[(essay date 2000) In the following interview, Jin discusses the theme of survival in his fiction, his vivid descriptions of food, and his poetry.]
Ha Jin grew up in northeastern China during the Cultural Revolution, the son of a low level army officer posted with his family to a variety of rural communities. In 1969 when he was fourteen, Jin lied about his age to join the People’s Army where he served until 1975. He then worked as a telegraph operator and learned English listening to early morning classes on the radio. With the Cultural Revolution at an end, the Chinese government re-opened the universities and Jin was placed in an English language studies program. He received his Masters in American Literature from Shandong University in 1984. The following year the Chinese government sent him to the United States to work toward his Ph.D. at Brandeis University. He began to write in English in 1988 and within the last decade has published six books: two volumes of poetry, Between Silences and Facing Shadows; two collections of short stories, Ocean of Words, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award; and Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction; the comic satire In the Pond; and his National Book Award winner Waiting.
This interview was conducted on May 25, 2000, at Emory University in Atlanta, where Jin is Associate Professor of English. Four weeks later, the Beijing Publishing Group canceled plans to publish a Chinese edition of Waiting after what the New York Times called “a harsh attack in a literary review [in China] denouncing the book as portraying China as backward and repressive.”
[Nelson]: With the possible exception of the rapist in Waiting, the characters in your fiction are never what we would call evil, even when they do pretty awful things. Whether they are peasants or Communist Party officials, survival seems to be their primary motivation. In fact, most of your writing centers on issues of survival.
[Jin]: Yes, that’s true. All kinds of survival. It doesn’t have to be physical. Survival can also be a matter of the emotional, the social.
Americans tend to read your work as very specifically about survival while trapped in the Chinese Communist bureaucracy. Is your interest in survival specific to China, particularly during the sixties and seventies, the period about which you have primarily written?
On no. For Americans too, survival is a major theme. But for the Chinese the struggle has been not only against nature or against evil forces, but among the people themselves. Maybe their society is too crowded. There are so many people and limited opportunities. The scarcity intensifies the struggle.
In Waiting, your main character Lin is a good man but ineffectual in his struggles.
Lin would have to be a different person, a different kind of person to be aggressive enough to get what he wants. Lin is a good hearted man, a decent man, but he is passive. Lin is an...