Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2114
The emergence of Ha Jin in the last decade of the twentieth century as a major new voice in American literature is fraught with the kind of irony that characterizes many of his stories. Jin began writing poetry in English because he found the language more suited to expressing ideas...
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- Critical Essays
The emergence of Ha Jin in the last decade of the twentieth century as a major new voice in American literature is fraught with the kind of irony that characterizes many of his stories. Jin began writing poetry in English because he found the language more suited to expressing ideas about identity, truth, and freedom than his native Chinese. He began writing fiction partly for the same reason but eventually began using it as a survival technique—publishing was a way to earn a living, securing him a position in the academic world and allowing him to remain in the United States rather than return to China. Survival is a major theme in many of his works, and while quite a few contain comic elements, virtually every one of his stories and novels has an undercurrent of tragedy that dominates the narrative.
Although he emigrated to the United States in 1985, Jin sets his stories and novels in China. Virtually all of the protagonists in his fiction are good people struggling to survive in a hostile, even absurd world. The specter of communism and the totalitarian state is sometimes foregrounded, sometimes masked, but always present as the “big brother” watching every move these men and women make. The plethora of laws and regulations governing the lives of his characters are like filaments in a spider’s web against which characters struggle to achieve a modicum of personal freedom. One of the greatest ironies that emerges from Jin’s stories and novels is that many of his characters have internalized arbitrary conventions and rules, turning them into moral imperatives that cause them to censor their own behavior. Like the writers who have by his own admission most influenced him—the great Russian authors Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Leo Tolstoy—Jin focuses on the harsh realities of everyday life in a country that seems both ecologically and spiritually exhausted.
Jin’s fiction also highlights the cruelty and heartlessness that emerges in a totalitarian system. Those in power in communist China often take advantage of their positions to belittle others simply because they can. Such behavior is the catalyst for the action of one of Jin’s more widely published short stories, “Saboteur,” in which an innocent man suffering from hepatitis is arrested and roughed up by local police, accused of committing sabotage against the state; although he has done nothing before his arrest, when he is released the man visits numerous public food concessions to spread his infection—an act of deliberate sabotage. Such ironies abound in Jin’s fiction, and his deliberate, restrained writing style is effective in heightening the effect on readers.
Perhaps because English is not his native language, Jin’s prose is carefully crafted, full of rich details about the characters’ lives and environments that reveal something not only about their external circumstances but also about the turmoil they feel internally. Critics have described a number of his works as fables, because they possess a quality of surface simplicity that belies the complexity of human emotions that these works suggest. Jin’s style has been compared to that of Ernest Hemingway, whose deceptively simple style is used to suggest, rather than denote, the feelings of his characters. Like many of Hemingway’s protagonists, the people about whom Jin writes are seldom saints, but they are more frequently victims than villains; and even his villains are victims of a society that demands obedience to a state that privileges those who rise to power within the system.
First published: 1999
Type of work: Novel
A military doctor in communist China waits eighteen years to divorce his wife and marry a nurse at the hospital where he works, only to find that his new marriage does not provide the satisfaction he anticipated.
In its simplest terms, Waiting is the story of a love triangle. The Prologue, set in 1983, introduces the major characters and outlines their dilemma. Lin Kong, a military doctor stationed in Muji, is attempting to divorce Shuyu, the peasant wife his parents chose for him years earlier. Shuyu maintains their home in Goose Village, a place Lin visits only twelve days each year. At the hospital in Muji, he has been courting Manna Wu, a nurse. Lin believes he would be happier with this modern, sophisticated woman than he is with his illiterate wife. Unfortunately, while the Chinese communist government permits divorce, military officers must either have the consent of their spouses or remain married for eighteen years in order to obtain an uncontested divorce. For more than a decade Lin has returned home each year to ask Shuyu for a divorce. With similar consistency, Shuyu refuses, so Lin and Manna must wait until he no longer needs his wife’s consent.
The major sections of the novel highlight Lin’s passivity in dealing with his situation. Ironically, what appears to be his stoic approach to life and his wide learning have gained him great respect among the hospital staff; his stature among his peers is what initially makes him attractive to Manna, who is older than most nurses. The two maintain their chaste relationship, however, less out of a sense of moral commitment than out of fear for the consequences that could befall them if they become sexually intimate; both know their careers would be ended if they were caught. When on one occasion Manna, less inhibited than Lin, arranges for them to spend a weekend in an apartment outside the military compound, Lin refuses, largely because he does not want to risk the security of his current position.
On his trips home, Lin becomes increasingly disaffected with the squalor of the family farm. Shuyu’s bound feet are constant reminders that she is tied to China’s feudal past, not its communist future. Though he displays some affection for Hua, the daughter he has fathered with Shuyu, Lin finds his other relatives little better than country bumpkins. While Muji is hardly a center of culture, it is cosmopolitan compared to Goose Village. In fact, the scenes depicting Lin’s visits home provide comic relief for the otherwise unrelenting sense of longing and unfulfillment that characterizes his life in the city.
At times Lin is ready to recognize the futility of his desire to marry Manna, and on two occasions he tries to arrange a marriage for her, first with his cousin and then with a government official. Not everyone is as patient as Lin, however, in seeking to fulfill their desires. The one moment of real tragedy occurs when an acquaintance whom Lin had met when hospitalized briefly for tuberculosis manages to meet Manna and then rape her for the sheer thrill of having deflowered a virgin. That event almost poisons Lin and Manna’s relationship; at that point his patience seems to be a sign of emasculation.
When the long wait is over, Lin divorces Shuyu and marries Manna. The results are decidedly disappointing. Their union does not bring the bliss they anticipated but results in both feeling disappointment—in each other and in themselves. Manna becomes pregnant and delivers twin boys, but her health is so precarious that Lin is forced to seek help from his daughter and former wife. The novel’s final scenes depict the trio adopting a curious modus vivendi in which Lin has the ironic satisfaction of being served by both the women in his life but still feeling that he is left not only waiting, but wanting.
Waiting has clear political overtones: Lin’s story can be read as the story of China itself, feeling the tensions caused by its break from the past but discovering that its long-sought future is in the end unrewarding. On a literary level, the work is replete with irony; Lin’s story suggests that the “reward” for those who wait may simply be disappointment at opportunities missed along the way. Though some reviewers have compared the lovers in this novel to Romeo and Juliet, a more apt comparison may be to Tristan and Isolde, lovers separated by an arranged marriage who pine away and eventually die for love. In Waiting, however, passion never rises to that level. Instead, the will to survive trumps romantic passion, and the result is that the lovers end up frustrated, cheated of the happiness they imagined by the realities of a world that governs their every action. Ironically, only Shuyu appears to survive with any equanimity. In the end, she remains resourceful, even cheerful, and active in assisting the man to whom she was married. One would not be wrong to see her as a symbol of the Chinese people, capable of waiting out any form of government.
First published: 2004
Type of work: Novel
A young officer in the Chinese Liberation Army is captured and imprisoned during the Korean conflict, then forced to ally himself with one of the two factions in the prison camps, the Communists or the Chinese Nationalists.
War Trash is ostensibly the memoir of Yu Yuan, an aging veteran of the Chinese Communist army that fought in Korea against the United Nations forces. Writing near the end of the twentieth century, Yuan feels compelled to leave a record for his grandchildren to let them know the truth about his service and about the life of those Chinese unfortunately captured and detained during the conflict.
The bulk of his memoir records his life from 1951 until 1953. Yuan has been educated at China’s premier military academy before the communist takeover of his country in 1948. Yuan is allowed to remain in the army under the Communists but is sent with his unit to Korea in 1951, leaving behind an aging mother and a sweetheart who promises to await his return. Shortly after he arrives in Korea, he is captured by American soldiers and is interned as a prisoner of war.
Yuan’s experiences in the prison camp are nightmarish. Much to his surprise, the Americans who he had been told were soft turn out to be remarkably determined fighters and tough prison masters. Worse, he realizes that he and his fellow prisoners are little more than “war trash,” pawns in an international game of chess in which their lives mean little either to their captors or to their own government. Many prisoners realize that if they return home to China, they may face a fate worse than the camp, as returning prisoners of war (POWs) would be looked upon with suspicion of having been tainted by contact with degraded capitalists. Yuan is not political by nature, but many in the camps are, and two factions quickly emerge: the group that demands repatriation to China and the much larger group that wishes to be sent to Taiwan to join the Nationalist Chinese movement. The brutal struggles between these factions, each of which quickly develops a military chain of command and cruel methods for coercing individual prisoners to choose sides, leaves Yuan disillusioned and demoralized. In the camps, prisoners seem to have little control over their own destiny—or so it seems.
Unlike most prisoners, Yuan is fortunate that he has a skill in demand by both sides: He speaks English. Consequently, he is used as an interpreter by the Communist leadership and by the American guards. His loyalty is tested often, however, and on one occasion he is marked with an obscene tattoo that would make him unwelcome back in China. Nevertheless, he continues to weigh the merits of returning to his mother and fianc_ against what would surely be a harsh life of virtual internal exile in his homeland. When he is forced in the end to choose his own fate, he opts to return, seeing his duty to family as more important than the chance to begin a new life outside the sphere of communist influence.
In some ways, Yuan’s memoir is a Bildungsroman, the story of a young man growing in awareness of the ways of the world and of his place in it. The harsh circumstances of prison life focus attention on the seriousness of life choices and on the potential negative consequences that can follow those choices. Yuan is neither a heroic figure nor a coward; he is, in a sense, Everyman, or at least every man who is unfortunate enough to be caught in circumstances over which he has little control but in which he must determine his own fate. In this sense, Jin’s existential hero shares the fate of millions in the modern world who must make choices from among alternatives that seem equally unpleasant but for whom making a choice is more noble than letting others make choices for them.