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...

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War Trash 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.)

War Trash Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When one considers the émigré writers who have adopted English as the instrument of their craft, one commonly thinks of such luminaries as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov. One may soon be adding Ha Jin to that constellation. Although Jin does not indulge in the verbal pyrotechnics of Nabokov or the narratives-within-narratives of Conrad, his unblinkingly lucid prose searches with a steady brilliance and profound compassion into the dark corners of the human psyche and the societal polity.

Having emigrated to the United States in 1985, Jin has since published more than a half dozen highly acclaimed works of fiction, including Waiting (1999), which won the National Book Award. War Trash is indeed a worthy addition to his impressive repertoire. Like Jin's other fictions, War Trash centers on a protagonist from mainland China, although it departs from its predecessors by placing its action in Korea. The time of the novel is the 1950's, and the Korean War is raging. The novel's protagonist is a Chinese soldier captured and held in U.S. and U.N. prisoner of war (POW) camps. The narrator-protagonist provides a forthright, unadorned account of his experience, so seemingly factual that the reader has the illusion of confronting a nonfiction work. The effect is akin to reading Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963). Jin's novel is realism at its very best.

In the novel's prologue, Jin piques his reader's curiosity by raising two questions about his narrator. This seventy-three-year-old man from Communist China is writing his memoir while visiting his Chinese American son's family in Atlanta, and he is worried about the anti-American tattoo on his belly. He is worried that at a moment of heightened security concerns, he might be strip-searched at the airport and denied future access to his American family. The reader naturally wonders about the tattoo's provenance.

The other curiosity is this man's deep respect for doctors and his desire that his grandchild should become a doctor—not for the usual financial and social reasons but because he feels that “medicine is a noble, humane profession…. Doctors …follow a different set of ethics which enables them to transcend political nonsense and man-made enmity and to act with compassion and human decency.” Germane to both questions is the problem of “political nonsense and man-made enmity,” of the absurd and of hate, a problem that finds its most lethal manifestation in war.

The warrior of Jin's novel is its narrator-protagonist, Yu Yuan, and the body of the book, a memoir of the wartime of his youth, explicates this problem. Yu's memoir begins in 1949. The forces of Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong have wrested control of mainland China away from the Nationalist (Kuomintang) General Chiang Kai-shek, who has retreated to the island of Taiwan. Yu is a cadet at Huangpu (Whampoa) Academy, China's equivalent of West Point, whose commandant had been General Chiang himself. When the Nationalists retreat, Yu remains in mainland China and is absorbed into the Chinese People's Liberation Army as a young officer. Very much a proper Chinese man, Yu puts his family first, and he plans to care for his aging mother and marry his choreographer fiancé.

In 1951, however, the Korean War breaks out, and Yu, like the rest of the Chinese army, is “volunteered” to fight in it. These Chinese People's Volunteers (so-called because China is not officially at war) are ill-equipped, poorly supplied, devoid of air cover, and fragmented in their communication. After crossing the Yalu River into Korea, they suffer horrendous casualties. The men are considered expendable; they are war trash, useful for some political design which they do not comprehend. Yu's unit is soon decimated, and Yu fractures a thigh and is captured by the Americans. He and the handful of wounded survivors are taken to a military hospital at Pusan, South Korea. There his leg is saved from amputation by an American Army major, Dr. Greene.

This doctor astonishes Yu and shatters several stereotypes he holds. This skillful, dedicated doctor who commands many men is a mere woman. This doctor wearing his enemy's uniform exhausts herself to save his leg. This supposedly ignorant American speaks fluent Chinese. (Her parents had been missionaries in China.) Yu realizes that in Dr. Greene's eyes, suffering wears no uniforms, and through her eyes, Yu begins to glimpse a commonality of unaccommodated humanity that transcends race, gender, nationality, political ideology. This encounter with Dr. Greene is at the root of Yu's desire, fifty years later,...

(The entire section is 1936 words.)