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.
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 entire section is 1,755 words.)