About the Author
War Trash, The Crazed, The Bridegroom, Waiting, In the Pond, and Ocean of Words are available in paperback from Vintage Books.
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
Before the Communists came to power in 1949, I was a sophomore at the Huangpu Military Academy, majoring in political education. The school, at that time based in Chengdu, the capital of Szechuan Province, had played a vital part in the Nationalist regime. Chiang Kai-shek had once been its principal, and many of his generals had graduated from it. In some ways, the role of the Huangpu in the Nationalist army was like that of West Point in the American military.
The cadets at the Huangpu had been disgusted with the corruption of the Nationalists, so they readily surrendered to the People's Liberation Army when the Communists arrived. The new government disbanded our academy and turned it into a part of the Southwestern University of Military and Political Sciences. We were encouraged to continue our studies and prepare ourselves to serve the new China. The Communists promised to treat us fairly, without any discrimination. Unlike most of my fellow students who specialized in military science, however, I dared not raise my hopes very high, because the political courses I had taken in the old academy were of no use to the People's Liberation Army. I was more likely to be viewed as a backward case, if not a reactionary. At the university, established mainly for reindoctrinating the former Nationalist officers and cadets, we were taught the basic ideas of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, and we had to write out our personal histories, confess our wrongdoings, and engage in self- and mutual criticism. A few stubborn officers from the old army wouldn't relinquish their former outlook and were punished in the reeducation program-they were imprisoned in a small house at the northeastern corner of our campus. But since I had never resisted the Communists, I felt relatively safe. I didn't learn much in the new school except for some principles of the proletarian revolution.
At graduation the next fall, I was assigned to the 180th Division of the People's Liberation Army, a unit noted for its battle achievements in the war against the Japanese invaders and in the civil war. I was happy because I started as a junior officer at its headquarters garrisoned in Chengdu City, where my mother was living. My father had passed away three years before, and my assignment would enable me to take care of my mother. Besides, I had just become engaged to a girl, a student of fine arts at Szechuan Teachers College, majoring in choreography. Her name was Tao Julan, and she lived in the same city. We planned to get married the next year, preferably in the fall after she graduated. In every direction I turned, life seemed to smile upon me. It was as if all the shadows were lifting. The Communists had brought order to our country and hope to the common people. I had never been so cheerful.
Three times a week I had to attend political study sessions. We read and discussed documents issued by the Central Committee and writings by Stalin and Chairman Mao, such as The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, On the People's Democratic Dictatorship, and On the Protracted War. Because about half of our division was composed of men from the Nationalist army, including hundreds of officers, the study sessions felt like a formality and didn't bother me much. The commissar of the Eighteenth Army Group, Hu Yaobang, who thirty years later became the Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, even declared at a meeting that our division would never leave Szechuan and that from now on we must devote ourselves to rebuilding our country. I felt grateful to the Communists, who seemed finally to have brought peace to our war-battered land.
Then the situation changed. Three weeks before the Spring Festival of 1951, we received orders to move to Hebei, a barren province adjacent to Manchuria, where we would prepare to enter Korea. This came as a surprise, because we were a poorly equipped division and the Korean War had been so far away that we hadn't expected to participate. I wanted to have a photograph taken with my fiance before I departed, but I couldn't find the time, so we just exchanged snapshots. She promised to care for my mother while I was gone. My mother wept, telling me to obey orders and fight bravely, and saying, "I won't close my eyes without seeing you back, my son." I promised her that I would return, although in the back of my mind lingered the fear that I might fall on a battlefield.
Julan wasn't a pretty girl, but she was even-tempered and had a fine figure, a born dancer with long, supple limbs. She wore a pair of thick braids, and her clear eyes were innocently vivid. When she smiled, her straight teeth would flash. It was her radiant smile that had caught my heart. She was terribly upset by my imminent departure, but accepted our separation as a necessary sacrifice for our motherland. To most Chinese, it was obvious that MacArthur's army intended to cross the Yalu River and seize Manchuria, the Northeast of China. As a serviceman I was obligated to go to the front and defend our country. Julan understood this, and in public she even took pride in me, though in private she often shed tears. I tried to comfort her, saying, "Don't worry. I'll be back in a year or two." We promised to wait for each other. She broke her jade barrette and gave me a half as a pledge of her love.
After a four-day train ride, our division arrived at a villagelike town named Potou, in Cang County, Hebei Province. There we shed our assorted old weapons and were armed with burp guns and artillery pieces made in Russia. From now on all our equipment had to be standardized. Without delay we began to learn how to use the new weapons. The instructions were only in Russian, but nobody in our division understood the Cyrillic alphabet. Some units complained that they couldn't figure out how to operate the antiaircraft machine guns effectively. Who could help them? They asked around but didn't find any guidance. As a last resort, the commissar of our division, Pei Shan, consulted a Russian military attache who could speak Chinese and who happened to share a table with Pei at a state dinner held in Tianjin City, but the Russian officer couldn't help us either. So the soldiers were ordered: "Learn to master your weapons through using them."
As a clerical officer, I was given a brand-new Russian pistol to replace my German Mauser. This change didn't bother me. Unlike the enlisted men, I didn't have to go to the drill with my new handgun. By now I had realized that my appointment at the headquarters of the 180th Division might be a part of a large plan-I knew some English and could be useful in fighting the Americans. Probably our division had been under consideration for being sent into battle for quite a while. Before we left Szechuan, Commissar Pei had told me to bring along an English-Chinese dictionary. He said amiably, "Keep it handy, Comrade Yu Yuan. It will serve as a unique weapon." He was a tall man of thirty-two, with a bronzed face and a receding hairline. Whenever I was with him, I could feel the inner strength of this man, who had been a dedicated revolutionary since his early teens.
Before we moved northeast, all the officers who had originally served in the Nationalist army and now held positions at the regimental level and above were ordered to stay behind. More than a dozen of them surrendered their posts and were immediately replaced by Communist officers transferred from other units. This personnel shuffle indicated that men recruited from the old army were not trusted. Though the Communists may have had their reasons for dismissing those officers, replacing them right before battle later caused disasters in the chain of command when we were in Korea, because there wasn't enough time for the new officers and their men to get to know one another.
A week after the Spring Festival we entrained for Dandong, the frontier city on the Yalu River. The freight train carrying us departed early in the afternoon so that we could reach the border around midnight. Our division would rest and drill there for half a month before entering Korea.
We stayed at a cotton mill in a northern suburb of Dandong. Inside the city, military offices and supply stations were everywhere, the streets crowded with trucks and animal-drawn vehicles. Some residential houses near the riverbank had collapsed, apparently knocked down by American bombs. The Yalu had thawed, though there were still gray patches of ice and snow along the shore. I had once seen the river in a documentary film, but now, viewed up close, it looked different from what I had expected. It was much narrower but more turbulent, frothy in places and full of small eddies. The water was slightly green-"Yalu" means "duck green" in Chinese. A beardless old man selling spiced pumpkin seeds on the street told me that in summertime the river often overflowed and washed away crops, apple trees, houses. Sometimes the flood drowned livestock and people.
One morning I went downtown to an army hotel to fetch some slides that showed the current situation in Korea. On my way there, I saw a squadron of Mustangs coming to strafe the people working on the twin bridges over the Yalu. As the sirens shrilled, dozens of antiaircraft guns fired at the planes, around which flak explosions clustered like black blossoms. One of the Mustangs was hit the moment it dropped its bombs, drawing a long tail of smoke and darting toward the Yellow Sea. As they watched the falling plane and the hovering parachute, some civilians applauded and shouted, "Good shot!"
We drilled with our new weapons and learned about the other units' experiences in fighting the American and the South Korean armies. We all knew the enemy was better equipped and highly mechanized with air support, which we didn't have. But our superiors told us not to be afraid of the American troops, who had been spoiled and softened by comforts. GIs couldn't walk and were road-bound, depending completely on automobiles; if no vehicles were available, they'd hire Korean porters to carry their bedrolls and food. Even their enlisted men didn't do KP and had their shoes shined by civilians. Worst of all, having no moral justification for the war, they lacked the determination to fight. They were all anxious to have a vacation, which they would be given monthly. Even if we were inferior in equipment, we could make full use of our tactics of night fighting and close combat. At the mere sight of us, the Americans would go to their knees and surrender-they were just pussycats. To arouse the soldiers' hatred for the enemy, a group of men, led by a political instructor, pulled around a hand truck loaded with a huge bomb casing which was said to be evidence that the U.S. was carrying on bacteriological warfare. They displayed the thing at every battalion, together with photographs of infected creatures, such as giant flies, rats, mosquitoes, clams, cockroaches, earthworms. The germ bomb, which was said to have landed near the train station, was almost five feet long and two feet across, with four sections inside. This kind of bomb, we were told, would not explode; it would just open up when it hit the ground to release the germ carriers. To be honest, some of us had rubbed shoulders with Americans when we were in the Nationalist army, and we were unnerved, because we knew the enemy was not only superior in equipment but also better trained.
Throughout this period we attended regular meetings at which both civilians and soldiers would condemn American imperialism. An old peasant said his only farm cattle, a team of two, had been shot dead by a U.S. plane while he was harvesting sweet potatoes in his field near the border. A woman soldier walked around among the audience, holding up large photographs of Korean women and children killed by the South Korean army. A reporter spoke about many atrocities committed by the American invaders. Sometimes the speakers seized the occasion to vent their own grievances. They often identified the United States as the source of their personal troubles. A college graduate of dark complexion even claimed to an audience of eight hundred that his health had been ruined by the American film industry, because he had watched too many pornographic movies from which he had learned how to masturbate. Now he couldn't control himself anymore, he confessed publicly. These kinds of condemnations, high and low, boosted the morale of the soldiers, who grew restless, eager to wipe out the enemy of the common people.
On the night of March 17 we crossed the Yalu. Every infantryman carried a submachine gun, two hundred rounds of ammunition, four grenades, a canteen of water, a pair of rubber sneakers and a short shovel on the back of his bedroll, and a tubed sack of parched wheat flour weighing thirteen pounds. We walked gingerly on the eastern bridge, because the western one was partly damaged. Each man kept ten feet from the one in front of him. The water below was dark, hissing and plunging. Now and then someone would cry out, his foot having fallen through a hole. A tall mule, drawing a cart, got its hind leg stuck in a rift and couldn't dislodge it no matter how madly the driver thrashed its hindquarters. The moment I passed the tilted cart, it shook, then keeled over and fell into the river together with the helpless animal. There was a great splash, followed by an elongated whirlpool in the shimmering current, and then the entire load of medical supplies vanished.
Having left behind our insignias and IDs, from now on we called ourselves the Chinese People's Volunteers. This was to differentiate us from the army back home, so that China, nominally having not sent its regular troops to Korea, might avoid a full-blown war with the United States. We were ordered to reach, within fourteen days, a town called Yichun, very close to the Thirty-eighth Parallel. The distance was about four hundred miles, and we would have to walk all the way. It was early spring, the air still chilly; the roads were muddy, soaked by thawing ice and snow, hard for us to trudge through. The divisional headquarters had two jeeps that transported the leaders and their staff. Sometimes the jeeps would drop off the officers and turn back to collect some limping men and those who could no longer march thanks to blisters on their feet. I walked the whole time except for once, when Commissar Pei wanted me to get on his jeep so that I could figure out the meaning of the English words on a folded handbill someone had picked up on the way. It turned out to be the menu of a restaurant in Seoul, which must have served Americans mainly, because the menu was only in English. I couldn't understand all the words, but could roughly describe the dishes and soups to Pei Shan. The entrees included broiled flounder filet, beef steak, fried chicken, meat loaf.
Besides the commissar's orderly, a clerical officer named Chang Ming, who edited our division's bulletin, often boarded the jeep. I envied him for that. Whenever we stopped somewhere for the night, Chang Ming would be busy interviewing people and writing articles.
Commissar Pei seemed a born optimist. He often laughed heartily, jutting his chin and showing his buckteeth. He looked more like a warrior than a political officer. By contrast, our division commander, Niu Jinping, was a wisp of a man, who had once been the vice director of the Political Department of the Sixty-second Army. I often saw a cunning light in Niu's round eyes; in his presence I was always cautious about what I said. When he smiled he seldom opened his lips, chuckling through his nose as if his mouth were stuffed with food. He was a chain-smoker, and his orderly carried a whole bag of brand-name cigarettes for him. Both the commander and the commissar were in their early thirties, and neither was experienced in directing battle operations.
Back in Dandong City, I hadn't been able to imagine the magnitude of the war's destruction. Now, to my horror, I saw that most villages east of the Yalu lay in ruins. The land looked empty, with at least four-fifths of the houses leveled to the ground. The standing ones were mostly deserted. Most of the Korean houses were shabby, with thatched hip roofs and walls made of mud plastered to bundles of cornstalks. Many of them were mere huts that had gaping holes as windows. It must have been hard to farm this rugged land, where boulders and rocks stuck out of the ground everywhere; yet it seemed every scrap of tillable soil was used, and even low hills were terraced with small patches of cropland. We came across Korean civilians from time to time. Most of them were in rags, women in white dresses that had faded into yellow, and old men wearing black top hats with chin straps, reminding me of Chinese men of ancient times. Here and there roads had been cratered, and teams of Chinese laborers were busy filling the holes, carrying earth and stones with wicker baskets affixed to A-frames. The farther south we went, the fewer houses remained intact, and as a result most of us had to sleep in the open air.
Generally, during the day it wasn't safe for us to march, because American planes would come in droves to attack us. So only after nightfall could we move forward. After Shandeng, a rural town, the air raids were constant and sometimes even took place at night. Every infantryman carried at least sixty pounds while each horse was loaded with five times more. Without enough sleep and rest, the troops were soon footsore and exhausted. On the fifth day heavy rain set in and made it impossible for us to lie on the ground to sleep. Some officers in our Political Department clustered together with a piece of tarpaulin over their heads. Many men, too tired to care about the downpour, simply put their bedrolls on the ground, sat on them, and tried to doze that way. Some, staying in a chestnut grove, tied themselves to the trees with ropes so that they could catnap while remaining on their feet. The rain continued in the afternoon, and because we couldn't sleep and the enemy bombers were unlikely to come in such weather, we ate our lunch-which was parched flour mixed with water, as sticky as batter-and went on our way.
The following night, as the divisional staff was about to enter a canyon, suddenly three green signal flares whooshed up ahead of us. At first I thought they must have been fired by our vanguard, but then some officers began to whisper that someone on the mountain was signaling our whereabouts to the enemy. I had heard that a good number of Korean agents worked for the Americans on the sly, but I hadn't expected to encounter something like this in the wilderness. As we were talking about the possible meanings of those signals, four planes appeared in the southeast, roaring toward us.
"Take cover!" a voice ordered.
Some of us rushed into the nearby bushes and some lay down in the roadside ditches. The planes dropped a few flash bombs, a shower of light illuminating the entire area; our troops and vehicles at once became visible. Then bombs rained down and machine guns began raking us. Some horses and mules were startled and vaulted over the prostrate men, dashing away into the darkness. A bomb exploded in front of me and tossed half a pine sapling into the sky. I lay facedown on the slope of a gully, not daring to lift my head to the scorching air, and keeping my mouth open so that the explosions wouldn't pop my eardrums. Around me, men hollered and moaned, and some were twisting on the ground screaming for help. Some, though dead or unconscious, were still clutching their submachine guns.
The bombardment lasted only five minutes but killed about a hundred men and wounded many more. Along the road, flames and smoke were rising from shattered carts and disabled mountain guns. As I looked for Chang Ming, I saw two orderlies coming my way, supporting an officer. I recognized the officer, Tang Jing, the quartermaster of our divisional staff. He looked all right, though one of the orderlies kept shouting, "Doctor, doctor! We need a doctor here!" But all the medical personnel were busy helping the seriously wounded, assembling them for shipment back to our rear base. Division commander Niu ordered an engineering company to dig a large grave at the edge of a birch wood to bury the dead.
Finally Dr. Wang turned up with a flashlight and asked Tang Jing, "Where were you hit?"
The quartermaster didn't register the question, his fleshy face vacant while his eyes glittered without a blink.
"Are you injured?" the doctor asked again.
Tang Jing opened his mouth but no sound came out. He was trembling all over, unable to speak a word. Dr. Wang felt his forehead and then his pulse. Everything seemed normal, so he didn't know what to do. We had to reassemble and continue to march, but we were unsure whether we should take the quartermaster along. Another doctor, Li Wen, arrived, and together the two doctors checked him again, but they found nothing unusual except that his temperature was slightly above normal.
"Shell shock. He lost his mind," said Dr. Li.
"Can he hear?" an orderly asked.
"I'm not sure."
"What should we do about him?"
"We'd better send him back. It'll take a long time for him to recover."
"I can't believe this," said Chang Ming, who had joined us for a while. "He's such a strapping man, yet he lost his mind so easily."
The two orderlies helped the quartermaster to his feet and walked him toward a team of stretcher bearers who were going to carry the wounded back to our base. I had been struck by the vast number of Chinese laborers in Korea. Most of them came from Manchuria, and some were over forty years old. They were able to mix with the Koreans because they could speak Japanese, which had been taught in both Manchurian and Korean schools during the Japanese occupation; yet their lives here were as precarious as the soldiers'. Although constantly under air and artillery attacks, they had to repair roads, build bridges, unload supplies, and ship the casualties back from the front. A lot of them had been killed or wounded. Right in front of me walked a reedy boy, about fifteen years old, carrying one end of a stretcher, on which lay a man with his face bandaged. The wounded man kept wailing, "They lied to us! They lied to us!"
Our divisional leaders were unsettled by the loss of lives, equipment, animals, and supplies, but I was more shaken by Tang Jing's case. For a whole week his expressionless face went on haunting me. Never had I thought a man's mind was so easy to destroy.
The next morning, on a roadway leading to Seoul, we ran into a group of U.N. prisoners, about seventy men, marching past us from the opposite direction. The majority of them were Turks, some tall, some quite short, with haggard faces. At the end of the procession were about a dozen Americans, mostly large men wearing parkas. One of them wore steel-rimmed glasses and a tufty red beard. The POWs couldn't walk fast on account of injury and fatigue, and some hobbled along, one using a shovel handle as a crutch. The Chinese guards, toting rifles with fixed bayonets, were rough with them. One officer yelled in a strident voice, "Faster, don't drop behind! You need a ride, eh? I tell you, we have no vehicles to relieve your pampered feet." Although the prisoners couldn't understand him, they looked frightened and hung their heads low.
The encounter cheered us up a little. Our political officers began working to convince the rank and file of the enemy's weakness despite their airpower. Likewise, the U.N. side had never slackened its psychological work either. The roads we trod were strewn with leaflets, dropped by American planes and printed in both Chinese and Korean, urging us to capitulate. One had an ancient couplet on it: "How piteously the skeletons lie on the riverside / Still dreaming of a pretty bride!" Another showed a woodcut in which a young woman stood on the shoulder of a mountain, gazing into the distance, longing for her man's return. We had been ordered to ignore the leaflets. Many men pocketed them to roll cigarettes with or to use as toilet paper, but once you glanced through these sheets, a heavy sadness would stir in your chest, sinking your heart.
Our food supplies, carried by the horse carts, had been used up by the end of the first week, so now the only thing we had to eat was the parched flour in the tubed sacks draped across our chests. Some men found and picked wild herbs-dandelions, purslanes, wild chives, and onions. There was a kind of wild garlic in Korea, whose heads were still tiny but good-tasting, pungent and crispy, not as spicy as the regular garlic. You could eat both their heads and their green tops, but they were scarce in the early spring when most herbs were just beginning to sprout. Some trees were sending out yellowish leaves, which many men plucked and ate. I didn't eat many wild herbs or tree leaves, because I couldn't tell poisonous ones from good ones. Quite a few men were not as cautious and suffered food poisoning.
There were so many troops moving toward and back from the front that as soon as it was dark, the roads turned chaotic, noisy, and jammed with traffic-trucks, artillery pieces, carts drawn by animals, teams of Chinese porters carrying supplies and ammunition, and lines of stretchers loaded with the wounded. Once I saw a camel laden with mortar shells. Every night each regiment of our division had about a hundred stragglers, incapacitated by exhaustion and sore feet. A movement was started among the ranks, called "Leave No Comrade Behind." Officers and Party members were supposed to help carry bedrolls, guns, and bandoliers for those who had difficulty keeping up. I was moved when I saw squad and platoon leaders fetch hot water for their men to bathe their feet. This marked a difference between the Communist army and the Nationalist army, in which even some junior officers had eaten better food than their men and had often abused their inferiors.
We arrived at the Thirty-eighth Parallel on time, but a third of our division could no longer stand on their feet. My legs were swollen and one of my shoes had lost its sole. Our divisional leaders pleaded with the Headquarters of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army for a week's rest, but the superiors allowed us only one day off. We ate a hearty meal-rice and pork stewed with turnip and broad potato noodles. After the meal, like sick animals, we slept in the mountain woods for the rest of the day.
2. OUR COLLAPSE SOUTH
OF THE THIRTY-EIGHTH PARALLEL
The fourth-phase offensive had just ended two months ago in February; I wondered why we were starting the fifth one so soon. Common sense dictates that the success of a large battle depends on the buildup of supplies and munitions and on the thorough preparation of troops. Although several field armies had just arrived from interior China, most of the men were bone-weary from the arduous trek and unfamiliar with the foreign climate and terrain, let alone the nature of the enemy we faced. We were told that this offensive would wipe out ten American and Korean divisions and drive all the hostile forces to the south of the Thirty-seventh Parallel. In our superiors' words, "We're going to eliminate some of their unit designations." I had misgivings about that because our equipment was far too inferior, but I didn't reveal my thoughts to anyone. For the time being my job was to help Chang Ming edit the bulletin. Ming had graduated from Beijing University and majored in classics, for which he was well respected, even by higher-ranking officers. He also knew English but couldn't speak it fluently. I spoke the language better than most college graduates because in my teens I had attended classes taught by an American missionary in my hometown.
On the evening of April 22, 1951, suddenly thousands of our cannons, howitzers, mortars, and Katyusha rocket launchers began bombarding the enemy's positions; thus started the fifth-phase offensive. As usual when the Chinese forces unleashed a major attack, a full moon hung in the sky, ready to facilitate our men's night fighting. Our Sixtieth Field Army, composed of the 179th, 180th, and 181st Divisions, was assigned to attack the Turkish Brigade and the U.S. Third Division, both positioned in front of us. The battle proceeded so smoothly that our divisional leaders were bewildered-in just one day we advanced more than ten miles without encountering any serious resistance. Why didn't the enemy engage us? Had they been overwhelmed by our bombardment? Or were they just eluding us? Or was this a ruse to lure us farther south? Our superiors had their doubts, but neither Commander Niu nor Commissar Pei, who lacked the requisite training and experience of senior officers, could guess what was happening. They just executed the orders issued by headquarters. As a rule, without approval from higher up, they were not allowed to order troop movements. This restriction, leaving no room for the officers' own initiative, directly contributed to our later defeat.
We stayed put for several days and didn't go farther into enemy-occupied territory. A week later when the second stage of the offensive started, most of the Chinese and the North Korean troops swerved east to attack the South Korean army. Our division's task was to wedge ourselves between the American and the South Korean forces, specifically to prevent the U.S. First Marine and Seventh Divisions from moving east to reinforce the South Koreans. We occupied the hills south of the Han River, whose water wasn't deep in spite of its swift current, and thanks to the favorable terrain we held our position for five days. The two American divisions didn't break our defense line, though they were superior in both firepower and number.
By now, most of the Chinese and North Korean field armies were thrust deep inside enemy-occupied territory; some had pushed forward seventy miles south of the Thirty-eighth Parallel. Then the order came for all units to stop attacking. Obviously the operation had gone awry. The truth was that our field armies had advanced so fast and so deep that our supply lines had crumbled. Apart from the logistical disaster, our men on the front had suffered heavy casualties. The enemy had adopted "magnet tactics"-whether we attacked or retreated, they would always remain close enough to inflict casualties on our forces. This time they dragged our troops deep into South Korea, cut their connections with the echelons, isolated and encircled them, and tried to annihilate them. Apparently the enemy had gained the upper hand, so the Headquarters of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army had to call off the offensive. Most of the line officers had no idea of the situation, and some even assumed we had won a victory. I came to know of the truth because I often served as a secretary at the meetings at which our divisional leaders discussed plans of action.
A few days later the Americans launched an all-out counterattack. Their artillery shells and aerial bombs landed on the hills defended by our division, loosening the dirt and cutting down trees, some of which burst into flames. Despite not knowing what to do or where to go, we held our line and fought back the enemy's advances again and again. Not until the afternoon of May 22 did we receive orders to move north, cross the Han River, and build a defense along its north bank. Immediately we began to retreat. But that same evening another telegram came, ordering us not to cross the river, and instead to set up a defense line on the south shore and hold it for four days to cover thousands of wounded men being shipped back from the front. This was easier said than done. We had no food left, and our right flank would be exposed-the Sixty-third Army, which was supposed to cover it, had already retreated to the north of the river. How on earth could we fight in such disarray? The enemy saw our predicament, so they assembled more men, tanks, and artillery, and kept pursuing us.
Reading Group Guide
PEN/Faulkner Award Winner and
New York Times Best Book of the Year
“Powerfully moving. . . . Brilliant and original. . . . Timeless and universal. . . . Nearly perfect.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of Ha Jin’s new novel War Trash, the winner of the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
1. The novel opens with Yuan’s description of his tattoo and his plan to have it removed. He is writing his story, he says, in order that his children and grandchildren may read it and “feel the full weight of the tattoo on my belly” [p. 5]. What has it meant, for Yuan, to have his body marked with political slogans? How is the writing of his memoir related to the removal of his tattoo?
2. Yuan wants his grandson to become a doctor and wishes he himself had been one: “If I were born again, I would study medical science devotedly. . . . Doctors and nurses 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” [p. 5]. Is Yuan’s reverence for doctors largely a tribute to Dr. Greene, who operated on his injured leg? What does the statement suggest about Yuan’s feelings about his life as an English teacher?
3. War Trash is narrated entirely in the first person by the novel’s protagonist. How effective is the narrative voice in adding realism to the story? Do you agree with Russell Banks, who wrote, “You have to keep reminding yourself that this is a work of fiction and not an actual memoir” [The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 2004]. How does the intimacy of the narrative affect your preconceptions about the Korean War and its aftermath?
4. Why do the pro-Nationalist soldiers hate the Communist soldiers so much? Why do most of the prisoners hold on so fiercely to their factional loyalties, particularly given their remoteness from the ongoing drama of the war and the uncertainty of their fates upon returning home? What do the uprising and the kidnapping of General Bell, and later the battle over the flag at Cheju Island, tell us about the energies of the prisoners?
5. Yuan is an idealist, as Dr. Greene has pointed out [p. 54], and on Koje Island he observes the deterioration of his fellow prisoners as they fight over food: “When led by the Communists, they had been good soldiers and seemed high-minded and their lives had possessed a purpose, but now they were on the verge of becoming animals. How low could an ordinary man fall when he didn’t serve a goal larger than himself?” [p. 69] Yet as time goes by, Yuan finds that those who rigidly devote themselves to ideological causes also become less human. Does he continue to believe in the idea of serving a goal larger than himself?
6. In explaining why he has been instrumental in discriminating against the Communist soldiers, Father Woodworth tells Yuan, “I’m not just a clergyman but also a soldier. I came with both the book and the sword” [p. 81]. Is it possible to be both a clergyman and a soldier? Why does Yuan conclude, “My conversation with him upset me profoundly and shattered my illusion that there might be shelter in God’s bosom for every person” [p. 81]?
7. After Yuan’s friend Ding Wanlin is tortured by the Americans, the Communists suspect him of having given up information about Pei and kill him. What is most painful to Yuan about Wanlin’s death?
8. When pro-Nationalist leader Wang tells Yuan that the Communists “use men like ammo,” he thinks, “[Wang’s] words conjured up the horrible image I hadn’t been able to shake off—that the war was an enormous furnace fed by the bodies of soldiers” [p. 76]. What events contribute to Yuan’s growing disillusionment with Commissar Pei and the Party members? What is most unsettling about the ideological fervor of the Communists?
9. Yuan notes, “In the art of inflicting pain, the Chinese and the Koreans were much more expert than the Americans” [p. 86], and he describes their various methods. Yet he also describes the Americans’ use of the water jail in their torture of Commissar Pei [p. 85] and recounts how “a GI shot a prisoner, a latrine man, who had accidentally tripped and splattered a bucket of night soil onto the jeep the GI was driving. The man bled to death before the ambulance came” [p. 245]. What is the tone in which Yuan describes these acts of torture? What is the experience of reading War Trash in the wake of events in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo?
10. Wang tells Yuan that he seems like someone who will have “a great career”: “Why can’t you go to Taiwan with us? Without an able man among us, no one here will get anywhere, and again we’ll be dumped to the bottom of society” [pp. 96–97]. What is it about Yuan—aside from his command of English—that seems to set him apart and makes all factions in the prison, including the Americans, desire his loyalty?
11. The pro-Nationalists tattoo Yuan and Dajian with anti-Communist slogans, eviscerate a man before their eyes, and later force them at knifepoint to declare their destination as Taiwan or have their tattoos removed with a primitive knife. Yuan realizes that they had only tattooed “those who would be valuable to them and those who were their deadly enemies” [p. 111]. Having chosen Taiwan in his terror, Yuan thinks, “Deep down, I wished I could have been as brave as a genuine Communist, who, crazed and fanatic, viewed death without flinching” [p. 112]. What details contribute most powerfully to the horror of the scenes on pages 101–12 in which the pro-Nationalists attempt to win converts?
12. What is the significance of Yuan’s Bible reading, and why is the loss of his Bible so difficult for him [p. 128]? How does the Bible—particularly Ecclesiastes—influence Yuan’s philosophical and spiritual outlook on life [p. 317]?
13. After the uprising, an American lieutenant expresses his anger about the prisoners’ having ruined General Bell’s career: “He played baseball with us. He’s a powerful pitcher.” Yuan replies, “I’m sorry for him. Also for the hundreds of Koreans killed in Compound 76 and for the villagers whose homes were burned down” [p. 192]. What does this exchange tell us about the difference in sensibility between Yuan and Lieutenant East? How do the Americans and their behavior come across in Yuan’s narrative?
14. What kinds of resonance does the title War Trash carry, particularly in view of the dignity of Yuan’s narration? What are the connotations of the words, and do they extend beyond prisoners like Yuan?
15. Why does Julan refuse to marry Yuan once he returns, given his devotion to her? Is it possible, since the message comes from Julan’s brother, that her family has insisted that she refuse to see Yuan again? Compare her brother’s message [p. 344] with Yuan’s memory of their last night together, when Julan told him, “From this day on I’m your wife. Remember, even if I’m dead, my ghost shall be with you” [p. 137].
16. Russell Banks writes that while War Trash is a “powerfully moving . . . nearly perfect” novel, it is not an entertaining one: “Jin does not wish to entertain but to inform and put his readers in a place where most of us would choose not to linger. . . . Readers are likely to finish War Trash feeling like they, too, have escaped this terrible camp” [The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 2004]. How does the pace of the story contribute to this feeling of being inside the novel? In forging so powerful a relationship between the protagonist and the reader, what does Ha Jin achieve?
17. If you have read other novels or memoirs in which ordinary people bear witness to devastating historical events, how would you compare War Trash to them? What does Yuan’s story reveal about history and ideological struggle? How effectively does the story convey what it feels like to be used, punished, betrayed, or forgotten by one’s country?
18. Ha Jin has said that War Trash will be his last book on China; he wants to write about the immigrant experience and is working on a novel set in America. How might the loss of home experienced by Yuan and the other prisoners compare to the life of the writer in exile?
19. How surprising is the fate the former prisoners face upon their return to China? What is the effect of reading about the three principles imposed upon the prisoners, the study sessions and the denunciations they face? How would you define Yuan’s philosophical attitude as he arrives at the end of his story?