Saboteur

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Editor: Sara Constantakis
Date: 2011
Short Stories for Students
From: Short Stories for Students(Vol. 32. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 19
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Saboteur

HA JIN 2000

Chinese Americanémigré Ha Jin is a poetry and fiction writer who has accomplished a transition executed masterfully by very few authors: that of writing not in his native language but in English as an adopted language. Jin lived in China for the first twenty-nine years of his life. His father was an army officer, so the family moved frequently in his youth, leaving him with a diminished sense of home. He enlisted in the Chinese army at the age of fourteen and served for five years, and he later pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature. He came to the United States to seek a doctoral degree with the expectation that he would return to China, but the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 led him to reconsider. He has lived in the United States ever since.

Much of Jin's early work is striking in that incidents taking place in China were originally written in English, not translated from Chinese. The short story “Saboteur,” which appears in the collection The Bridegroom (2000), takes place in the fictional Muji City in northeast China. A university lecturer and Communist Party member named Mr. Chiu is framed by two police officers, for unclear reasons, for causing a public disturbance. His detention and manipulation by the police while experiencing an attack of hepatitis stir great resentment in him, with tragic results.

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Ha Jin

Ha Jin (AP Images)

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Xuefei Jin, who writes as Ha Jin, was born on February 21, 1956, in Jinzhou, China, where his father, a People's Liberation Army officer, was stationed at the time. The name Xuefei means “Snow Flying,” as Jin was born at the time of a great snowstorm. He attended boarding school at age seven, but two years later he returned home because of the mass closure of schools during Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution. This political program was intended to reinvigorate the nation's Communist ideology, and it which ultimately entailed the persecution of the bourgeoisie (the materialist middle class) and intellectuals. Jin's family was targeted because his grandfather had been a landowner, and most of his father's books were burned in a bonfire on the street. Jin joined the Little Red Guard, the youth faction of the student-led nationalist group, and spent several years “wearing red armbands, waving flags and singing revolutionary songs,” as he told Dwight Garner of the New York Times Magazine.

Jin lied about his age to enlist in the Chinese army at only fourteen, out of both fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union and a desire to be a hero. As he bided his time at a frigid northern outpost, he happened upon a translation of Leo Tolstoy's epic War and Peace and was surprised to feel a kinship with the Russians. He was discharged from the army at nineteen and, with schools still closed, became a telegraph operator, learning English from a radio program in his spare time. When colleges were reopened in 1977, Jin gained admission to Heilongjiang University, in the city of Harbin (the first part of which, Ha, would become his pen name), to major in English. The drills in English speech proved daunting, leading Jin and his classmates to seek painkillers to ease their aching facial muscles. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1981, Jin studied American literature at Shandong University, studying the likes of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. He married Lisha Bian in 1982, and their son, Wen, was born the following year. In 1984 Jin earned a master's degree, and the following year he traveled overseas to Brandeis University in Massachusetts to pursue a doctorate; his wife joined him in 1987. After the horrific Page 233  |  Top of Articlemassacre of students and protesters by the Chinese army in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Jin determined to remain in the United States; luckily, Wen was able to soon leave China and join his parents.

Ensconced in the American literary scene, Jin resolved to forsake Chinese and write in English, beginning with the poetry collection Between Silences: A Voice from China (1990), addressing the impact of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of a disillusioned former soldier and expatriate. He wrote about modern poetry for his doctoral dissertation, and he enrolled in creative writing classes at Boston University. His first and second short-story collections, Ocean of Words: Army Stories (1996) and Under the Red Flag (1997), both portraying life in China, won significant short-fiction awards, and his novel Waiting (1999) won the National Book Award. “Saboteur” appears in The Bridegroom (2000). In his more recent work, including the novel A Free Life, Jin has turned to writing about immigrant experiences in America. After teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Jin moved on to a professorship at Boston University, which he held as of 2010.

PLOT SUMMARY

“Saboteur” opens with Mr. Chiu and his new wife—who is referred to almost exclusively as “his bride” and is never named—eating a peaceful meal at a café outside the train station in the fictional Muji City. At an adjacent table, two policeman, one a “stout, middle-aged man,” the other a younger man who is “tall and of athletic build,” are laughing over tea. Mentions of the air smelling of rotten fruit and vendors calling out lazily suggest that it may be a very warm day. The mention of the statue of “Chairman Mao” in the square is a reference to Mao Tse-tung, the Communist leader of China from 1949 to 1976. Mr. Chiu is glad that his two-week honeymoon has come to an end, especially because only three months earlier he had suffered a bout of hepatitis, affecting his liver, and he remains anxious about possibly suffering a relapse. Hepatitis is most frequently a viral infection. The Chius are returning to their hometown of Harbin, an actual city located in the region known as Manchuria, in the far northeast corner of China (east of Mongolia and north of North Korea), in Heilongjiang Province.

Mr. Chiu's bride mentions that she has a headache; he suggests taking an aspirin, but she declines. At this point, the stout policeman splashes tea on them, dousing their sandals. After the bride curses the policeman, Mr. Chiu expresses his indignation, nonetheless respectfully addressing the officer as “Comrade Policeman.” The policeman acts as though he has done nothing, but Mr. Chiu presses the matter, accusing the officer of having “tortured” them and violating the law. A large crowd has by now gathered round, and the policemen elect to take Mr. Chiu into custody, quickly handcuffing him. Mr. Chiu objects, but the stout officer brandishes his pistol, while the young officer labels him a “saboteur.” The bride can only mumble insignificantly as Mr. Chiu resists, citing the train they need to catch, earning himself a punch in the chest and a rap on the hand with the pistol. As he is dragged away, Mr. Chiu instructs his bride to take the train and send someone back if he fails to follow.

Later, Mr. Chiu is found inhabiting a cell at the Railroad Police Station, with a single barred window overlooking a yard. Exhausted, he lies down to reflect on his circumstances. The fact that the Cultural Revolution has ended (setting the story sometime after 1976) allows Mr. Chiu to be unafraid of what might befall him. The Cultural Revolution was a time of political upheaval and social chaos, as Mao Tse-tung inspired youth to form militant revolutionary groups across the nation with the goal of purging capitalist interests from the nation. Mao Tsetung died in 1976, and reforms associated with the revolution were discontinued within the next couple of years. Recently, Mr. Chiu notes, the Communist Party has been “propagating the idea” of legal equality among all citizens. He accordingly expects the institution of law enforcement to be “a law-abiding model for common people.”

He is taken to an interrogation room, and on the way, the stout policeman crosses his path and fires an imaginary pistol at him. Mr. Chiu curses, and the burp he produces upon sitting is perhaps the first physiological indication that he may be in danger of a hepatitis relapse. He is surprised to see that the police there have a large file on him. The bureau chief asks Mr. Chiu some basic questions and then informs him that his crime is sabotage and he will be punished, especially because he has failed to act as a decent Communist. Mr. Chiu insists that the police Page 234  |  Top of Articleofficers in fact accosted him, and he delivers a lengthy lecture on the propriety of the actions of the police. The chief makes clear, though, that the official version of the event has already been determined in the officers' favor, as witnesses confirmed that he caused a public disturbance and disobeyed the officers. Beginning to feel pain in his stomach, Mr. Chiu still objects and refuses to confess and repent as instructed. The police confidently refuse to offer him any apology. As he is escorted out, Mr. Chiu vows to report the police to the Provincial Administration and likens them to the Japanese military police, who occupied swaths of China through the second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937, and World War II, which ended in 1945.

Back in the cell, Mr. Chiu is fed a light, simple meal. After eating, he feels further indications that a relapse is imminent, including a fever and chills, but his medicine is with his bride. Meanwhile, he has no television to watch and nothing to read. Still not frightened, he laments the work he will have to do to catch up after this delay. He tells a guard of his illness and potential death, but the guard tells him nothing will be done until Monday (today is Saturday). That night, Mr. Chiu sleeps well despite the fleas in the bed, as for some reason fleas decline to bite him, and in his fatigue he even appreciates his bride's absence. The next day, Sunday, proves uneventful, with Mr. Chiu devoting his attention to maintaining peace of mind, despite his fever, so as to avoid incurring a full relapse. However, his mind is drawn to “his paper on the nature of contradictions,” and his anger at the police at times overwhelms him. He still believes that he will prove able to force the police to extend him an apology.

Mr. Chiu wakes on Monday morning to the sound of a man moaning; he soon discovers that a former student of his, Fenjin, is tied to a tree in the backyard, with his arms around the trunk behind him and cuffed together. Mr. Chiu realizes that his bride, whom he curses as “a stupid woman,” must have sent this insignificant lawyer rather than an official from Harbin University, where he works. Mr. Chiu feels obligated to help but realizes that at present he can do nothing. A guard informs Mr. Chiu that Fenjin earned his punishment by insulting the bureau chief. Outside, the tall young policeman slaps Fenjin and pours water over his head, which he will do hourly to fend off sunstroke, before glancing up defiantly at Mr. Chiu with his pistol glittering. Taken to speak with the chief again, Mr. Chiu remains confrontational, telling the chief that his detainment of Fenjin is illegal. The chief remains confident that Mr. Chiu has no leverage, not even with the news media.

The chief insists again that Mr. Chiu must admit his crime; if he does not, he must watch Fenjin be tortured in the sun. Beginning to suffer another acute attack of hepatitis, Mr. Chiu can hardly contain his anger as he reads a “self-criticism”—a confession and humble apology—that has been written on his behalf. Being assured of his and Fenjin's imminent release, he reluctantly signs the document. Ailing physically to such a degree that he has difficulty walking, Mr. Chiu harbors murderous thoughts as he exits the building, beltless, to meet Fenjin.

Mr. Chiu apologizes to Fenjin, whose fingers are trembling and whose clothes are wet and dirty, and the two depart the station. Mr. Chiu insists on buying Fenjin a couple of bowls of black tea, and before they go to the train station he proceeds to buy his former student soup at a second food stand and then four dishes at a series of four different restaurants in the vicinity of the police station. While eating, he repeatedly mutters his desire to kill all the policemen. Fenjin finds that Mr. Chiu, whose skin is yellowed and puckered as a result of the hepatitis attack, appears to him, for the first time, to be “an ugly man.” The closing lines of the story note that some eight hundred people in Muji subsequently suffered acute attacks of hepatitis, with six, including two children, dying of the illness.

CHARACTERS

The Bride

The bride of Mr. Chiu seems to be a very timid character. She sparks Mr. Chiu's indignant response to their soaked sandals by calling the policeman a “hooligan,” but once he is being arrested, she is “petrified” and can only mutter, “Oh, please, please!” Mr. Chiu, in fact, professes to be relieved at her absence after the honeymoon, and when she unwisely sends the ineffectual lawyer Fenjin to assist her husband, Mr. Chiu calls her “stupid” and “a bookworm, who only knew how to read foreign novels.” The fact that Mr. Chiu's bride is never named is an indication of her secondary importance Page 235  |  Top of Articleboth to Mr. Chiu, who seems more emotionally committed to his profession, and to the story.

Chiu Maguang

Mr. Chiu, the protagonist of the story, experiences the steady deterioration of his circumstances, his physical condition, and his psyche over the course of the story. As is often considered typical of highly educated professors, Mr. Chiu has a great deal of dignity, which is grounded in his sense of moral clarity. When his sandals are doused, he believes that the police have committed an injustice, and he is determined to right the wrong by lecturing the officer about his duty with regard to the law. He evidently believes in and trusts the institutions of his country, to the extent that he does not consider that there might be repercussions to his publicly accusing the officers of violating the law. When he comes to realize during his first interrogation that he cannot trust the police to operate according to the truth, he shifts his trust to other institutions, namely the news media as represented by the Northeastern Daily newspaper, the judiciary as represented by the People's Court in Beijing, and the government at large in the form of the Provincial Administration.

However, the police chief's confidence that he can do what he likes without consequences shakes Mr. Chiu's confidence in these institutions, and while alone in his cell, he cannot subdue his unresolved anger at the police. Although he appreciates the solitude and the break provided by the detention—an indication of the high level of stress he must ordinarily experience in his life as a university lecturer—his increasing physical discomfort and his concern over the threat of an acute hepatitis relapse heighten his stress about his immediate circumstances. As he inches toward realizing the hopelessness of his self-appointed quest to bring the truth of his unjust arrest to light, he recalls the adage, “When a scholar runs into soldiers, the more he argues, the muddier his point becomes”; this recollection foreshadows his abandoning his pursuit of the truth and relenting to the police chief's demands in the end. However, the mental costs of this defeat are too high: Mr. Chiu's moral order has been compromised. Enraged almost to madness, he proceeds to feverishly wander from restaurant to restaurant, spreading his hepatitis. There can be little doubt that Mr. Chiu spread his viral illness consciously, since “he made up his mind to do something” after signing the false confession. The reader may imagine that, as an ordinary man, Mr. Chiu could not have committed murder in a violent fashion, even in his extreme anger; but a certain psychological distance is allowed when he simply spreads a disease he is infected with, never knowing who might be infected and how seriously ill they might become. Nonetheless, his premeditated actions bring about the deaths of six people, including two children.

Fenjin

Fenjin's role in the story is significant, but his character is not. As a lawyer who does little but domestic detective work, he holds no sway with the police, who use him as leverage against Mr. Chiu by leaving him in a compromised position, secured to a tree in the yard in the blazing sunshine. Fenjin afterward calls the police “savages.” He can only wonder why Mr. Chiu, his former teacher, insists on buying small servings of food at so many different restaurants.

Guards

A number of guards conduct Mr. Chiu from place to place and provide him with information when he is imprisoned.

Police Chief

The police chief, in whom power is centralized at the station, is portrayed more fully than any of the other police officers, mostly through his attitude toward Mr. Chiu. He appears only in the two interrogation scenes. He is confidently dismissive of all of Mr. Chiu's threats as to being held accountable for his officers' and his own actions, and this is surely part of his game: to leave the detainee with the impression that the police are in complete control and have no need to fear retaliation from any given citizen, even a respectable lecturer like Mr. Chiu. Indeed, the police chief seems to rightly believe that no newspaper or television station would run the risk of criticizing police actions with regard to such an insignificant matter, especially since the witness statements support the police. The chief smokes cigarettes, even blowing smoke in Mr. Chiu's face at the close of the first interview.

Scribe

A scribe ostensibly records what is said when Mr. Chiu is first interrogated. When Mr. Chiu is taken to speak with the chief the second time, the scribe is “empty-handed.”

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Second Interrogator

A man described only as “donkey-faced” assists the chief in the interrogations, supplying the witness's statements the first time and the prepared confession the second time.

Stout Policeman

The stout, middle-aged policeman is the one who douses Mr. Chiu's and his bride's sandals with tea, which he denies, and then orders Mr. Chiu's arrest, subduing him with blows. When the stout policeman sees Mr. Chiu in the police station hall, he fires an imaginary pistol at the detainee. The stout policeman's motivation for soaking the couple's shoes is never indicated. One conjecture would be that the police officers benefit somehow by making arrests that lead to convictions or confessions; they may be rewarded for their zeal, or they may even have quotas such as a certain number of arrests per week. Thus, the stout officer may have anticipated, based on Mr. Chiu's appearance and demeanor, that he would be angry enough at the indignity of this strange attack to respond aggressively, giving the officers grounds to arrest him.

Tall Policeman

The young, tall policeman assists the stout one in arresting Mr. Chiu. Later, he slaps Fenjin and dumps water on his head in the police station yard. After glancing up at Mr. Chiu, he spits a cigarette butt into the dust.

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Write a short story that is a fictionalized account of a time when you were frustrated by the unfair actions of people in authority. Write your story from a third-person perspective, in a style similar to Jin's in “Saboteur,” and create a protagonist who is someone other than yourself. Share your short story on a blog and invite comments from your classmates.
  • Research the social and economic conse quences of the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in China in late 2002 and early 2003. Create a multimedia presentation that includes statistics, medical evidence, and personal stories. Post the presentation and links to information on SARS on your Web site.
  • Imagine that you are Mr. Chiu. After your trouble with the police described in “Saboteur,” you are scheduled to give a lecture at your university “on the nature of contradictions,” and so you decide to seize the opportunity to demonstrate your innocence. Devise a PowerPoint presentation that uses persuasive illustrations and graphics to make your case against the police.
  • Read The Communist Manifesto (1848) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (significant excerpts or summaries if not the whole work) and write an essay summarizing the Communist approach to government. For extra credit, create a Venn diagram (overlapping circles) that contrasts the communist philosophy with the capitalist philosophy as expressed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations.
  • Pick a story or essay by a Chinese American from American Dragons: Twenty-five Asian American Voices (1995), edited by Laurence Yep and aimed at young adults. Then, write a reflective paper in which you compare periods of time, events, experiences, or ideas in your own life that relate to those from the story or essay you choose.

THEMES

Political Power

Jin's story vividly illustrates the skewed power dynamic between the police officers, exemplified by the bureau chief, and the captive citizen, Mr. Chiu. China's status as a Communist nation renders this situation inherently different from the case in a democratic country. In a democracy, police chiefs are often elected, and an outcry against a police chief, such as might be raised in a simple letter to the editor of a town newspaper, could very well cost the chief his job. In a Communist society, a police chief is more likely to be appointed and thus to have a working relationship with the superior who assigned him to the post. In turn, this superior may have a similar relationship with his superior, and on up through the levels of government; the linked Page 237  |  Top of Articleofficials likely have overlapping interests and priorities. Thus, these officials are unlikely to carry out or allow actions that reflect poorly on their fellow officials, even if their fellow officials are acting incompetently or illegally. This is a form of corruption that is, to be sure, by no means limited to Communist or nondemocratic nations. Throughout American history, elected officials have demonstrated a willingness to bend and break laws for the sake of fellow officials, friends, or themselves. In any nation, police officers may have more opportunities than other government employees to abuse their power, such as by planting evidence or by misreporting or concealing crimes.

In this story, Mr. Chiu assumes from the beginning of his ordeal that “the police ought to be a law-abiding model for the common people.” But as soon as he puts the police officers in a compromised position by publicly accusing them of breaking the law, they simply arrest him. Even if other people had witnessed the police officer soaking Mr. Chiu's and his bride's sandals, they would clearly not benefit from reporting this information; the police might just label them accomplices and detain them as well, or the police could simply discard the reports provided by these honest witnesses, to show Mr. Chiu only the reports faulting him alone for the public disruption.

Once the material evidence of Mr. Chiu's guilt has been established, the police chief seems convinced that no action taken by Mr. Chiu could possibly threaten his livelihood. The regional newspaper may be unlikely to report such a minor incident of purported corruption because of censorship (the report would be deleted before publication) or because the newspaper depends on government licenses in order to operate, and political allies of the police chief might have the leverage to revoke the newspaper's license if any of its reports are deemed libel against the government. The People's Court in Beijing, in turn, would likely base its findings on the evidence provided by the police, which faults Mr. Chiu. Even if the police chief does not have allies in the Provincial Administration, that level of government would certainly not benefit from the publication of reports that the railroad police in Muji are corrupt, since it would reflect poorly on the province. Thus, although Mr. Chiu cites various ideals of honest governance in demanding an apology from the police, these ideals matter little in the practical functioning of the government that Jin depicts. In the end, in this dynamic, the police have all the power, and Mr. Chiu has none.

Truth

The police and Mr. Chiu prove to have greatly differing conceptions about the nature of truth. The police chief makes clear that the police are in a position to officially determine the truth of past circumstances, as based on the evidence they provide. In the first interrogation, the chief acts as though there is no reason to doubt the account provided by his officers, faulting Mr. Chiu. When Mr. Chiu tries to assert that the truth is otherwise, the chief deflects his pleas by “matter-of-factly” remarking, “That statement is groundless. You have no witness. Why should I believe you?” Even the marks on Mr. Chiu's hand fail to convince the chief that the police officer was the one who injured him. In the second interview, the chief goes further to enlighten Mr. Chiu, directly informing him, “We are not afraid of any story you make up. We call it fiction.” Thus, the police operate not according to reality but according to the perception of reality that they provide, and it is this that Mr. Chiu finds impossible to accept. Indeed, as a “scholar” and “philosopher,” pursuit of the truth and respect for the truth are part of his job description. His anger first flares when he blurts out, “But I am telling the truth!” Later, when shown the “self-criticism” that he is directed to sign, his conscience sings out, “Lie, lie!” He realizes by now, though, that he has little choice if he wishes to be able to leave the station to get treatment for his hepatitis. Stricken with pain and nausea, Mr. Chiu feverishly disregards his conscience upon signing the false confession; an inner voice tells him the confession is a lie'“but he shook his head and forced the voice away.” Thus, having sacrificed the truth and unbalanced his psyche, Mr. Chiu spirals into a narcissistic rage that allows him to carry out his horrific revenge.

Sabotage

As the title indicates, the idea of sabotage is especially significant to the story. Mr. Chiu is accused by the young policeman of being a saboteur for “disrupting public order.” That is, he is accused of sabotaging the ordinary functioning of society by disrupting people's daily life. This charge may strike the American reader as ridiculous, but in a Communist nation such as China—and China under Deng Xiaoping, who effectively ruled from 1978 through the early Page 238  |  Top of Article1990s, has been characterized as a dictatorship—the politics of the matter can be everything, and even a false charge can bring severe consequences for the accused. Mr. Chiu attempts to reverse the charge by declaring that the police themselves “are the saboteurs of our social order” for having doused his and his wife's sandals with tea. When the police demonstrate their indifference to the truth, Mr. Chiu fulfills the charge against him: he indeed becomes a saboteur, causing several deaths by spreading his hepatitis infection at restaurants.


The newlyweds had their breakfast in the outdoor caf outside the train station.

The newlyweds had their breakfast in the outdoor café outside the train station. (Vagabond/Shutterstock.com)

Another act of sabotage, one that is not directly characterized as such by the narrator, is the fact that the police sabotage Mr. Chiu's psyche. Up to this point in his life, he has trusted that those with authority will operate morally and will honor, even revere, the truth, values he upholds as well. Arguably, the functioning of civilized society substantially depends on people's faith in state institutions and their principled operation. Thus, in showing Mr. Chiu that his trust in his nation's law enforcement is misplaced, the chief destroys a pillar of Mr. Chiu's implicit civic agreement to contribute positively to society. Considering the minimal extent of the consequences of Mr. Chiu's unjust detention—he lost a couple days of productivity and suffered a relapse that would presumably be treatable—his reaction seems absurd and extreme; he might even be classified as an agent of biological terrorism. Jin's point, though, may be that when the social contract between those who make the rules and those who follow the rules is sabotaged by the rule makers, in the minds of some, the whole rulebook gets thrown out the window.

STYLE

Realism

Jin's prose style, which is relatively spare as far as details and narrative insight are concerned, has been compared with that of renowned Russian authors Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov, two authors for whom Jin has expressed admiration. Like Gogol and Chekhov, Jin often addresses the oppression of the common person in a setting dominated by agents of Communism or tyranny who are often cruelly indifferent to the fates of citizens. These sorts of circumstances seem to lend themselves to a stark portrayal of the reality under consideration. The absurdity of that reality is so powerful in and of itself that to exaggerate, distort, or remold the absurdity would be to diminish it in the eyes of the readers, but the author's intent is understood to be to give the reader the clearest and truest possible sense of that absurdity. Accordingly, “Saboteur” is written in what could be characterized as a realist style, laying out the circumstances succinctly, with sensory details but little metaphorical embellishment, and allowing the characters' thoughts and dialogue to convey the nuance of the scene. The result is a straightforward story that leaves the reader duly contemptuous of the police and sympathetic with Mr. Chiu but ultimately appalled by his action, seeing him, as Fenjin does, as “an ugly man.”

Second-Language Literature

Jin is associated with very select literary company in that he writes in English as an adopted language. Joseph Conrad, who was born in modern-day Page 239  |  Top of ArticleUkraine but earned his early living as a seaman on voyages all over the world, actually learned English as a third language, after Polish and French. He became one of the most respected authors in the Western canon, and his style can be characterized as unique because of the singular way he has of expressing his thoughts, molded by having learned to express himself in other languages prior to English. Vladimir Nabokov began his career writing in Russian but likewise became a famous English-language novelist, inclined to clever descriptions and wordplay. In an interview with Te-hsing Shan in Tamkang Review, Jin refers to Conrad and Nabokov as “these two giants,” and he affirms that “they established a tradition for later comers” and are part of his “literary heritage.”

Jin's style should not necessarily be compared with the styles of his two predecessors, however, who also differ markedly from each other. Furthermore, in stories such as “Saboteur,” it is not clear whether any particular aspect of his style should be attributed to his writing in an adopted language, owing to his evident mastery of English. At times, though, the reader may feel the prose has a singular rhythm or sense to it, as if the author is describing the circumstances from a shifted linguistic perspective. An example of this is the use by Mr. Chiu and his bride of the word “hoodlum” to describe the police officers, a word that is more likely to connote street-tough youths among American readers. Different readers may find that other particular terms and instances of syntax convey to them the author's unique sense of the English language. The conversations especially may strike the reader as reflecting a non-native grasp of English; this is explained by Jin's admission in an interview that while he originally writes his narratives in English, for conversation among Chinese characters, he conceives the lines in Chinese and then translates them into English. Although the fluent narration largely disguises the author's linguistic identity, the dialogue hints at the discrepancies between the rhythms of the author's two languages.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Chinese Cultural Revolution

“Saboteur,” along with other stories from The Bridegroom, is understood to have taken place sometime between the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 and the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. The ten-year Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966, proved a turning point in Chinese history, but not quite in the manner that its instigator, Mao Tse-tung, intended. As chairman of various political entities, including the Communist Party and the nation itself, Mao led the People's Republic of China upon its inception through a protracted revolution referred to as the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Devoted to Marxist principles intended to benefit the proletariat (or working class), Mao feared by 1966 that capitalist-minded intellectuals and representatives of the bourgeoisie (or middle class) had infiltrated the nation's political machinery. He thus oversaw the promotion of a “Cultural Revolution” that would return the nation to its revolutionary Marxist roots, flushing the bourgeois—including his own political enemies—out of positions of control.

When students began to form “Red Guard” groups devoted to Mao's revolutionary principles, he encouraged and applauded them, and they soon blanketed the nation. Jin, as a preadolescent, was a member of the Little Red Guard, and in 1970, he joined the People's Liberation Army. In interviews he has positioned himself as sympathetic with Mao's ideals in support of the common people. Some Red Guard factions, however, defying Mao's more peaceful directives in their quest to eradicate the customs of the exploitative upper classes, turned violent in persecuting landholders, intellectuals, and anyone deemed insufficiently socialist. Ultimately, schools were closed, and the nation's government was paralyzed by contested authority and the voids left by purges of suspicious elements. The Cultural Revolution, which Mao had originally planned to last three months, continued for ten years, with Mao functioning as a dictator during that time. Over time, his influence and authority eroded because of the social chaos, and the Cultural Revolution drew to a close in 1976, the year of Mao's death.

A handful of powerful political figures maneuvered to fill the void left by Mao, and Deng, whose authority stemmed from his impressive record as a military commander during the Chinese Civil War—and from his twice being purged and then reinstated under Mao—emerged as the dominant persona. He signaled early on an intent to lead the nation through democratic reforms, launching a campaign to change the concept of Page 240  |  Top of Articletruth from a subjective one, as it became under Mao's dictatorship and the Red Guard's persecutions, to an objective one, as determined by the practices of science and social reform. Ruan Ming, in Deng Xiaoping: Chronicle of an Empire, states that this approach “thoroughly negated dogmatism and theoretical despotism and laid the ideological foundation for China to move forward to reform and opening up to the outside world.” By 1979, the Communist leadership and the Chinese people were optimistic about the nation's direction and potential for reform. However, Deng would not take advantage of the circumstances; as Ruan notes, he was “a pragmatic politician without profound insight,” and when pressured by an influential antire form clique, he found himself “discarding political reform and maintaining despotism.” Deng went from democratically praising the rule of law as written, rather than as determined by the whims of the present leadership, to following Mao's example and requiring adherence to a theoretical groundwork laid for his own particular brand of authoritarianism.

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1980s: As capitalist values and morals are welcomed in China in the aftermath of Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution, Chinese citizens, particularly farmers, find that the system allows more opportunities for making money.
    2000: In a system that allows for drastically lower wages than in Western markets, Chinese industry thrives, exporting heavily to the United States and European nations.
    Today: In the wake of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China is seen as a rapidly modernizing nation that could possibly become the world's foremost economic force later in the century.
  • 1980s: Deng Xiaoping, as general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, ends China's official antipathy to non-Communist nations and ideals, establishing international relationships with democracies and introducing capitalist-style reforms.
    2000: Jiang Zemin, leading China as president, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and general secretary of the Communist Party, accelerates economic growth at home through further capitalist-style initiatives at a pace that surpasses global expectations while aggressively befriending powerful nations such as Russia.
    Today: With the Chinese economy soaring, Hu Jintao, leading China in the roles held by Jiang Zemin, is known for his domestic program of the “Harmonious Society” and for peaceful international relations.
  • 1980s: In 1985, China institutes a policy of nine years of mandatory education and develops and expands educational opportunities as a means of modernizing the nation.
    2000: Higher education is highly competitive, with about half of secondary-school graduates gaining admission to postsecondary institutions.
    Today: Signifying China's advances in science and technology, an area focused on throughout the education system over the preceding decades for the sake of national development, a lunar probe is scheduled for launch in late 2010.

Despite his despotic methods, Deng over-saw a remarkable degree of economic growth in China, especially because he welcomed capitalist practices and influences within the socialist system and developed productive relationships with important trading partners such as the United States. Jin signals a negative influence of capitalism in “Saboteur” when he tellingly notes that one of the witnesses faulting Mr. Chiu for the public disturbance was “a purchasing agent from Page 241  |  Top of Articlea shipyard in Shanghai” (that is, engaged in capitalist trade); the reader may gather that this agent's word matters more to those in power than the word of a university lecturer.


He waited impatiently for his release from his jail cell.

He waited impatiently for his release from his jail cell. (Steve Snowden/Shutterstock.com)

The peak of Deng's abandonment of and opposition to democratic reform was his disastrous suppression of the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Tens of thousands of student protesters favoring democratic principles gathered in the politically significant Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, for several weeks following the death of a pro-democracy official in April 1989. Deng eventually dispatched tens of thousands of troops to the city; the protestors blocked them at the outskirts for more than two weeks. Having alienated the social democratic movement long ago, Deng was by now allied with totalitarian-minded dogmatists and militarists, who supported his inclination to “encircle and annihilate the trouble” as he had in defeating Chang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces in 1949. He classified the peaceful student protesters as a military enemy, and he assured his soldiers that they would be executed if they failed to carry out the order to attack with lethal force. As a result, thousands of protesters were massacred. This event, which Jin and his wife watched unfold on television from their home in Boston, was the critical factor in his decision not to return to China. As Jin told Garner of the New York Times Magazine, “I was not mentally prepared for what happened. I had always thought that the Chinese Army was there to serve and protect the people.” The massacre signaled the waning of Deng's power, and he stepped down from his highest offices beginning later that year, to be retired from politics by 1992, though he would continue to wield influence behind the scenes. In “Saboteur,” Jin's views of the abuses of those in authority in the Deng Xiaoping era can be seen as represented in the attitudes and actions of the corrupt police officers.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

In light of the various awards won by his works of fiction over the last two decades, Jin has gained steadily increasing attention in the United States. Most critics who review The Bridegroom take note of “Saboteur,” the opening story. In the New York Times, Claire Messud observes that the stories in this collection “lay bare the ironies Page 242  |  Top of Articleof tyranny in all its forms,” with “Saboteur” constructed like a fable, with a clear lesson. Assessing this and another story, she states, “Laced with black humor, they refrain from entering fully into the human complexities of their characters: unjust power structures, rather than the individual experiences of the protagonists, are the focus of these tales.” Messud notes that Jin's voice is “resonant” but he is not “particularly accessible” to Americans; rather, “he is a Chinese writer, writing about China, who happens to live in the United States.” Considering the limitations of his style, such as his use of cliché and unambitious syntax, Messud concludes, “It is impossible to escape the impression that for Ha Jin, the English language—potentially so pliable, so complex—is ultimately an unwieldy tool that merely suffices for his purposes.” She nonetheless affirms that “his eye for detail, his great storytelling talent—these universal gifts suffuse his work and make The Bridegroom a genuine pleasure.”

A contributor to Publishers Weekly declares that “it's difficult to think of another writer who has captured the conflicting attitudes and desires, and the still-changing conditions of daily life, of post-Cultural Revolution China as well as Ha Jin does” in The Bridegroom. The stories are said to “attain their significant cumulative effect through spare prose penetrated by wit, insight and a fine sense of irony.” The reviewer concludes that Jin “has a rare empathy for people striving to balance the past and the future while caught on the cusp of change.” In Booklist, Nancy Pearl gives a similar characterization of “the author's deliberately flat writing style, with simple sentences, few metaphors or similes, and no play on language.” She highlights how Mr. Chiu turns into a “killer” in “Saboteur,” before concluding, “Altogether, this is a fine collection, sure to be in demand by fans of literary fiction.” Writing for Library Journal, Shirley Quan affirms that “Jin uses this collection to exhibit his strong writing and storytelling skills with his laconic use of words.”

CRITICISM

Michael Allen Holmes

Holmes is a writer and editor. In the following essay, he considers how the incidental details in “Saboteur” track the gradual erosion of the quintessentially logical Mr. Chiu's psyche.

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Ha Jin's short-story collection, Under the Red Flag (1997), includes twelve tales set during Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution.
  • Jin was greatly influenced by the great Russian authors, especially Anton Chekhov, whose play The Cherry Orchard (1904) addresses the shifting societal positions of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie in prerevolutionary Russia.
  • Nikolai Gogol's short story “The Overcoat” (1842) is one of the foundational works of the Russian literary tradition, telling of an impoverished Russian government clerk and his tattered overcoat.
  • Vladimir Pushkin, who first wrote in Rus sian but turned to writing in an impressively playful English, published Pnin in 1957. This novel is about a Russian professor who has moved to the United States.
  • Joseph Conrad, who wrote in English as a third language, depicts a heroic response to government tyranny in Nostromo. Written in 1904, it is available in several modern editions.
  • The renowned Chinese intellectual Lin Yutang's My Country and My People (1935) depicts life in China before the rise of Communism.
  • The Chinese American author Amy Tan focuses more on relationships than does Jin. Her novel The Joy Luck Club (1989) revolves around the mothers and daughters of families that immigrated to America from China.
  • In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (1984), a young-adult book by Bette Bao Lord, tells the story of a girl who moves away from China to join her father in America—as Jin's son joined him—and must adjust to life growing up in Brooklyn.

Jin's style in the stories of The Bridegroom (2000) is generally recognized by reviewers in similar terms, as perhaps spare, minimal, terse, or sparse. His prose is straightforward, introducing Page 243  |  Top of Articlefew rhetorical or theoretical conceptions and rarely using metaphors to convey physical details. What verbal flourishes can be found tend to be idioms or clicheé, such as the observation, in “Saboteur,” that the day “was going to be a scorcher.” Some critics may be inclined to fault Jin for failing to delve further into the expressive possibilities of the English language. He moved to the United States in 1985, meaning that he had been immersed in American culture for fifteen years when this collection was published; and he began studying English via radio programming in 1976, prior to majoring in English as an undergraduate and then earning a master's degree in American literature. Thus, Jin's familiarity with the forms and possibilities of the English language should not be underestimated. Rather, it seems he has made conscious choices to emulate the understated style of certain American authors, perhaps in particular the 1954 Nobel Prize—winner Ernest Hemingway.

“AS THE SUBTLER DETAILS OF THE STORY REVEAL, MR. CHIU COLLAPSES FROM HIS ORDINARY PURELY INTELLECTUAL STATE INTO A PURELY VISCERAL STATE OF NAUSEA, PAIN, AND ANGER, TRANSFORMING FROM A RESPECTABLE CITIZEN TO A PLAGUE TO SOCIETY.”

In an interview with Chris GoGwilt in Guernica magazine, Jin affirmed, “I love Hemingway,” and he noted the “clear, very lucid” language used by the author in his masterpiece novella The Old Man and the Sea, which served to introduce Jin and many of his classmates to a certain “American mentality” of independent perseverance in the face of adversity and even impending failure. In terms of style, Hemingway is renowned for his concealment or suppression of essential facts about his characters' circumstances, which may be obscurely revealed through dialogue but never made explicit. For example, the brief story “Hills like White Elephants” is understood to portray a couple's emotionally strained discussion about having an abortion, but the text itself never even makes clear that the woman is pregnant. Jin is not nearly so cryptic in his presentation of the circumstances in “Saboteur,” which has the feel of a fable in that it is didactic, aimed at teaching. However, his carefully rationed descriptions and details provide a collective impression that bolsters the tangible sense of the story, and this collective impression is arguably enhanced by the smoothness of the gracefully unadorned language.

One of the first significant details in the story is the fact of Mr. Chiu's hepatitis, a disease involving inflammation of the liver. Mr. Chiu is certainly not portrayed as an alcoholic, which is one cause of hepatitis, so his infection would be understood as viral. The liver is associated with essential functions related to digestion and detoxification, and so in this story, the physical dysfunction of Mr. Chiu's liver may be understood to signify, in his mentality, a difficulty in digesting certain information or coming to terms with something. Such a trait becomes apparent when he is unable to accept the dousing of his and his bride's sandals—that is, he is unable to digest the blatant falsity of the police's claim that he wet his sandals himself. After the police tell him, “You're lying,” he rejoins with what he perceives to be a truthful description of the situation, namely, that the police are violating the law, earning him his arrest and detention.

Mr. Chiu's belt is taken from him before he is locked in the cell, a detail that might not be significant except that he later leaves the police station without retrieving it. Through his confrontation with the police, Mr. Chiu has demonstrated his devotion to truthfulness and order, and the belt can be understood as the centerpiece of the male academic's standard outfit of dress shirt, dress pants, tie, and coat. Mr. Chiu refers to himself as a “lecturer,” and the reader might conclude that Jin actually intends Mr. Chiu to be understood as a professor; but Jin is undoubtedly aware of the distinction between the two in American connotations, namely, that the professor likely has a stable contract, if not tenure, whereas a lecturer is likely to be more precariously employed, with lower pay, less academic standing, and a demanding schedule. This is a significant detail because, though he comes across as fairly levelheaded, Mr. Chiu's actions indicate that he perhaps experiences a high level of stress in his daily life. In protesting to the police chief, he stresses the importance of his being “late for a conference in the provincial capital,” and he is later described, despite his Page 244  |  Top of Articleillness, as “more upset than frightened, because he would have to catch up with his work once he was back home,” which includes a paper to complete and two dozen books to start reading.

Jin provides a few clues about the precise nature of Mr. Chiu's academic work. Once beyond the formulaic context of the interrogation, Mr. Chiu asserts that he is “a scholar, a philosopher, and an expert in dialectical materialism.” Although a precise definition of the term dialectical materialism is a discussion in and of itself, it can be understood as a philosophy formulated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto, as the theoretical underpinning for their socialist system. The term refers to a materialist, or physically based, conception of the interactive forces that dictate the evolution of society through history. Thus, Mr. Chiu has expert knowledge of the foundations of the Communist government that China adopted in 1949. Mr. Chiu later notes that he taught Fenjin in “a course in Marxist materialism,” which can likewise be understood as relating to the pure foundations of Communism. Notably, Jin has positioned himself in interviews as sympathetic with the Communist ideals that were proclaimed during Mao Tsetung's Cultural Revolution. In this story, Mr. Chiu recalls a relevant saying of Chairman Mao's, indicating his familiarity with the Communist leader's quotations. Thus, Jin would seem to be sympathetic with the interests of his protagonist in this story. Mao Tse-tung's ideals were in some senses diluted during the subsequent reign of Deng Xiaoping, who through the 1980s gradually introduced capitalist, market-based concepts into China's socialist system.

As befits such a philosopher, Mr. Chiu seems especially concerned with logic, order, and truth throughout the story. He sees fit to inform the policemen that their “duty is to keep order,” and he even asks them what their motivation was for violating the law. Although open-ended questions may be rhetorically effective in his work as a university lecturer, this one only incites the police to respond by arresting him, which he protests as “utterly unreasonable.” In his cell, he figures that if he “reasoned with them,” the outcome should be favorable. In his interrogation, he asserts that, “logically speaking,” the chief should criticize and punish the officers who arrested him. The chief demurs, but, holding truthful ideals as an imperative, Mr. Chiu insists, “You must compensate me for the damage and losses.” However, the police will not cooperate with Mr. Chiu, and the smoke that the chief blows in his face signifies the smoke screen of falsehood that is enveloping him. Later, when he gets a good night's sleep despite the circumstances, “it seemed illogical.” When he must spend the whole day lying in bed, his mind obsesses over “his paper on the nature of contradictions” and the injustice of the circumstances. Gradually, his sense of order is being unbalanced. Notably, when he was first taken to the jail cell, the sensory images were tranquil: the paired swings, like husband and wife, were swaying in the breeze, while “a cleaver was chopping rhythmically,” that is, in a steady, patterned way. Later, when he is back in his cell, the rhythmic chopping has been replaced by an accordion that “kept coughing”—surely a dissonant, disorderly sound.

Although he is mentally focused on logic and order, Mr. Chiu demonstrates curious interactions with his visceral (that is, gut-level), sensory reality. In the beginning, “the air smelled of rotten melon.” This might spoil some people's appetites, but he has no trouble ingesting his lunch. Especially curious is the tale of Mr. Chiu's going untouched by fleas during a countryside trip when his colleagues “were all afflicted with hundreds of bites.” In a humorous but significant characterization, his colleagues suppose that he “must have tasted nonhuman to fleas.” Thus, Jin portrays Mr. Chiu as atypical in being so intellectually attuned to reality that he is viscerally disconnected from it. He does not feel afraid during his detention, though one might expect him to, and has no trouble sleeping, despite the constant orange light and although many others would be too disturbed by the fleas. Even the physical presence of his wife seems unimportant to him, in that, “more amazing now, he didn't miss his bride a lot.” The smell of meat does not rouse his appetite but only provokes him to think of enduring his detention calmly. He does become angry, but the outlet he conceives for his anger is nonphysical: he intends to “write an article about this experience.”

It is at the midpoint of the story that Jin introduces the concept that will figure in the resolution of the plot, in a line understood to reflect a thought of Mr. Chiu's: “Damn those hoodlums, they had ordered more than they could eat!” In addition to foreshadowing the Page 245  |  Top of Articleconclusion, this figure of speech itself merits examination, as the concept of ordering more than one can eat speaks of capitalist excess. In a Communist nation, food should be rationed for the benefit of all; in contrast, under capitalism, food may be “ordered” by paying customers, who may take more than they can eat while others go hungry. Here, Mr. Chiu plays the role of the food, as he intends to prove too much for the police to digest; on a literal level, he will cause food poisoning, spreading his hepatitis at nearby restaurants after his release.

Mr. Chiu's waking up to the noise of Fenjin's moaning marks the beginning of the end of the deterioration of his psyche. What ultimately does him in is his acute sense of morality; when he considers that however his lawyer might have earned it, Fenjin's capture “could never have occurred if Fenjin hadn't come to his rescue. So no matter what, Mr. Chiu had to do something.” That is, he feels morally bound to help. He is not yet so disturbed, however, as to be unable to eat his “corn glue” and celery. Watching Fenjin get slapped and humiliated, however, he seems at last stirred by a visceral sense of the reality around him, “gripping the steel bars with both hands, his fingers white.” At this point Mr. Chiu has been feverish since the night before; coincidentally, as the hepatitis attacks his body, he becomes more physically attuned to what is occurring around him. In turn, his anger grows more and more overwhelming. When he is at last forced to either sign the false self-criticism or watch Fenjin suffer in the sun, he chooses to assuage his guilt and sacrifice the truth, signing the document. At this point, in his feverish state, the visceral sense of his illness and his moral outrage coalesce. He feels “as though there were a bomb” in his chest, and his thoughts turn to terrorism and mass murder. He concedes that “he knew he could do nothing like that,” but because of his illness and his overturned morality, he has been thrust into a visceral sense of outrage that overwhelms his common sense. An additional sign of the backwardness of the moment comes when Mr. Chiu's first consultation with his lawyer—which by law in America would be allowed to come before any conversations with the police—occurs only after he has signed the false confession and been released. In the end, poor Mr. Chiu, who has become a symbol of truth, moral order, academic integrity, and Communist idealism, is undone by his inability to cope with the corruption of the nation's system of authority. As the subtler details of the story reveal, Mr. Chiu collapses from his ordinary purely intellectual state into a purely visceral state of nausea, pain, and anger, transforming from a respectable citizen to a plague to society.

Source: Michael Allen Holmes, Critical Essay on “Saboteur,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2011.


He was interrogated by the police.

He was interrogated by the police. (Phase4Photography/Shutterstock.com)

Valerie Sayers

In the following review, Sayers contrasts Jin's newest novel, The Crazed, with his first novel, Waiting.

Ha Jin, who immigrated to the United States from China in 1985, has already published an impressive body of fiction and poetry in English. His short stories, which often appear in annual prize volumes, are odd and arresting compressions of Chinese life: a gay man takes an unattractive bride but is revealed and punished; the American Cowboy Chicken franchise opens a branch in a provincial city, and its workers become consumed with capitalist envy; a little girl observes her miserable kindergarten teacher and learns her first lessons in deceit. Ha Jin's first novel, Waiting, which won the National Book Award, is a beautiful and mysterious meditation on the meaning of inaction as well as an allegory of post-Cultural Revolution China. The fiction is realistic—the settings are rendered meticulously—but the plots seesaw Page 246  |  Top of Articlebetween political absurdity on a grand scale and individual suffering in its smallest detail. In an age when so many critics have declared the death of literary realism, Ha Jin's depiction of real absurdity and absurd reality is a good argument against realism's premature burial.

The Crazed, his new novel, is also a compelling read, more directly political than Waiting, more focused on an inevitable plot march that will end in Tiananmen Square. The narrator, Jian Wan, is a graduate student studying for his Ph.D. entrance exams, which he hopes will propel him to Beijing University and marriage to his beloved professor's daughter. As the novel opens, however, his professor has suffered a stroke and is hospitalized, slipping in and out of hallucinations and fantasies. Jian Wan and another student are assigned to care for him while his wife makes her way back from a veterinary mission to Tibet and the hospital nurses busy themselves with their embroidery. The wife's presence in Tibet and the nurses' leisurely approach to medical crisis are typical of the novel's opening, with its matter-of-fact portrayal of a China populated by cynics and fanatics, “a paradise for idiots.”

The straightforward narrative gives way to the dramatic—at times, to the operatic—as Jian's professor rants. His speeches recreate his sufferings during the Cultural Revolution, when he was declared a Demon Monster and made to wear signs and carry buckets of water designed to bend his body and his spirit. He recalls visualizing The Inferno during his torture sessions: “I'd imagine that the crazed people below and around me were like the blustering evil-doers, devils, and monsters cast into hell…. While reciting The Divine Comedy in my heart, I felt that my suffering was meant to help me enter purgatory. I had hope. Suffering can refine the soul.” Jian wonders, naturally, if this means his professor sees himself in Christian terms, but the older man denies that he is religious. He intersperses memories of his sexual liaisons and his own ambitions with his talk of the spirit, and Jian is alternately revolted and moved to pity. Many of the professor's monologues and spoken dreams, which are designed to unveil his biography as well as to move the plot along, are ridiculously contrived in dramatic terms, yet their language is so direct that they remain strangely compelling. The patient is in a death struggle and declares that he must save his soul but admits, “I'm afraid I'm not worthy of my suffering.” Jian is most perplexed by his professor's disavowal of the scholar's life, which he declares has reduced him to the role of a clerk.

Gradually, however, Jian begins to believe his professor's warnings about the scorn heaped on true intellectuals, and decides to abandon his exams and to seek instead a position in the Policy Office. The irony is typical Ha Jin and would be delicious if the novel were not already moving so relentlessly toward the massacre in Beijing. Thwarted by a Communist Party official, Jian ultimately joins the student demonstrations—not because of his political beliefs but, as he says, for personal reasons. His professor is dead, his fiancée has abandoned him, and he is now a young man without a career. His journey to Beijing grants him a classical moment of epiphany. As the army attacks the gathering students, he aids a wounded woman but then abandons her. Horrified by his own cowardice, he undertakes the rescue of a little boy, as if he is redeeming his own youthful mistakes. The novel's climax is utterly realistic and utterly involving—its movement out of the sickroom and into the streets of Beijing provides just the right change of perception and scale.

Before this busy action takes the novel off into the satisfying territory of plot consummation, the pages of The Crazed are also filled with satisfying meditations on language itself, on the connections or lack of connections between language and action. Jian and his professor quote Rilke, Pound, Li Po. Jian sees language as romantic (and in a funny aside says that women who study foreign languages are more romantic than their peers). His own language is direct and often emotional in a nineteenth-century way: “My heart was shaking, filled with pity, dismay, and disgust.” Overwrought adverbs such as “desperately” make frequent appearances—and why not? This is a novel about finding one's soul, about wanting to live, as Jian finally says, “actively and meaningfully.”

The direct expression of emotion complements the subtle wit and irony that inform the narrative. The crazed themselves are a graceful motif woven through the minds of the characters. Stark images'a boy stung by a scorpion cries for hours on the hillside—alternate with Jian's straightforward interior monologue. He, too, is crazed as he watches his country come to crisis. He, too, struggles to find purpose in his Page 247  |  Top of Articlelife. And his very particular crisis, in the midst of his country's very particular crisis, becomes universal by virtue of its precise and passionate telling. Like all of us, Jian must act or lose his soul.

Source: Valerie Sayers, “The Road to Tiananmen,” in Commonweal, Vol. 130, No. 3, February 14, 2003, pp. 17–18.

Helene Wong

In the following review, Wong discusses how Jin's everyday stories demonstrate a shrewd and compassionate observation of the resulting confusion of cultural change.

At first, the stories in this collection seem small, domestic, of petty concerns. Only as you progress do the writer's purpose and meaning become clear, and although it's not quite a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, the small and domestic is revealed to be a microcosm of wider social change.

In his acclaimed novel Waiting, Ha Jin examined in subtle and painstaking detail a couple's conflict arising from cultural change in China. Again, only this time in a dozen different ways, he captures how individuals respond when values and traditions are in a state of flux.

His characters are middle-class academics, factory supervisors and shop assistants—perhaps because their education and new-found wealth render them more susceptible to Western influences than the peasant or the sophisticated and/or conservative elite.

At the heart of many of their stories is the classic struggle between East and West, the dilemma of whether to be an individual or part of a community.

Individualism takes different forms. In “The Woman from New York,” it signifies independence: a happily married teacher decides to go to New York to explore a new way of life. But it also refers to difference, when her family and community are so suspicious of her unconventional decision that they effectively write her off.

In “A Tiger-Fighter is Hard to Find,” individualism is about competition and when the quest for fame leads to loss of judgment. The ways in which characters cope with uniqueness, either in themselves or others, creates a palette of behaviour ranging from funny to tragic, with acts of defiance, irrationality, gossip, envy and revenge, often with damaging consequences.

A more direct clash between East and West is found in “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town.” Employees of a fast food outlet are puzzled and fascinated at the capitalist ways of their American owner, but when they try a little democratic behaviour of their own, they are out of their depth. As with most of the characters in this book, their attempt to integrate value systems ends in loss.

The psychological effects of the rapid uptake of Western culture in China are becoming a recurrent theme among its writers and film-makers.

The picture they present is almost invariably of people adrift. Ha Jin's everyday stories demonstrate a shrewd and compassionate observation of the resulting confusion and unease and how this manifests itself.

He doesn't always spell out his characters' motivations; he leaves that for the reader to reflect upon. The reward for doing so is a feeling of poignancy and a deeper understanding of the small tragedies of life.

Source: Helene Wong, “Ha Jin: The Bridegroom,” in New Zealand Herald, November 10, 2001.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Page 248  |  Top of Article

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

SOURCES

Clark, Paul, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 1.

Evans, Richard, Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China, Viking, 1994, pp. 244–71, 310–15.

Garner, Dwight, “Ha Jin's Cultural Revolution,” in New York Times Magazine, February 6, 2000.

Geyh, Paula E., “Ha Jin,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 244: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Fourth Series, edited by Patrick Meanor, The Gale Group, 2001, pp. 192–201.

GoGwilt, Chris, “Writing without Borders,” in Guernica, January 2007, http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/258/post/ (accessed August 19, 2010).

Jin, Ha, “Individualism Arrives in China,” in New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, January 2003, pp. 13–21.

Jin, Ha,”, “Saboteur,” in The Bridegroom, Pantheon, 2000, pp. 3–16.

Page 249  |  Top of Article

Messud, Claire, “Tiger-Fighter Meets Cowboy Chicken,” in New York Times Book Review, October 22, 2000.

Ming, Ruan, Deng Xiaoping: Chronicle of an Empire, translated and edited by Nancy Liu, Peter Rand, and Lawrence R. Sullivan, Westview Press, 1994, pp. 15–17, 39–50, 61–64, 211–42.

Mitter, Rana, Modern China, Sterling Publishing, 2008.

Ni, Ting, “China,” in World Education Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, 2nd ed., edited by Rebecca Marlow-Ferguson, The Gale Group, 2001, pp. 236–55.

Pearl, Nancy, Review of The Bridegroom, in Booklist, Vol. 97, No. 2, September 15, 2000, p. 216.

Quan, Shirley N., Review of The Bridegroom, in Library Journal, Vol. 125, No. 14, September 1, 2000, p. 254.

Review of The Bridegroom, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 36, September 4, 2000, p. 81.

Shan, Te-hsing, “In the Ocean of Words: An Interview with Ha Jin,” in Tamkang Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, June 2008, pp. 135–57.

Smith, Wendy, “Coming to America,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 254, No. 37, September 17, 2007, pp. 29–30.

Spirkin, Alexander, Dialectical Materialism, Progress Publishers, 1983.

Wang, Shaoguang, “Between Destruction and Construction: The First Year of the Cultural Revolution,” in The Chinese Cultural Revolution Reconsidered: Beyond Purge and Holocaust, edited by Kam-yee Law, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 25–57.

FURTHER READING

Ching, Frank, China: The Truth about Its Human Rights Record, Rider Books, 2008.

This short, accessible work, published around the time of the Beijing Olympics, gives a knowledgeable accounting of China's recent record with regard to human rights.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Crime and Punishment, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage Books, 1992.

This influential Russian masterpiece zeroes in on the psychology of its protagonist, Raskolnikov, who morally rationalizes a murder but cannot escape the consequences.

Kafka, Franz, The Castle, translated by Mark Harman, Schocken Books, 1998.

Known for sympathizing with the common person victimized by the system, Kafka presents here the challenging, surrealist story of K., who is thwarted at every turn in his attempts merely to gain entrance to the headquarters of the local supreme authority, the Castle.

Yung, Judy, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds., Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present, University of California Press, 2006.

This collection of essays provides Chinese American perspectives from 1852 through the turn of the twenty-first century.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2281300022