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Chinese Shadows

War Trash

by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 352 pp., $25.00

There are many reasons for getting tattooed. But a sense of belonging—to a group, a faith, or a person—is key. As a mark of identification a tattoo is more lasting than a passport. This is not always voluntary. In Japan, criminals used to have the word for “bad” or “dog” needled into their foreheads. Later, members of the raffish underworld in Edo and Osaka took pride in their outlaw status and sported ever more elaborate tattoos, sometimes covering the entire body, depicting Buddhist deities or folk heroes. Tattoos, in Africa and elsewhere, can denote the passing into adulthood. It can be a tribal mark, as with English football hooligans with the Cross of St. George branded on their foreheads. Or it can be a sign of devotion, to gods or people: prostitutes in Edo had the names of their lovers tattooed on their inner thighs.

Most tattooed people have been from criminal, military, or working classes, but in certain periods tattoos were popular among an upper class mimicking the lower, thus expressing its disdain for the boring middle: the Duke of Clarence, brother of George V, allegedly had a fox hunt running down his spine, with the quarry disappearing into its hole. The thing about tattooing is that unlike a club tie, an armband, or a lapel pin, it cannot easily be erased. It is part of you. You are branded. It is only recently that tattooing has become a classless, democratic form of decoration, especially in Europe and the US, without any tribal, professional, or social connotations.

Ha Jin’s novel about a Chinese soldier who was captured during the Korean War involves a tattoo that is loaded with significance. The story begins like this:

Below my navel stretches a long tattoo that says “FUCK… U…S…” “The skin above those dots has shriveled as though scarred by burns. Like a talisman, the tattoo has protected me in China for almost five decades. Before coming to the States, I wondered whether I should have it removed. I decided not to, not because I cherished it or was nervous about the surgery, but because if I had done that, word would have spread and the authorities, suspecting I wouldn’t return, might have revoked my passport.

The narrator is a member of Chairman Mao’s so-called China People’s Volunteers. His tattoo belongs to the involuntary kind; it was inflicted on him after he was knocked unconscious in a US-run POW camp by soldiers who had gone over to Chiang Kai-shek’s side. The Chinese Nationalists, or ChiNats, as they were called by the Americans, wanted to stop the ChiComs from going back to mainland China. Tattooing “FUCK COMMUNISM” on his belly seemed an effective way of stopping this particular ChiCom, named Yu Yuan, from returning to his mother and fiancée in Sichuan province.

In the end, Yu Yuan does in fact go back to his native land, and as a precautionary measure against persecution by the Communists a friendly doctor removes enough letters from his tattoo to turn the anti-Communist taunt into “FUCK…U…S…”

Ha Jin is one of the few writers who can tell us in fine English what it is like to be a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. He has made a speciality out of repressed Chinese military men. In a previous novel, Waiting, he described the bleak life of an army doctor living in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.* Ha Jin served in the People’s Liberation Army himself, and only arrived in the US in 1985, at the age of twenty-nine. Although he writes, in deceptively simple prose, from the point of view of Chinese males, he does not simply describe types. His characters are people with individual personalities, not just “Chinese.”

And yet the question what it is to be Chinese in the modern world is central to Ha Jin’s stories, including this latest one. Chineseness is almost as complex and elusive an identity as, say, Jewishness. What, for example, does a peasant in Shandong have in common with a dentist in San Francisco, whose Cantonese ancestors came to the US via Hong Kong a hundred years ago? Certainly not a common language, or even really a common culture. They eat different kinds of food, and follow different faiths and customs. The dentist may be a Christian, and the farmer a believer in Taoist folk deities. They live under utterly different political systems, and do not share a nationality. Even to claim a common ethnicity would be a stretch; southern and northern Chinese are not physically alike. Yet both would still consider themselves to be “Chinese.”

I have sometimes asked Chinese, who take their Chineseness seriously, to define it. The answers tend to be swathed in such woolly formulations as “a common Chinese spirit” or “a family feeling.” Often, when identification becomes vague, common hatreds serve as the glue that holds things together. In the modern Chinese case, this means the Japanese. But even that is not so simple. Many Taiwanese whose ancestors left the Chinese mainland centuries ago look back to the Japanese empire with a certain degree of nostalgia. Bitter feelings about their former colonial masters have frequently been eclipsed by their distrust of the mainland Chinese. And, in any case, the Japanese in Taiwan behaved much less brutally than they did in China proper.

The narrator of War Trash is not a political man. Although he credits the Chinese Communist Party for having imposed order on chaos and united the motherland, he is not a great believer in party ideology. His loyalties are personal: to his family, his fiancée, and, in the POW camps, to his fellow prisoners. And yet his loyalty as a Chinese, belonging to one or the other regime, is tested in the most brutal ways.

Both Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists claimed to represent the “real China.” Even now, critics of the Communist regime are routinely accused of being “anti-Chinese.” The sense in which the Korean War also reflected this struggle between the two Chinas is often overlooked. Yet it is this conflict that serves as the stage for Yu Yuan’s tale. In the POW camps a Chinese was forced to choose: to join the Nationalists and move to “Free China,” or stick with the Communists and return to “Red China.”

Yu is neither a true believer nor especially patriotic. He is a reader, a seeker after his own truths, not only in Chinese. He likes to read English, and although not a Christian, he takes comfort from reading the Bible, given to him by a rather self-righteous American army priest. When a comrade points out that Yu’s reading is a kind of escape from loneliness, Yu agrees: “Sometimes I feel better when I read the Bible. I don’t know why. It makes me feel less helpless.”

The less reflective friend answers: “Genuine help comes from your comrades and the Party, not from God. No God can save us. See, you think differently from others. That makes you special.”

Thinking differently is what gives the narrator an interesting, personal perspective on things, including the vexed question of Chineseness. He has remarkable things to say about national differences, even in such matters as torture. First of all, and in the light of recent revelations, this might come as a surprise: “In the art of inflicting pain, the Chinese and the Koreans were much more expert than the Americans.” US torturers, Yu observes, are unsophisticated compared to Chinese,

especially some of the pro-Nationalist men [who] were masterful in corporal punishment and even took great pleasure in inflicting pain on others. They knocked your anklebones with a special stick that had a knurl on its end; they shoved a water nozzle into an inmate’s anus and then turned on the hydrant…;they kept you upside down in an empty vat while scratching your soles with brushes;…they tore off your clothes and put you into an oil drum containing broken beer bottles, then sealed the drum and rolled it around.

The Communists, however, “were less creative and more blunt. If you were in their way, they either beat you half to death to teach you a lesson or just killed you….”

If the Communists were less creative in these matters than their Nationalist counterparts during the Korean War, they soon caught up. One thing that separated the two sides was the emphasis, or the lack of it, on personal interest. Yu was a graduate, before the revolution, of Chiang Kai-shek’s military academy. The pro-Nationalists try to get him to join their side by pointing out the benefits he would receive: a great career, money, power, good food, a comfortable life, beautiful women. (A woman is actually sent to the prison cell of a commissar to seduce him into changing sides; he refuses.) Only when such inducements fail do the Nationalists resort to violence, such as branding their victims with involuntary tattoos.

One man, who has had the Nationalist emblem tattooed on his arm, still refuses to root for the “Free World.” “You had it needled on me,” he says. “It doesn’t show my true feelings. I want to go home.” In that case, says his interrogator, he had better leave his tattoo behind, and slashes a chunk of flesh from his arm with a knife.

To the Communists, on the other hand, individual interests count for nothing. Certainly, there is more equality between officers and men, compared to the Nationalists, and the elaborate courtesies of social ranking have pretty much disappeared. But loyalty has to be shown by self-sacrifice. And the old social ranking has been replaced by a new order, where those with politically questionable family backgrounds are branded forever as potential traitors.

When a pro-Nationalist tells Yu and others that they will never be accepted in Communist China again, not after having allowed themselves to be captured, Yu knows that he is right:

The truth is even if you are a Communist and act as one here, your former comrades back home no longer count you as a Communist. To them, you’re all cowards and goners and shouldn’t exist anymore.

This is perhaps less a Chinese characteristic than a Communist one; after all, things were the same in Stalin’s empire—think of the wretched POWs who were transferred straight from German camps into the Gulag. But the idea that punishment should be collective, and that a family can be stigmatized for generations, fits in well with the East Asian tradition of substituting individual responsibility into communal responsibility. As a graduate of General Chiang Kai-shek’s academy, as a reader of the Bible, in English no less, and as a man who is perfectly willing to be friendly to American imperialists, such as a female doctor interested in practicing Chinese calligraphy, Yu knows he will always be under a cloud. And he also knows that the Party keeps tabs on all the people under its rule.

And so Yu vacillates, between his desire for greater freedom, a new life, unencumbered by political burdens, and his emotional ties to home. Even though he has refused to join the Nationalists, he is, on returning, still being tested by his superiors, who send him off on virtually suicidal missions. And not just Yu, of course. Entering the Korean War by throwing wave after wave of badly armed soldiers at the best-equipped military forces in the world is a suicidal mission in itself. But also in the camps, the commissars are quite prepared to sacrifice their men. Ha Jin gives us some vivid descriptions of this, based, as he says in the author’s note, on factual events.

On one occasion, the POWs decide to raise a homemade PRC flag, smeared with the blood of a patriotic prisoner. The American prison authorities order them to take down the flag. They refuse. American troops advance with machine guns and light tanks. The POWs attack with stones, clubs, bricks, bottles, boots, anything they have to hand:

Wave after wave of men dashed toward the GIs and were mown down. The yard was littered with bodies and puddles of blood while dark smoke rose and drifted away toward the ocean. Behind the sheds the flag hardly swayed, as if frozen.

It was organized lunacy. But Yu figures out why,

despite the massacre, the leaders considered the flag-raising battle a victory. They ignored the casualties and cared only about the news value of the incident. The more people got killed, the more sensational the event, and the more reverberant the victory would be.

Again, as we know from our own times, not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon.

Yu feels ambivalent. He admires the bravery, passion, and “religious fervor” of these men, “who were capable of laying down their lives for an idea. However silly the idea might be, the act of self-sacrifice made them truly remarkable.” But he knows he can never be like them.

There is, of course, a traditional way out for those who feel trapped in their identities, or displaced between conflicting sides, in Yu’s case between the material blandishments of authoritarian Free China and the suicidal heroism of totalitarian Red China. And that is to go to America, as the author of this novel has done. It is not as if Ha Jin is starry-eyed about the Americans. He is very good on the provincial hypocrisy and cruel childishness of the US “liberators,” who are quite happy to let their Nationalist allies do the dirty work. But it is interesting that the two people in the story who are almost cloyingly nice are an American doctor and a US army lieutenant. The easy decency of American human relations is contrasted with the brutal behavior of two Chinese, Nat and Com, toward each other.

This may indeed be a fairly accurate depiction of an intelligent Chinese POW’s view. Americans probably were nicer to one another, and even to their prisoners, than was usual among the Chinese. But whether the author intended it or not, some of this now is tinged with irony. A soldier who opted for the Nationalists says:

The Reds used us like ammo. Look at the GIs, they all wear flak vests on the battleground. The US government cares about their lives. How about us?

There is a kind of resolution in the end. Yu does not go to the US, and the two Chinas end up looking oddly alike. When he opts for Free China, Yu is subjected to a “political education session,” in which he is denounced as a Red. He has to “confess” and show his “sincere” repentance. He realizes that in Taiwan, too, he would always live under a cloud: “…My one year’s stay in the pro-Communist camp would remain a hidden reef in my life.” No wonder he feels overwhelmed:

What’s the difference between you people and the Communists? Where in the world can I ever be among my true comrades? Why am I always alone? When can I feel at home somewhere?

So he decides to return to his native country after all, only to be told, in yet another political denunciation meeting, that from now on all ex-POWs have to regard themselves as criminals. His fiancée’s brother writes him a letter that his sister cannot possibly marry “a disgraced captive.” And many of his comrades in the camp, once they get home, are imprisoned as spies and traitors.

Ha Jin’s story can be read as a bitter indictment of Chineseness. But perhaps this is less the lament of a Chinese than of a man who tries to think for himself in a world where such an attitude is not only unwelcomed but actively discouraged. To a more or lesser extent, this is not a Chinese, but a universal predicament. And that is why this book is not simply a treatise on Chinese politics and society, but a fine novel on the human condition.

  1. *

    Pantheon, 1999; reviewed in The New York Review, March 23, 2000.

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