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Few writers have appeared on the American literary scene to such sudden acclaim as the Chinese emigre Ha Jin, the pen name of Xuefei Jin. His spare prose style in narrating the lives of ordinary individuals trapped in political and moral ambiguities has led to comparisons with Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov. Indeed, he explores a world as unfamiliar to most of his readers as Tsarist Russia: the Maoist Chinese culture of his youth.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Revolutionary Youth
Ha Jin was born on February 21, 1956, in the city of Jinzhou in Liaoning province, to Danlin Jin, an officer in the People’s Liberation Army, and Yuanfen (Zhao) Jin. The arrival of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 ended Jin’s formal education, because schools were closed. Jin witnessed the rise of the cult of Mao and even joined a youth auxiliary of the Red Guards, but he also experienced the cruelty and hysteria of attacks on those accused of counterrevolutionary thinking when his family was publicly criticized and harassed because his maternal grandfather had once been a landholder.
Amid rising tensions between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, he lied about his age and enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army (he was thirteen). His army service lasted five and a half years, one of which he spent on a frigid outpost on the border of China and Soviet Russia. He eventually developed an affinity for Russian literature that remains a strong influence on his work today. Jin left the army when he was nineteen and became a telegraph operator in a remote city in northern China. He spent three years there, learning English from a radio program and reading literature. Jin enrolled as an English major at Heilongjiang University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1981. He then studied American literature at Shangdon University, and he familiarized himself with his new favorites, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow.
Devotion to English
In Shandong, he met Lisha Bian, a mathematics teacher; they married in 1982 and have one son, Wen. Jin completed his master’s degree in 1984, and leaving his young wife and son behind in China, he arrived in the United States in 1985 to pursue a PhD in English at Brandeis University in Boston—Jhumpa Lahiri was a classmate—with the expectation that he would return to China as a teacher or translator. Although the Chinese government initially kept his family behind, his wife was allowed to join him in 1987, and, surprisingly, his young son was granted an exit visa just a few weeks after the 1989 massacre of students and protesters at Tiananmen Square. The repression of China’s pro-democracy movement was a turning point for Jin. He was convinced he would not be able to write honestly in China. Accordingly, he began to think of himself as a permanent exile, and this new identity profoundly changed the direction of his career.
While finishing his doctoral research on modernist poetry, Jin worked as a busboy, housecleaner, and night watchman to help support his family. He also enrolled in creative-writing courses at Boston University and made the decision to write and speak exclusively in English. He likened the process to changing his blood. All of his published literary works (with the exception of dialogue) have been painstakingly conceived and composed in English. Nonetheless, they bear strong signature traces of the Chinese worldview and its metaphorical structures.
When The Paris Review accepted his first poem, he chose the pseudonym Ha because Xuefei was so difficult for English-speaking readers to pronounce. Jin’s first book of poetry, Between Silences, was published in 1990 and his PhD dissertation on modernist poetry—the works of Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden—and its relationship to Chinese literature and culture was finished at Brandeis in 1992. It was also in 1992 that he read what for him was a life-changing work: Trinidadian-Indian novelist V. S. Naipul’s A Bend in the River (1979). That book convinced Jin that he was not solely responsible for speaking for downtrodden Chinese—his first responsibility was to write well. He took this lesson with him when he began teaching creative writing and literature at Emory University in 1993.
Continued Success as Novelist and Poet
His first book of poetry was followed by Facing Shadows in 1996. That same year, Jin also published Ocean of Words, a highly acclaimed collection of short stories based on his experiences in the Chinese army. In 1997, another collection, Under the Red Flag was published, followed by his first novel, In the Pond, and his next and most celebrated— Waiting.
Although the liberalizing of China is hinted at in The Bridegroom (2000), another collection of short stories, its focus is on the frustration and repression of ordinary citizens. Jin’s third collection of poetry, Wreckage, appeared in 2001. Frank Allen wrote in Library Journal that the subjects of many of the poems are ”both stunning and horrific” and that the volume ”bears witness to a sad, troubled bond with his [Jin’s] homeland.” In 2002 Jin published his next novel, The Crazed. It is set against the background of the Tiananmen Square massacre and tells the story of Jian Wan, a Chinese graduate student who becomes a caregiver to his literature professor and future father-in-law, who has suffered a stroke.
His next novel, the antiwar War Trash, marked a departure for Jin—it was his first novel not set in China. War Trash tells the story of a Chinese prisoner of war held by American forces during the Korean War who commences his memoir—the story of his time imprisoned, and of the tattoo he wears across his belly. He writes the story for his two American grandchildren. War Trash won the PEN/Faulkner award and further solidified Jin’s reputation as a writer of uncommon power and skill.
Jin has continued to focus on all three literary modes— poems, short stories, and novels—in which he has had previous success. In 2001 he left his teaching position at Emory and after a short sabbatical began teaching at Boston University in 2002, thereby continuing his career at the place where he first took courses in creative writing. It is where he made the decision to write solely in English, to resist the silence imposed in China, and to become an important new voice in American literature. He mostly avoids public appearances and requests for him to assume a more public or political role as a Chinese expatriate. His latest novel, A Free Life, is set in America.
Works in Literary Context
The Short Story
Ha Jin makes his short stories do as much emotional and intellectual thought-provocation as novels ten times as long accomplish. Not one to shy away from violence, heartbreaking honesty, and the displaying of his former countrymen in very unflattering light, he nonetheless ensures that his stories are often hopeful and humane. As in his poetry, spare prose and minimal embellishment are his hallmarks, as is a unique and quiet humor. Jhumpa Lahiri, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies (1999), is an apt comparison.
Jin has mentioned that the work of other great immigrant writers—Vladimir Nabokov among them—helped him get into a place where he could write the nearly autobiographical A Free Life, his first book set in the United States. Unlike Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, (author of The Gulag Archipelago, 1973-78) another exile from a communist country who wrote about his personal experiences, Ha Jin left China of his own accord, and has even had a novel translated and published since he left. Jin has bristled at being labeled a dissident, yet his work bears the hallmark of criticism spiked with longing. This mood is also felt in the work of Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan-American author of the extraordinary novel The Kite Runner (2003), and in the characters of Nell Freudenberger’s novel The Dissident (2006), which tells the story of an identity-challenged Chinese artist’s time in America. The book is influenced by the lives of many artists and activists like Ha Jin, though Freudenberger herself is an American.
Works in Critical Context
Critics regard Ha Jin as one of the best Asian contemporary writers who writes in English. His writings are described as ponderous, yet light and easy to read. He is not only a celebrated novelist and short story writer, but a renowned poet as well. According to Roger Gilbert of the Hungry Mind Review, Ha Jin’s first collection of poetry, Between Silences, ”brings a great empathy and compassion to his depiction of the fallible men and women whose acts and attitudes together make up history.” Midwest Book Review further dubbed Jin as ”one of the most talented poets writing today.” Ha Jin’s short fictions are also commended by critics for their ”luminous prose.” Publishers Weekly, in a review of Ocean of Words, stated that ”Jin’s characters make hard choices that will move not just readers interested in China or the army life, but any reader vulnerable to good writing and simple human drama.” His first novel, In the Pond, was highly received by the literary community as well. Critics commend this novel for its vivid descriptions that complement its humor. According to the New York Times Book Review, ”though art and politics figure in the action,
In the Pond is first and foremost a comedy—naughty, lusty, and raucously entertaining. Ha Jin’s language echoes working-class Chinese at its rough, bawdy best.”
Under the Red Flag
Under the Red Flag, Jin’s second collection of short stories, is set in the fictional village of Dismount Fort in China. The book focuses on the traditional harshness of life in a poor, rural town as well as on the disruptive social changes that came with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Katherine Riegel noted in Crab Orchard Review that Jin ”does not idealize the old ways, and the Red Guards are not always the most vicious enemy.” Rather, it is the ”cultural splintering” brought about by the frustration of the inhabitants of Dismount Fort combined with the implementation of cold and destructive political theories about modernization and progress that contribute to what she describes as ”a sense of hollowness inside these characters as if each one were lost in a lost country. Jin s genius, according to Fatima Wu in a World Literature Today review, is rooted in his genuine sympathy for the ordinary people whom he chooses as protagonists. Wu wrote that ”Ha Jin is a satirist, but at his best he is a writer of compassion, warmth, and love.
Waiting, a bittersweet love story, explores themes of entrapment, powerlessness, and self-delusion; it dramatizes the stifling consequences of both the traditional Chinese value of filial piety and more modern notions of Maoist purity. The novel covers more than two decades, from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, and includes scenes in both a tradition-bound rural village and a modern city. Waiting won the PEN/Faulkner award and National Book Award, one of only three to be given to a writer whose first language is not English. He was also granted a Guggenheim fellowship following its publication. Writing in the New York Times, author and critic Francine Prose opined, ”Ha Jin observes everything about army and civilian life, yet he tells the reader only—and precisely—as much as is needed to make his deceptively simple fiction resonate on many levels: the personal, the historical, the political.” In the Summer of 2000, the critic for World Literature wrote about Waiting’s protagonist’s conundrum: ”an absurd impasse of the sort the author excels at creating, quintessentially Maoist but also universally human.”
- Garner, Dwight. ”’Somehow I Couldn’t Stop’: An Interview with Ha Jin.” New York Times (October 10, 2004).
- Garner, Dwight. ”Ha Jin’s Cultural Revolution.” New York Times (February 6, 2000).
- Kirn, Walter. ”Pleased to Be Here.” New York Times (November 25, 2007).
- Phillips, Caryl. ”Exile on Main Street.” New Republic (December 24, 2008).
- Solomon, Deborah. ”Questions for Ha Jin.” New York Times (April 10, 2005).
- The National Book Award. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://www.nationalbook.org/ nba2006_fict_powers.html.
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