A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year
Lilian Shang, a history professor in Maryland, knew that her father, Gary, had been the most important Chinese spy ever caught in the United States. But when she discovers his diary after the death of her parents, its pages reveal the full pain and longing that his double life entailed—and point to a hidden second family that he’d left behind in China.
As Lilian follows her father’s trail back into the Chinese provinces, she begins to grasp the extent of her father’s dilemma—torn between loyalty to his motherland and the love he came to feel for his adopted country. As she starts to understand that Gary, too, had been betrayed, she finds that it is up to her to prevent his tragedy from endangering yet another generation of the Shangs. A stunning portrait of a multinational family, an unflinching inquiry into the meaning of patriotism, A Map of Betrayal is a spy novel that only Ha Jin could write.
About the Author
Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. He is the author of six previous novels, four story collections, three volumes of poetry, and a book of essays. He has received the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner Awards, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, the Asian American Literary Award, and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. In 2014 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ha Jin lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.
Date of Birth:February 21, 1956
Place of Birth:Liaoning, China
Education:B.A. in English, Heilongjiang University, 1981; Ph. D. in English, Brandeis University, 1993
Read an Excerpt
The spring semester started on February 15 at Beijing Teachers College. In my American history class, a survey course for undergrads, six or seven students were from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They didn’t stand out among their peers except that they spoke English better, not because they were smarter or better at memorizing the vocabulary and expressions but because they’d begun to learn the language in their childhood. Twenty years ago it had been unimaginable that such students would go to college in China. I gave lectures in a large room with sloped seating, and the class was always well attended. I noticed that many students were taking the course mainly to learn English, since they planned to go abroad for professional school or graduate work. One girl, an anthropology major, told me that her parents would pay for her tuition and living expenses if she was admitted by a decent graduate program in the States. I asked what her parents meant by a “decent” program, and she said, “At least a state’s flagship university, like Rutgers or UMass-Amherst. Any of the UC schools would be great too.” I was impressed by her parents’ savvy about American universities.
Many Chinese had quite a bit of cash now, in part because they spent mainly on food and didn’t pay property taxes. Of course, if you stepped off campus, you would encounter all kinds of people who struggled to scrape together a living. Not far from the school’s main entrance there was a job agency beside a billboard that advertised shampoo. Under the gargantuan ad, which displayed a charming female face smiling over a bottle spouting pink bubbles, migrant workers, young men and women who had just arrived from the countryside, would gather in the mornings, waiting to be picked up as day laborers or temporary hands who made five or six dollars a day. Some of them smoked and wisecracked, and some stared at the ground. If you went to the train or bus stations, you’d find people lolling around, and some of them were homeless.
I was also teaching a graduate seminar and met a group of fourteen students once a week for three hours. We discussed issues in Asian American history and culture. I’d taught both courses numerous times and could do them without much preparation, so I had a lot of time for my personal project of reconstructing my father’s story. These days Beijing’s atmosphere was tense because the government was nervous about the popular democratic movements in the Mideast and Africa. But on campus people could talk freely in private. I told a few colleagues about the impasse in my personal investigation. One of them was in the Philosophy Department, Professor Peng, an older man I had known for many years; he said I shouldn’t give up the hope of locating Bingwen Chu. Professor Peng believed we could track Chu down if he was still alive. Chu used to work in the Ministry of National Security, which must have a file on him. Given his age, he must have retired long ago, so there should be no rule forbidding him to meet with me. Professor Peng said that a former student of his was working in that ministry and might be able to help me. He called the young man, a junior official, and told me to go see him.
I went to the headquarters of the Ministry of National Security, which was a brownish seven-story building encircled by a high black steel fence. The sentry at the front gate phoned my contact inside, and the young official strolled out to meet me. He had a soft-skinned face and an urbane demeanor. I told him I was looking for an uncle of mine, which was true in a sense since Bingwen Chu had been my father’s longtime friend of some kind. I showed him Chu’s snapshot, which I had Xeroxed from The Chinese Spook. A photo was necessary because I was clueless about his real name. The young official was delighted to know I was teaching at his alma mater for the second time and to hear me speak decent Mandarin, a language I had never stopped learning since I was a child, so he was more than willing to help. He jotted down the information on Bingwen Chu and promised to get someone to look through the archives. He’d give me a ring if they found anything about the man.
He called at the end of February to tell me that Chu was living in a suburb of Beijing, in a residential compound for retired cadres. I phoned Chu that very evening, saying I was Gary Shang’s daughter from the United States and would love to see him. After a long pause, Chu said in a voice that suggested a clear head, “All right, I have plenty of time nowadays. Come any day you want to.”
We settled on the following Wednesday afternoon, since I’d teach only in the morning that day. Before visiting him, I reviewed some questions essential for reconstructing my father’s story. I took a taxi to Chu’s place, intimidated by the packed buses and subway. Two decades ago, when I was in my early thirties and teaching in Beijing, I’d ridden a bike or taken public transportation whenever I went out, but it was hard for me to do the same now, because the buses and trains were far too crowded and because I was no longer young.
Bingwen Chu was a small withered man with a bush of white hair and a face scattered with liver spots, but his eyes were still bright and alert. Given his age, eighty-seven, he was in good shape. He appeared at ease and glad to see me.
We were seated in his living room, its walls decorated with framed certificates of merit, all bearing the scarlet chop marks of the offices that had issued the commendations. After his youngest daughter, a forty-something, had served dragon well tea, he said to her, “Can you excuse Lilian and me for a moment?”
The stocky woman nodded and left without a word. Although he addressed me by my first name and I called him Uncle Bingwen, I felt a palpable barrier between us. He’d been my father’s sole handler for three decades, but not an unfailing friend. I reminded myself to be composed and that I was here mainly to ask him some questions. Chu allowed me to take notes but not to record our conversation. That was fine with me.
“Sure,” he said, “Gary and I were comrades-in-arms, also buddies. I was his recommender when he was inducted into the Party.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“The summer of . . . nineteen fifty-two—no, fifty-three. He was voted in unanimously.”
“Uncle Bingwen, in your opinion, was my dad a good Communist, a sincere believer?”
“Well, it’s hard to say. But I know this: he loved China and did a great service to our country.”
“So he was a patriot?”
“Beyond any doubt.”
“Did it ever occur to you that he might have loved the United States as well?”
“Yes. We read about that . . . in some newspaper articles on his trial. I could sympathize with him. No fish can remain . . . unaffected by the water it swims in. In a way, we have all been shaped . . . by forces bigger than ourselves.”
“That’s true. How often did you meet him?”
“On average, we met every two years. But sometimes we lost touch . . . due to China’s political chaos. Sometimes we met once a year.”
“Did he ever come back to China on the sly?”
“No, never. Our higher-ups wouldn’t let him . . . for fear of blowing his identity. Gary was always eager to return for a visit. He often said he was lonely and homesick. The people in the intelligence service all know . . . what those feelings are like. For his suffering, bravery, and fortitude, Gary had our utmost respect.”
“Then why didn’t China make any effort to rescue him when he was incarcerated in the States?”
“He was a special agent—the type we call ‘nails.’ ”
“Can you elaborate?”
Chu lifted his teacup and took a swallow, his mouth sunken. He seemed to have only a few teeth left. He said, “A nail must remain in its position . . . and rot with the wood it’s stuck in, so a spy of the nail type is more or less a goner. Gary must’ve known that. There was no help for it; it’s in the nature of our profession.”
I felt he was hedging by categorizing my father’s situation. Perhaps he couldn’t go into detail about his case, which involved some thorny issues, such as the diplomatic relationship between the two countries and Gary’s future usefulness or uselessness to China. I veered the conversation a bit, asking, “To the Chinese government, how big an agent was my dad?”
“Gary was in a class all his own, our highest-ranking spy.”
That was a shock. “But—he was a general merely on paper, wasn’t he?”
“Not at all. The intelligence he sent back . . . helped China make right decisions that were vital to our national security. Some of the information from Gary . . . went to Chairman Mao directly.”
“So for that he earned his due?”
“Yes. His rank was higher than mine, although he had started later and lower than me.” Chu paused as if to gather his strength. He resumed, “In intelligence circles, very few can reach the rank of general . . . purely by their abilities and contributions. Gary was an exception. He got promoted to general, well deserved. I couldn’t catch up with him.”
“You didn’t become a general?”
“I’d been a colonel . . . for more than twenty years before I retired. I thought they might give me the big promotion, but they did not, because I didn’t have enough pull and resources.”
“What do you mean by ‘resources’?”
“Basically money and wealth. You had to bribe the people in key positions. At any rate, Gary was different from the rest of us . . . and earned his promotions, granted directly from the top. To tell the truth, in the seventies, my colleagues would pronounce his name with reverence.”
“You mean they regarded him as a hero?”
“Also a legend.”
Again my father’s gaunt face appeared in my mind’s eye, but I suppressed it. I looked through my list of questions and asked again, “Uncle Bingwen, did you ever meet my father’s first wife, Yufeng Liu?”
His face fell as if I had hit a wrong note. He said, “I met her once, in nineteen sixty . . . when I went down to the countryside to attend . . . your grandfather’s funeral. We used to mail her money every month, but later we lost contact. She left their village in the early sixties. I have no idea where she is now . . . or if she’s still alive.”
“You have no information on her at all?”
“I have something.” He stood and went over to a bookcase. He pulled open a drawer, took out a spiral notebook, and tore off a page. “Here’s her old address in the countryside. Like I said, she relocated, so we stopped sending her Gary’s salary.”
I folded the paper and put it into my inner jacket pocket. “Why wouldn’t she let you know her new address so that she could get paid?” I asked.
“Money became worthless during the three famine years. I guess that could be a reason. Or maybe she got married again . . . and wouldn’t want to be tied to your dad legally anymore.”
We went on to talk about my father’s personal relationship with his handler. Chu insisted that the two of them had been bound together “like a pair of grasshoppers on one string.” It was Gary’s role as a top agent in the enemy’s heart, the CIA, that helped Chu, Gary’s sole handler, survive the political shifts and consolidate his position in intelligence circles in Beijing. For that he was still grateful to my father. In his view Gary was undoubtedly a hero, whose deeds all the Chinese should remember.
Chu seemed to be carried away by his remembrances, growing warmer and chattier as he went on. Evidently he had few opportunities to speak his mind like this. While I was wondering if it was time to take my leave, he said, “Do you know . . . you have some half siblings?”
“My father mentioned them in his diary. But he spent only a few weeks with Yufeng before he left home. Are you sure they’re his children?”
Chu chuckled. “Absolutely. Yufeng gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, in the fall of 1949. I told your father about them. The two kids really took after him.”
His words, though casually said, struck me, and my cheeks heated up. I had known about my half siblings but questioned their paternity. Something like a wash of shame crept over me as I realized I had unconsciously attempted to distance my half siblings from our father ever since I came to know of their existence. Before saying good-bye, I held Chu’s blotchy hand with both of mine and thanked him for speaking to me.
Now I was more determined than ever to find my father’s first family.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of A Map of Betrayal, National Book Award–winning author Ha Jin’s tale of espionage, honor, and conflicted loyalties in the intertwined histories of China and the United States and in the lives of two families.
1. Why do you think the author has chosen a double narrative for this novel? Why do you think Lilian’s story is told in the first person, while Gary’s is told in third?
2. Compare Gary’s relationships with the three women in his life—Nellie, Suzie, and Yufeng. Do you think Gary is idealizing his first wife and his love for his first country, or do you think his memories are accurate?
3. Does Gary betray one or both countries? How does he navigate his obligations to all the women in his life (wives, girlfriend, and his daughter)? Where do his love and loyalty ultimately lie?
4. How do Ben’s beliefs about patriotism compare with his actions throughout the novel?
5. Is Gary a sympathetic character? Are Lilian and Ben? With whom do you identify the most?
6. Kirkus writes that A Map of Betrayal “satisfies like the best of John le Carré, similarly demystifying and deglamorizing the process of gathering information and the ambiguous morality that operates in shades of gray.” In what ways does the book deconstruct the process of spying—and the conventions of the spy novel?
7. On page 98, Lilian criticizes her Chinese students for failing to write clearly. They respond that such a straightforward writing style is “not the Chinese way” (page 99). Is this purely a cultural difference, or are Lilian’s criticisms valid?
8. Lilian says of Nellie: “Although I loved my mother, I often felt uneasy when spending time with her alone” (page 90). Why is the relationship strained? How does this compare to Juli’s relationship with her mother, Manrong?
9. What are Lilian’s values? What are her priorities, as compared to her father’s? Could she ever live permanently in China?
10. Although he longed to return home, could Gary truly have lived in China again after becoming a spy? How does life in the United States change him? How did his early reading of Nietzsche influence his life?
11. “Wherever he went, he’d feel out of place, like a stranded traveler” (page 103). Why does happiness always seem to lie elsewhere for Gary?
12. What does Gary love about American life and the American people? What does he love about Chinese life and the Chinese people?
13. On page 151, Lilian compares a nation to a house: “I believe that a country is not a temple but a mansion built by the citizens so they can have shelter and protection in it. Such a construction can be repaired, renovated, altered, and even overhauled if necessary. If the house isn’t suitable for you, you should be entitled to look for shelter elsewhere.” Do agree with her position?
14. Does the novel portray Gary’s dual loyalties to the United States and China evenhandedly? In what ways do both countries fall short of his ideals?
15. Gary claims in his trial, “The two countries are like parents to me. They are like father and mother, so as a son I cannot separate the two and I love them both” (page 260). In sharing U.S. state secrets with China, he believed that he was helping both countries achieve friendship and peace. Do you agree?
16. How does Lillian hope to help Ben at the end of the novel? What lessons learned from Gary’s life does Lillian hope to share with her niece and nephew?
17. The conclusion of the book finds Ben and Sonya on the run. How do you think they will fare? Do you think that Ben will live what Lilian would consider an honorable life?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ha Jin never disappoints. I have read every book/ collection he has written- poetry included. Always impressed by his ability to imbue his stories with the strength and fallibility of humanity.
A fascinating tale related in 1st and 3rd persons giving insight into China’s #1 spy in America, over a thirty year time period, as related by his daughter who, upon his death, is given his diaries by his mistress. An interesting psychological study of the whom and the why behind espionage conducted by a country, China, exceedingly well-known these days but still a mystery to most of us — me included. Certainly, I appreciated the many insights the author provides into China’s past and present, its economical ups and downs, its mistakes made, its impetus for doing a lot of the things it has done and is likely to do. A far more enjoyable way of understanding that country’s complicated relationships with the West, and with its neighbors Korea and Viet Nam, than would be the case of wading through some dull university text. Recommended to anyone and everyone out to discover reading material on a subject matter not likely to be covered as entertainingly elsewhere.