The Asian Wall Street Journal
13 November 1998
Ha Jin, avuncular and unassuming with his heavy-rimmed spectacles and gentle demeanor, sits high in his chair, center stage. The author is in town for the awarding of the Kiriyama Book Prize, a San Francisco-based literary award for which he is a finalist. He answers questions with a soft-spoken ease, but when asked to respond to the often-heard statement that he is “a genius,” Mr. Jin falters. There is a bashful pause before he answers with a hint of laughter in his voice, “My teachers always have more faith in me than I do.”
Modest words from a writer who has taken the American literary world by storm. Mr. Jin’s haunting portraits of life in China, particularly during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, are shattering conventional expectations of what it is to be a “Chinese writer,” and at the same time attracting torrents of praise.
Mr. Jin’s stories and poems have been widely anthologized and can be found in the “Best American Short Stories of 1997” and the “Norton Introduction to Literature.” Since 1990, he has published two books of poetry, two collections of short stories and two novels — all of which have earned him critical acclaim. Last year, “Ocean of Words” (Zoland, 1996), his collection of stories depicting life as a soldier with the People’s Liberation Army, won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway award, and another collection, “Under the Red Flag” (University of Georgia, 1997) walked away with the equally prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award.
Yet the author’s path to American literary acclaim has been far from traditional. One of six children, Ha Jin was born into a military family in 1956 in Liaoning Province in northeast China. His father was an army officer; his mother, a low-ranking cadre. The family moved frequently, and his schooling was sporadic at best. In 1969, at the tender age of 13, he too joined the army. It was the height of the Cultural Revolution, and most schools were closed. His experiences during his five-year stint in the army along the China-Russia border would later provide the fodder for much of his fiction and poetry.
After serving in the army, Mr. Jin worked for three years as a telegrapher for a railroad in Manchuria before entering China’s Harbin University in 1977. In 1985, he received a scholarship to study at Brandeis University in the U.S., and it was there that he first began to write in English. In 1990, with the encouragement of his teachers, the American poets Allen Grossman and Frank Bidart, Mr. Jin published his first collection of poems, “Between Silences” (University of Chicago). With the success of his subsequent books, he now sits on the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches literature and creative writing and lives with his wife and son.
Success, however, did not come easy. “Ocean of Words” was sent to dozens of publishers before it was finally accepted. Mr. Jin recalls the words of one publisher who wrote in a rejection that “The author deals with the subject in a poetic way but we don’t see the market for this work . . . we don’t see the point of publishing a Chinese fiction writer.”
Indeed, the question of why Mr. Jin’s writing appeals to an American audience is an interesting one. Many of his stories recount the breakdown of morality and the cruelty that was so pervasive in China during the Cultural Revolution. “Man To Be,” for instance, a story from his collection “Under the Red Flag,” tells of a vengeful husband who invites a gang of militia men to rape his wife as a punishment for her supposed adultery:
“Now it was Nan’s turn,” he writes. “. . . He grabbed her hair and pulled her face over to see closely what she looked like. She opened her eyes, which were full of sparkling tears and staring at him. He was surprised by the fierce eyes but could not help observing them. Somehow her eyes were changing — the hatred and the fear were fading, and beneath their blurred surfaces loomed a kind of beauty and sadness that was bottomless.”
Mr. Jin’s poignant and sometimes shocking narratives stem from his own experience, much of which has been painful. “For a writer, it’s most important to tell the truth,” he says. “It’s not just that the people in the stories are cruel; their lives shaped them to be like that.”
“Resurrection,” another story in “Under the Red Flag,” tells of Lu Han, a peasant who commits adultery with his wife’s sister. When local officials hear of the crime he is forced to make a written confession. Unsatisfied with the blandness of his first effort, the officials demand a more lurid confession no less than 100 pages long. Paper, ink and pens are supplied so that Lu Han can provide full details of every encounter with his sister-in-law. Desperately ashamed and cornered in his house by officials, Lu Han castrates himself with a pair of scissors. Eerily, he is then congratulated by his fellow town folk for ridding himself of his moral corruption so completely.
Written in 1989, Mr. Jin says “Resurrection” was an allegory for his anger and grief after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Expecting some response to the incident, the author says he became disillusioned when there was no ensuing uprising and the situation in China gradually returned to normalcy. “Resurrection,” he says, reflects how we “castrated ourselves” by not responding to the bloodshed in Beijing. Further, the elevation of the character Lu Han to hero status underscores the warped morality of the residents of a small Chinese village under Communist rule.
Mr. Jin says he does not aim to shock with his stories. Rather he intends to document the harsh reality of life in contemporary China. In the preface to his collection of poems, “Between Silences,” he writes, “The people in this book are not merely victims of history. They are also the makers of the history. Without them the history of contemporary China would remain a blank page. . . . If what has been said in this book is embarrassing, then truth itself is cold and brutal. If not every one of these people, who were never perfect, is worthy of our love, at least their fate deserves our attention and our memory. They should talk and be talked about.”
That an American audience is embracing Mr. Jin’s work reflects America’s growing desire to understand the history so crucial to shaping the identity of China today. But this gifted author transcends the boundaries of being a “Chinese writer” who writes in the English language. His stories are more than historical records and political allegories; they document, with much grace, universal emotions and desires. As the poet Allen Grossman has said, “Ha Jin brings to mind — intelligently, with great humor and unfailing grace — the irreducible humanity of common people.”