Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819
Ha Jin, the most critically successful native Chinese writer in the United States, was born in 1956 in Liaoning, China. He came to the United States in 1985 for graduate study at Brandeis University. When the Tiananmen massacre occurred in 1989, Jin decided to emigrate to the United States. He also is the author of books of poetry. All of his writings were first written in English, in large part, according to Jin, because he considers English much more flexible than written Chinese in terms of expression and diction.
Jin’s writing style is noted for its clarity, straightforwardness, and simplicity, and for its accurate depiction of complex emotions. His close attention to the minute details of everyday life has been frequently compared to the attention of nineteenth century novelists Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac. Jin’s works also show the strong stylistic and thematic influences of Russian writers Isaac Babel, Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, and Leo Tolstoy.
War Trash is a rare, historically accurate depiction of the lives of a group of Chinese POWs and their treatment by U.S. forces from 1951 to 1953 in the Korean War. The POW experience is shown through the perspective of Yu Yuan, a young soldier in the Chinese army. The novel is heavily researched, and Jin also relied upon his father’s memories of the war as well as his own experiences living for six months in a Korean village while serving in the People’s Liberation Army.
War Trash, however, is more than an account of a little-known chapter of an often-forgotten war. All of Jin’s fictional writings about China are political because he considers Chinese society to be one that is managed by the Chinese government. Therefore, his overarching theme has always been the conflict between ideological thinking and basic human drives and aspirations. In War Trash, this conflict is given a tight focus because of the political nature of war and the repatriation dilemma faced by Chinese POWs. In this extreme environment, core ideological and national allegiances play an all-determining role in relationships among people.
Jin has stated that he initially intended this novel to be a novella, but he could not stop writing because of fear, the same fear Chinese POWs had as captives, who knew they would be treated as major criminals when they returned home. War Trash accurately captures this profound and abiding fear among the prisoners. On a deeper level, the work is a careful exploration of conventional notions of nationality, belief, and identity. Jin raises fundamental questions via Yuan about the validity of these ideas.
Yuan, an objective observer and perennial outsider throughout the story, soon realizes that unbridled abstraction is “the crime of war: it reduces real human beings to abstract numbers.” Later, he understands that certain political creeds, like communism, also are grounded in abstractions and thus reduce persons to statistics. Yuan strenuously tries to think by himself in an environment in which reflection and reason are repressed. As he asks early in the book, “Why couldn’t I remain alone without following anyone else?” He also is skeptical about the motivation and methodology used by his superiors, like Commissar Pei Shan. The title of the novel, War Trash, concisely captures one of the story’s central themes: the inhumane ways in which overtly abstract and self-serving political and national ideologies lead to the treatment of human beings as disposable items—trash.
Yuan ultimately represents the benevolent and equalitarian impulses of human nature. This is shown by his frequently expressed wish to become a physician like Dr. Greene, “who dealt with individual patients in a war and didn’t have to relish any victory other than the success of saving a limb or a life.” Yuan’s dogged disregard of conventional categories regarding people and their beliefs is revealed in his easily made friendships with such varied individuals as Dr. Greene, the outcast Bai Dajian, the lovesick U.S. corporal Richard, the black U.S. private Frank Holeman, and the sixteen-year-old illiterate infantryman Shanmin.
Furthermore, War Trash is an atypical Chinese novel, for it powerfully critiques the idea of Chineseness. The noted literary critic and historian C. T. Hsia in 1961 wrote a now-famous essay criticizing modern Chinese writers of being so obsessed with the problematic condition of China and the issue of Chinese identity. He argues that these writers have become restricted in their ability to explore the modern human condition because of this obsession. This obsession remains true of most contemporary Chinese writers; Jin is a rare exception.
In War Trash, Jin brilliantly transcends Chinese history and demonstrates how Chinese identity can be rendered more substantial when mixed with universal conceptions of human nature. By firmly grounding the novel not just in Chinese experience but also in human experience, Jin transforms the work into a telling story about humanity as reflected in the travails of one person in a time of war.