Introduction

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Yu Yuan, now seventy-three years old, is visiting his son’s family in the United States and is completing his documentary-style memoir in English about his experiences as a Chinese prisoner of war, or POW, during the Korean War. He hopes that someday his grandchildren will read his memoir and fully understand the meaning of the long tattoo on his belly that reads “F—— . . . . U . . S .” (the mutilated outcome of having removed part of the tattoo).

Yuan’s story begins in 1949, when the Communists come to power in China. Yuan is a sophomore at the elite Huanpu Military Academy in the southern city of Chengdu. This academy, the equivalent of West Point in the United States, had played an important role in the Chinese Nationalist regime, so its students are viewed with suspicion by the new regime. Consequently, Yuan is required to take special courses in Marxism and undergo mutual and self-criticism. After graduation, he is assigned as an officer with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The Korean War breaks out, and he tells his mother and his fiancé, Tao Julan, a student at a teacher’s college, that he will return home in one or two years. After traveling for four days, Yuan’s division arrives at the North Korean border. Before the trip, the division’s commissar, Pei Shan, orders him to bring along an English-Chinese dictionary, explaining that it will serve as a special weapon. Yuan is assigned to help Chang Ming, a divisional clerical officer, edit the unit’s bulletin.

On April 22, 1951, Chinese and North Korean forces launch a major offensive. The offensive is initially successful, but Yuan’s unit is eventually pushed back and his squad separated from the main force. After three months of guerrilla life, Yuan is shot in the left thigh, which fractures his leg; he is soon captured by U.S. forces. He is transferred to a camp in Pusan, South Korea. Surgery is successfully performed on his leg by Dr. Greene, a young female surgeon and U.S. Army officer. They become friends, and Yuan teaches her Chinese characters.

Yuan is next sent to compound 72 on Koje Island. Americans guard the camp but do not go inside. Yuan’s compound is under the direct control of the Taiwanese Nationalist Party. He is assigned to a company overseen by Wang Yong, a former Nationalist army corporal. Mainland Chinese POWs in this compound are constantly intimidated, cajoled, beaten, and bribed by the Nationalists to get them to sign up for repatriation to Taiwan. Yuan is given special attention because he is a graduate of the Huanpu Military Academy. He soon has to confront a horrible dilemma: If he refuses to go to Taiwan, the Nationalists will assume that he is a Communist and, hence, their enemy; his life will be in danger, and he will be...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)