In 1986, thirty-year-old Ha Jin, whose real name is Xuefei Jin, came to the United States on a student visa from his native China to begin working on a Ph.D. in English at Brandeis University. His dissertation was on the high modernist poets Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and W.B. Yeats because, as he told Dave Weich in a Powell's City of Books website piece, "Those four have poems which are related to Chinese texts and poems that reference the culture. My dissertation was aimed at a Chinese job market. I planned to return to China." Jin and his wife decided to stay in the United States after seeing what happened at Tiananmen Square on television. Before receiving his degree in 1992, Jin had already published his first book of poetry in English, Between Silences: A Voice from China. Another book of poetry, Facing Shadows, appeared a few years later. As Weich pointed out, it wasn't an easy beginning: "Taking odd jobs (a night watchman, a busboy) until eventually his publishing success convinced Emory University to hire him to teach and write, Jin was arguably one of the most prolific literary writers of the nineties." In the next three years Jin published two short-story collections and two novels, all written in English, all set in the People's Republic of China.
Jin's second collection of short stories, Under the Red Flag, is set in a rural town, Dismount Fort, during the Cultural Revolution that swept across China in 1966. This was a time when fanatical beliefs gained sway and those who did not embrace them were often persecuted. In what Time contributor Paul Gray singled out as the best story in the book, "Winds and Clouds over a Funeral," a Communist official is torn between conflicting loyalties. His mother's last request upon her deathbed was that she not be cremated. However, it is the official policy of the Communist Party that all dead bodies should be cremated in order to conserve arable land. In another story, the Communist Party has arrested a woman accused of being a whore and plans a public humiliation and punishment for her. A young boy, the narrator of the story, looks forward to the event. In another, a man castrates himself to gain admission to the Communist Party.
Gray noted: "Ha Jin is not a preachy author. He offers his characters choices that are incompatible and potentially destructive and then dispassionately records what they do next." Frank Caso, writing in Booklist, found Under the Red Flag to be a "powerful" collection but also remarked that "there is ... an undisguised cynicism, in ... many of the ... tales, that the truth must first be shaped to a political purpose." A Publishers Weekly reviewer, though, stating of Jin that "sometimes his allegories are too simple," wrote that the stories are used by Jin "to explore larger themes about human relationships and the effect of government on individual lives."
Jin's first novel, In the Pond, is...