Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1137
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 prevented from seeing his family. If he elects to return to the mainland, he will be treated as a criminal by the government because he had allowed himself to be captured.
Yuan, like many of the mainland Chinese prisoners, wants to return to the mainland not for political reasons but because his family is there. Meanwhile, he has established contact with Ming, who is in compound 71, which is under the control of the PLA. Ming tells him to keep him informed about what happens in his compound, number 72. One day, Yong invites Yuan to dinner. During the dinner, he actively courts Yuan to go to Taiwan. Yuan gets drunk, and when he wakes up the next day he discovers that his belly has a tattoo that reads “F—— COMMUNISM.” He immediately informs Ming what had happened so that he will not get into trouble. To protect himself from Yong, Yuan declares he is willing to be repatriated to Taiwan.
On the day Chinese POWs have to inform the camp authorities what country they want to be returned to, Yuan outsmarts his Nationalist captors and says he wants to return to the mainland. He is then transferred to compound 602, which is controlled by the Communists, and is happily reunited with his comrades. He realizes that he can no longer stand aloof from politics. Yuan soon applies for membership in the United Communist Association, but his request is refused and he has to do a public self-criticism because he is still viewed with suspicion by the party.
To draw world attention to the plight of POWs and to embarrass the U.S. authorities, Mr. Park, the head of the Korean POWs, decides to kidnap General Bell, the U.S. commandant of the camp at Koje Island. The mainland Chinese prisoners resolve to help. Bell is abducted and forced to sign a document promising better treatment for the prisoners. After he is released, U.S. forces launch a massive attack on the Korean and Chinese compounds; many prisoners are killed or wounded, and Yuan is temporally put into a special prison. After his release, he is sent to a camp on Jeju Island. At the camp, Yuan meets Shanmin, a sixteen-year-old soldier, and starts to teach him Chinese. Division commissar Pei Shan next orders the Chinese POWs to raise the mainland’s flag on National Day to draw the attention of the Chinese government, and a bloody fight ensues between the Americans and the Chinese.
Yuan is given a final test by Shan. He is ordered to impersonate his assistant Feng Wen and travel to Pusan to register again. Yuan soon realizes he had been picked to impersonate Wen because he is not a party member and therefore is expendable; Wen is not expendable. The authorities quickly find out that Yuan is not Wen—his fingerprints do not match those in the records. Yuan quickly tells them that he hates Communism, and then he shows them his tattoo. They send him to camp 8 on Cheju Island, which is under the command of Yong, who warmly welcomes him back and forgives his previous behavior. Yuan again tells him he wants to go to Taiwan.
In 1953, the camp is moved to the demilitarized zone for the final step of the repatriation process. Several days later, Yuan enters the repatriation tent and informs the authorities that he wants to return to the mainland. He is reunited with his comrades, who are initially treated well by the government. Yuan has his tattoo changed to “F—— . . . . U . . S .” (removing most of the letters in “COMMUNISM”), but soon they all have to undergo terrifying study sessions. Yuan learns that his mother had died and that his fiancé now refuses to marry him because of his status as a former POW. Because Yuan is not a party member, he is treated better than most of his comrades. He is given the job of teaching Chinese, geography, and English at a middle school.