst over Nagasaki.

The story opens in Shanghai's International Settlement the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Eleven-year-old Jim is everything one could want in a hero—affectionate, tireless, brave and more curious about life than a research biologist. Jim is the only child of a British textile industrialist who has kept his family on in Shanghai long after many British dependents have fled the threat of the Japanese domination of China. Yet even with the Japan-China war going on all around, Jim continues to enjoy the luxuries of the European community—chauffeurs, swimming pools, lawn parties, private schools. He is not unaware of the staggering desperation of the China that presses legless beggars against the front gate and daily exhibits public stranglings; but he has learned to accept cruelty as the real world. Meanwhile, Jim has a secret life, in which he roams Shanghai on his bicycle, and a life of daydreams in which he soars in a fighter plane. He aches to fly, and can identify both with the Spitfire pilots in the propaganda films about the Battle of Britain he sees after church and with the Japanese pilots he has seen swooping over Shanghai in Zeros emblazoned with the Rising Sun.

The war crashes upon Jim and the Europeans in China as the Martians fell to Earth in H. G. Welles's The War of the Worlds. Jim awakens Monday morning to study for an examination only to witness, accidentally, the Japanese sneak attack on British and American warships on the Shanghai waterfront that was timed to coincide with the raid on Pearl Harbor. Instantly, the panic that follows makes Jim the fair equal of all adults, and in a short time he is alone, separated from his parents.

For four months, Jim struggles in a netherworld, grubbing for food in abandoned homes, fleeing slavery and death on his bicycle. Slowly, he realizes that the Japanese are his only protectors in China. And with the hope of an innocent, Jim submits to the detention camps. His opinion of the Japanese is ambivalent. He admires their courage and fears their brutality; he also knows that the Japanese are capable of mercy toward children. In fact, Jim has understood very early on that in a real war no one knew which side he was on, and there were no flags or commentators or winners. In a real war there were no enemies.

In the second and third parts of the novel, Mr. Ballard reaches beyond the survivor's manuals, like those of James Clavell and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that have become this century's obligatory reading. On one level, Jim grows for three years into a resourceful prisoner who can thrive in a world turned upside down, learning how to hoard food, hustle for favors and ingratiate himself with the moral and immoral authorities of the camp. But on a deeper level, in the closing months of the war, Jim is precocious enough to recognize the emergence of a new specter of mass extinction. If the Japanese were like the Martians conquering Earth at the war's opening, they become helpless victims like everyone else as the battlefronts collapse and China descends into famine, slaughter and chaos.

In complete control of his awesome material, Mr. Ballard is able to evoke the panorama of the apocalypse and then to plunge Jim and the reader into a genuine nightmare. Here is the stench of the dead stacked like wood, the brackish taste of river water polluted by corpses floating nearby, the strange singsong of peasants crying in frustration because they know they are about to be beaten to death. And here are scenes that are not believable except that they feel entirely real. Jim sees teenage Kamikaze pilots crawl into their shabby planes without any more ceremony than the bored farewell of three other teen-age soldiers. He watches shallow graves deteriorate, exposing corpses that tempt the starving remnant as meat. And in August 1945, after a death march to the Olympic Stadium outside Shanghai, with the guards and the prisoners alike envying the sleep of the dead, Jim watches what he recognizes as the birth of a new empire of the sun that usurps Japan's setting star. In the sky to the northeast of Shanghai, he sees a flash that momentarily overwhelms the dawn and floods the stadium with an odd light. Five hundred miles across the China Sea, Nagasaki has just been annihilated by the atomic bomb.

It would be comforting to say that Jim's story closes happily when he once again embraces his parents by their drained swimming pool. He has survived the war by luck, and he has survived the end of the Japanese because canisters of Spam and powdered milk were dropped by the same kind of American airplane that dropped the bomb. However, Jim is not persuaded that the war is really over. He is equally uncertain what kind of world awaits him as he sails from China. The most optimistic thing one can say is that Mr. Ballard, with a splendid and powerful talent, has written a novel that makes haunting fictional sense of what happened to Jim 40 years ago. And with the wisdom born of having actually witnessed the potential of Armageddon, Mr. Ballard has now passed on the opinion that his own survival, and the world's, remain tentative.

Source: John Calvin Batchelor, "A Boy Saved by the Bomb," in New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1984, p. 11.

A Survivor's Narrative

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

J. G. Ballard is a famous name among science-fiction fans, but many of his admirers, most notably Anthony Burgess, have argued that science fiction is too constricting a label for his work. Now, for the first time, Mr. Ballard has abandoned fantasy—though not the fantastic—and produced a straightforward, naturalistic narrative. As he explains in his foreword, it is closely based on his own experiences as a young boy in China during World War II.

If one still hesitates to call Empire of the Sun a conventional novel, it is only because many of the scenes in it are so lurid and bizarre, so very nearly out of this world. Among other things, they help to explain why, in his work up till now, Mr. Ballard should have been repeatedly drawn to apocalyptic themes. But this time the prophet of doom has become a historian of doom.

The story opens on the very eve of Pearl Harbor. We are in Shanghai—the old, garish, cosmopolitan Shanghai of the International Settlement and the Bund, with its extremes of luxury and misery and apathy. Chauffeurs lash out at beggars with riding crops; coffins decked with paper flowers are cast adrift from the funeral piers and swept back by the tide; members of the Graf Zeppelin club set off on expeditions to beat up Jewish refugees. Outside the Cathay, the biggest cinema in the world, 200 hunchbacks in medieval costume parade up and down advertising The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

All this is seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old English boy called Jim, whose father runs a local textile firm. He also sees the attack on the American and British gunships with which the Japanese go into action. In the turmoil that follows he is separated from his parents and left to fend for himself. For two months or so he roams round the city, scavenging in deserted villas and then falling into the dangerous company of a shady American sailor called Basie and his sidekick (Jim's entire upbringing could have been designed to prevent him from meeting people like Basie). Eventually he realizes that he will be safer if he surrenders to the Japanese.

The next three years are spent in a prison camp outside the city. Living on close terms with brutality, deprivation and death, he is sustained by his frenetic energy and by a determination (not always appreciated) to make himself as useful as he can to the other prisoners. When the camp is evacuated he manages to get away, but he still has to undergo some terrifying hazards and ordeals before the war ends.

If it ends, that is, since there is a good deal of foreboding in the closing pages that the next war has already begun. Hiding in the Olympic stadium in Shanghai, Jim sees a strange flash light up the sky—the distant glow of Nagasaki. It has been preceded in the book by many other images of light, of deadly glitter and sinister incandescence. But until this point the empire of the sun could reasonably be thought to refer, first and foremost, to the empire of the Rising Sun. Subsequently it takes on a more general and even more threatening significance.

The detail of life both in the city and in the camp is brilliantly rendered by Mr. Ballard—with swift, economic strokes where there could easily have been clutter, with a plain, terse style where rhetoric would have been counterproductive. And binding it all together is the skill with which we are made to enter into Jim's thoughts and feelings, into his self-absorption, his eagerness, his confusion, his schoolboy fancies, his forced coming of age.

Much of the time he seems to be living through a dream. The newsreels he watches become confused with the newsreel running inside his head (movies are one of the leitmotifs of the book); his suffering self is someone else, a double he catches sight of in a mirror. And where death is commonplace, the boundaries between the living and the dead become blurred. There are moods when Jim finds death seductive and comforts himself with the thought that he is nothing. Perhaps he is dead already—the simple truth known to every Chinese from birth.

When he feels himself being dragged down, he identifies with the Chinese. In the fantasies where he reasserts himself, he hero-worships the Japanese, their airmen in particular; he wishes he could have taken part in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Ultimately, though, this, too, turns out to be a death fantasy, and he ends up with visions of himself as a kamikaze pilot.

But in the real world he is a survivor. He knows that the word is not always meant to be a compliment—when it is applied to the unscrupulous Basie, for example. Still, without his intelligence and resourcefulness he would be lost. At the beginning of the book one of his hobbies is compiling a manual called "How to Play Contract Bridge," based on conversations he has had with his mother; he has never played a hand himself. He is keen to master the rules of a world he never made. It is a quality that is to stand him in good stead in less cozy circumstances.

At one level this is a classic adventure story—Jim could be a descendant of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. At another level it sets out to raise large issues and stir deep feelings, and for the most part it succeeds remarkably well. Toward the end, when he makes Jim start brooding about World War III, Mr. Ballard editorializes a little too much, but that is the only real weakness in an outstanding novel.

Source: John Gross, "A Survivor's Narrative," in New York Times, October 13, 1984, p. 18.


Critical Overview