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Ha Jin Ocean of Words

Born in 1956, Jin is a Chinese-American poet and short story writer.

Jin was raised in China during the Cultural Revolution and immigrated to the United States in 1985. He chose to write in English, despite the challenges this presented to him, since "it would...

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Ha Jin Ocean of Words

Born in 1956, Jin is a Chinese-American poet and short story writer.

Jin was raised in China during the Cultural Revolution and immigrated to the United States in 1985. He chose to write in English, despite the challenges this presented to him, since "it would be impossible for him to write honestly in China," Jocelyn Lieu has reported. The author of two collections of poetry (Between Silences, 1990, and Facing Shadows, 1996), Jin gained critical attention, and the 1997 Hemingway/PEN Award for First Fiction, with his short story collection, Ocean of Words (1996). Set on the forbidding Chinese-Russian border in the early 1970s, the stories in Ocean of Words focus on longing, loss, betrayal, and rivalry. Jin has observed about his own writing: "As for the subject matter, I guess we are compelled to write about what has hurt us most." In "Dragon Head," widely considered the best piece in Ocean of Words, an elderly iconoclastic veteran recounts a battle of wits between an army officer and a local militia commander involving betrayal, political machinations, and the truth about Mao Tse-tung's regime. Jin's fictional world also incorporates humor and irony into its Maoist milieu. "Miss Jee" centers on a less-than-sturdy soldier targeted by his joking comrades, while "Too Late" comically portrays a political instructor who interferes in a love affair between a young soldier and an orphaned girl. Jin has recently released a second collection of stories, Under the Red Flag (1998), which won the 1997 Flannery O'Connor Award; a third book, In the Pond, is due out in 1998. Overall, reception of Jin's work has been positive. Andy Solomon determined that Jin's stories are "powerful in their unity of theme and rich in their diversity of styles." Lieu expressed admiration for Jin's "laconic, luminous prose" in Ocean of Words, which she designates "a nearly flawless treasure." A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that "Jin's characters make hard choices that will move not just readers interested in China or the army life, but any reader vulnerable to good writing and simple human drama."

Publishers Weekly (review date 26 February 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Ocean of Words, in Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1996, p. 98.

[In the following review of Ocean of Words, the writer notes Jin's "talent for humor" and "good writing."]

Set on the Chinese-Russian border in the early 1970s, these short stories by this poet (Between Silences) and veteran of the People's Army, quickly draws the reader into Chinese army life with all its rivalries, propaganda and poignancy. "Dragon Head" follows a fascinating battle of wits between an army commander and a local militia commander ("If this were the Old China, no doubt Dragon Head would become a small warlord") through the twists and turns of betrayal and political intrigue. In "Miss Jee," about a soldier who is the helpless butt of his comrades' jokes, Jin also shows a genuine talent for humor. But the author is at his best when telling the stories of soldiers forced to choose between ideology and love. Whether it is love of a woman or love of knowledge, Jin's characters make hard choices that will move not just readers interested in China or the army life, but any reader vulnerable to good writing and simple human drama.

Andy Solomon (review date 2 June 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Ocean of Words, in The New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1996, p. 21.

[In the review below, Solomon summarizes the themes and tone of Ocean of Words.]

A veteran of the People's Army, the Chinese poet Ha Jin (who now teaches at Emory University) has produced a compelling collection of stories [Ocean of Words], powerful in their unity of theme and rich in their diversity of styles. Set along the Chinese-Russian border in the early 1970's, they range from a droll sketch of an affectionately derided, delicate young soldier to a painfully iconoclastic parable in which an old veteran reveals the ugly truth of Mad's Long March. Warily eyeing Soviet troops from their watchtowers, the characters in these stories believe that "they were barbarians and Revisionists, while we were Chinese and true Revolutionaries." But what they are all revealed to be is achingly human. Whether nurturing lifelong grudges against enemy soldiers, aiding vagabond neighbors who once betrayed them or witnessing the slaughter of an ox, these men isolated in a forbidding landscape are brought together to form a group portrait that suggests how an entire people struggles to keep its basic humanity within the stiff, unnatural confines of Maoist ideology.

Jocelyn Lieu (review date 24 December 1996)

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SOURCE: "Beating the Odds," in Chicago Tribune Books, December 24, 1996, p. 6.

[In the following review, Lieu compares and contrasts Jin's Ocean of Words with Chinese writer Wang Ping's Foreign Devil.]

These are two extraordinary, original works of fiction, similar in subject and spirit, by two Chinese American writers. Wang Ping, who was born in 1957, and Ha Jin, born in 1956, both grew up in China during the turbulent Cultural Revolution. Both emigrated to America in 1985 and began writing—and publishing—thereafter. (Ha has written two books of poems, Between Silences and Facing Shadows. Wang's critically acclaimed short-story collection, American Visa, was published in 1994. A collection of her poems—she has won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for her poetry—is due out from Coffee House next spring.)

Both also have chosen to write in English, which in Ha's case is based on more than just geography. About his decision to emigrate and leave behind his native tongue, Ha has said, alluding to restrictions of freedom of speech in his homeland, that he realized it would be impossible for him to write honestly in China. Writing in English "meant a lot of labor and some despair—but also, freedom."

Wang, in Foreign Devil, her first novel, and Ha, in his story collection Ocean of Words, explore the upheavals that transformed lives in the China they knew—the seemingly arbitrary reversals that turned friends, family and allies into "class enemies" overnight. Their stories are about the power of the regime, of any regime, to subvert tenderness—yet Ha and Wang also insist on the possibility of love and of human connection despite almost overwhelming harshness.

Their approaches differ dramatically, however. Ocean of Words consists of 12 carefully crafted stories that arise from Ha's six years of service in the Chinese army. The voices of young recruits, Communist Party secretaries and officers are beautifully knit together in a way that, like Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, makes the most of irony. (Unlike Babel, Ha is consistently open-hearted, even when navigating his way through narratives of bitter betrayal and lost hope.) Together, the stories in Ocean of Words present a powerful, humane portrait of a group of military men.

Although Foreign Devil focuses on a single narrator, a young woman named Ni Bing, it may be even more ambitious in scope than Ocean of Words. A passionate, sprawling, coming-of-age novel that jumps back and forth through time, Foreign Devil charts Bing's progress from her severe, Cinderella-like childhood (territory familiar to readers of American Visa) to the day she boards a plane to emigrate to America. Along the way, we see her as daughter, granddaughter, a "model educated youth" laboring in the countryside, a Communist Party member, a college student, a schoolteacher and, in the months before she emigrates, a homeless woman who falls through the system's cracks almost to her death.

Her given name, Bing, means "ice," which is appropriate because of the emotional distance she often feels regarding those close to her. (During the novel's opening scene, when she gives up her stubborn virginity to a married man, she wonders if she isn't a shinu, "a stone girl, whose hymen can never be broken.")

But her chilly name is ironic as well, because of her ability to empathize. As a schoolgirl, she earns the nickname "Foreign Devil" by inappropriately crying during the screening of a film that shows Chinese women boxing the faces of captured Japanese soldiers. Her teacher tells her classmates that by weeping for the Japanese "foreign devils," Bing not only aligns herself with them but becomes one. Bing is at a loss to explain her feelings. "I knew that I should hate those invaders and killers. But I couldn't stop shedding tears for them."

When as a young schoolteacher she is ordered to participate in the interrogation of the school's disgraced former party secretary, Bing feels the dangerous urge to comfort and side with her instead. Asking herself why she feels sympathy for a woman who had tormented others during the Cultural Revolution, she thinks: "Perhaps it was … physical closeness that made me sentimental. Whenever I moved my legs, our knees would touch."

Wang's unflinching, unsparing voice saves Bing's story from sentimentality. So, too, does the fact that Bing's personal crises—family and friends who appear to love and support her one moment, reject and brutally punish her the next—echo the larger historical moment. The times when the personal and the public converge are unforgettable, as in a stunning scene early in the novel, when 10-year-old Bing watches her mother humiliated by the Red Guard as an enemy of the people, paraded publicly as a "Beauty Snake."

Along with American Visa, Foreign Devil establishes Wang as an exciting, important voice among a generation of American writers working to enlarge and change our ideas of who we are.

Although Ha also writes eloquently about societal harshness and the subversive power of tenderness, he takes a different approach. Whereas Wang uses the urgent voice of a woman telling her life's story, Ha employs a mosaic of men's and boys' voices, often allowing the "misunderstandings" that arise from limited points of view to speak for him.

For example, "A Report," the opening work in this collection of linked stories set near the Russian border in the 1970s, is written in the form of an official report from the party secretary of a reconnaissance company. He must explain to his superiors how a mournful marching song sung by the young soldiers—"Good-bye, mother, good-bye, mother"—caused the whole company to break down in tears. While Chen Jun, the author of the report, blames the composers of the "contagious song" for infecting the troops, we see, over his shoulder, as it were, that the contagion is nothing more—or less—than longing and love.

Against the odds, many of Ha's characters become infected by longing. Sometimes love wins, as in "Too Late," a wryly funny love story told from the point of view of a political instructor who tries unsuccessfully to derail an affair between a young soldier, Kong Kai, and an orphaned girl named An Mali.

More often, though, longing exacts a terrible price. In "My Best Soldier," a sex-obsessed recruit helps bring about his own violent death. The protagonist of "Love in the Air," a slow-witted telegraph operator, becomes obsessed with the "gold fingers" and telephonic voice of a female operator in another unit. Though they never meet, he falls so deeply in love with the unseen woman that he withdraws from his army career and, he believes, ruins his future.

The best piece in the collection is a longer story titled "Dragon Head." Narrated by an ineffectual commander named Old Gao, it is the story of a powerful militiaman named Dragon Head, who enters into an uneasy alliance with the army. Eventually, his passion for battle and his treatment at the hands of an opportunistic commissar lead to his downfall, and he is executed as a scapegoat when Russia and China turn from enemies to allies.

Also like Isaac Babel, Ha lets silence speak for him, allowing the sometimes hilarious, sometimes terrible truth to sink in without commentary. A parting ironic jab comes with the title story, "Ocean of Words," which is also the title of a Chinese dictionary. In the story's final line, the protagonist, Zhou, who is leaving the army, makes up his mind to become "a socialist man of letters, fighting with the Revolutionary Pen for the rest of his life." If we are to see Zhou as a stand-in for the author, the fight took an unexpected turn. The result is a wonderful Chinese American writer whose laconic, luminous prose makes Ocean of Words a nearly flawless treasure.

Peter Bricklebank (review date 11 January 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Under the Red Flag, in The New York Times Book Review, January 11, 1998.

[In the following review, Bricklebank faults the "political exigencies" of the themes and Jin's narrative technique in Under the Red Flag.]

Dismount Fort is a country town ruled under the red flag of China's Cultural Revolution, a place where feudal custom has been further warped by the political dogma of a new social order. Ha Jin's dozen stories about Dismount Fort [in Under the Red Flag], which won the 1997 Flannery O'Connor Award, inform us that noble goals do not prevent many of these country people from scrambling for wealth, revenge and prestige, or from seeking the opportunity to address lingering resentments. In one story, an arrogant and miserly Communist finds that as small a thing as an accidentally smashed Mao button can lead to his downfall. In another, a widow who in the course of a rape kills the nephew of a party boss poses a terrible problem—until her actions can be recast into patriotic propaganda. Unfortunately, these sorts of political exigencies seem awfully familiar, especially when used in the service of well-worn themes. And Ha Jin's narrative style isn't much of a help. As plain and stiffly serviceable as a Mao uniform, it lacks expressive elegance and leaves the reader wishing for greater psychological richness, for colors other than red.

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