War Trash

by Ha Jin

Hardcover, 2004





Pantheon (2004), Edition: 1st, 368 pages


War Trash, the extraordinary new novel by the National Book Award-winning author of Waiting, is Ha Jin's most ambitious work to date: a powerful, unflinching story that opens a window on an unknown aspect of a little-known war--the experiences of Chinese POWs held by Americans during the Korean conflict--and paints an intimate portrait of conformity and dissent against a sweeping canvas of confrontation. Set in 1951-53, War Trash takes the form of the memoir of Yu Yuan, a young Chinese army officer, one of a corps of "volunteers" sent by Mao to help shore up the Communist side in Korea. When Yu is captured, his command of English thrusts him into the role of unofficial interpreter in the psychological warfare that defines the POW camp. Taking us behind the barbed wire, Ha Jin draws on true historical accounts to render the complex world the prisoners inhabit--a world of strict surveillance and complete allegiance to authority. Under the rules of war and the constraints of captivity, every human instinct is called into question, to the point that what it means to be human comes to occupy the foremost position in every prisoner's mind. As Yu and his fellow captives struggle to create some sense of community while remaining watchful of the deceptions inherent in every exchange, only the idea of home can begin to hold out the promise that they might return to their former selves. But by the end of this unforgettable novel--an astonishing addition to the literature of war that echoes classics like Dostoevsky's Memoirs from the House of the Dead and the works of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen--the very concept of home will be more profoundly altered than they can even begin to imagine.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Limelite
War Trash by well known Chinese novelist, Ha Jin is straightforward, unembellished, without literary flourishes, and nearly devoid of literary elements like simile and metaphor. Despite the pared down prose, the story is moving, colorful, and manages not to sound merely journalistic or reportorial but confidently and artfully written. I'd characterize it as a narrative told by a man who is emotionally open and vulnerable but whose ethic is restrained and wary of exposing anyone else's experiences other than his own to public scrutiny. He does not suppose, rather, he doesn't presume authority over another's authenticity.

It may sound contradictory but Ha, through his narrator hero, Yu Yuan, gives readers a lot of information about the Chinese character. We see that the Chinese are unashamedly sentimental, especially about their mothers and home villages. They are frequently brought to tears and mourn deeply and in open display at friends' and relatives' deaths. Their national characteristic leans toward "herd" instinct -- that is, an openly expressed inability to deal well with solitary living or friendlessness, or without a clan within which to dwell. At one point, Yu Yuan recognizes in himself and his fellow captives a national timidity because they are docile and cooperative with their American captors, and disinclined to make any efforts to escape. He notes the sharp contrast between the Chinese and North Korean POWs who organize themselves in military style, collect and construct weapons, and plot and conspire against their enemy occupiers, and who are wholeheartedly devoted to Marxist communism.

In the period of the story, the 1950s, communism was climbing into entrenchment and dominance over the people of China. Yet, the bulk of the population was apolitical, or at least, politically naive mostly due to being uneducated or minimally so. In the notorious selection process when the Chinese prisoners were forced to choose for repatriation or for release from the POW camp to Taiwan, the soldiers reverted to making their decisions on a personal level, i.e., their desire to return to mothers, lovers, and villages vs. feelings of severed connections or untethered emotions, which produced a perceived rootlessness. None seemed persuaded by the political argument to build a great communist China, nor did they suffer qualms that their choice might be perceived as betrayal of the great leader, Chairman Mao.

Compared to authors like Dai Sijie, Ma Jian, and Yu Hua, Ha's literary style seems less allegorical. His characters in no way seem symbolic but honestly human, real, and natural. He does not draw on the rich lore of Chinese legend and mythology, which stands in strong contrast to, say, the novella of Bi Feiyu above. This, of course, can be attributed to the unrelated subjects of the two works, war vs. classic opera. Even with that said, I find Ha's style very western, firmly realistic, direct, simple, and practical in a manner I haven't encountered among other Chinese authors in my library.

All these points are why I feel supported in asserting that War Trash ranks in power as an equal to any of the highly regarded American writers of WWII fiction: Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, and James Jones
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LibraryThing member MissTeacher
So meticulously detailed and insightful, I had to check a few times to make sure this wasn't really a memoir. The plot is historically accurate down to the hour, and the characterization of all cast members is truthful and very, very personal.
This is a great read for anyone interested in the Korean War, the Chinese People's army, prisoners of war, Communism or wartime translations. Though the main character's viewpoint is severly limited, Ha Jin manages to include a vast vista of human emotions, intellect and social dynamics when men are pushed to their limits.… (more)
LibraryThing member nefernika
This is the first of Ha Jin's books I've read - I was actually looking for /Waiting/, but it was checked out, so I picked this book up - I usually enjoy books with Chinese characters or set in China, and I usually enjoy books set around the periphery of wars - the experience outside the combat zones. So I was surprised at how long it took me to get through this book, and how hard it was to stick with it. If the library hadn't been closed for construction for 2 weeks, I probably wouldn't have made it.

That said, the setting was one I knew nothing of and the narrator an interesting character - a continual outsider, no matter how often his situation changes. Once I finished the book, I finally pinpointed my difficulty: This is a novel that reads like nonfiction. The chapters are episodic, and apart from the general "still in the prison camp and hoping to go home" theme, there was no compelling, overarching plot. One chapter might tell about the development of a code for transmitting messages, or another chapter might tell about a G.I. General captured in a prison uprising. Each chapter is interesting, but no story arc leaves me anxious to pick the book up and read the next chapter--but it didn't have the "it's just what happened" justification of nonfiction for not working into a larger story.

I also found the matter-of-fact narration distancing, I think BECAUSE it was first person. The same minimalist, unsentimental prose might have worked beautifully as a restrained 3rd person narrator, but as a first person narrator--well, I felt like the narrator didn't find his own story all that interesting. The telling never transcended the idle-storytelling level of a personal anecdote. I actually feel kind of guilty for not liking the book better, like maybe I'm just really shallow and only understand loud, shouting & gesticulating books. Which is probably why I liked /the Count of Monte Cristo/ so much.

On the other hand, I just read the previous review of this book, and the reviewer says "What happens to Yuan is terrifying." the thing is, I never felt terrified while reading this book. reading this book is like reading the sentence "I was scared that I would never get to go home," or "I was hungry." I felt informed, but not moved. so, um. show, don't tell.
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LibraryThing member autumnesf
This is a fictional account of a Chinese soldier imprisoned in a UN POW prison during the Korean war. It was interesting because the main character was neutral - not a Communist and not a Nationalist - and was caught in the battle between the two groups on where they were to be sent when they were released. A good read. Sadly, the worst things he lived through were actually at the hands of the Chinese, not the captures.… (more)
LibraryThing member dudara
Ha Jin lied about his age when he was 14 years old so he could join the Chinese People's Liberation Army in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. He left his native China in 1985, and now writes about China, solely in English for the benefit of English-speakers. War Trash, his fourth novel was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

It's hard to believe that there is not an element of autobiography in this story. Our main character is Yu Yuan, who is drafted into the newly formed Communist army and is sent as part of a corps of 'volunteers' to fight against the Americans in the Korean War. The short-comings and lack of preparation on the part of the Communists soon become apparent to our protagonist, as he watches hundreds die around him. Eventually he is captured by the Americans and following surgery, he is sent to a POW camp.

Despite having faced hardship out on the battlefield, it is in the POW camp that Yu faces the toughest challenges of all. The POW camps are split between the majority Nationalists, who want to be released to Free China (Taiwan) and the Communists who want to return to China. Yu's English language skills means that both sides are interested in him, but all Yu wants is to return home to his elderly mother and fiancee.

The tale is very simply written, sometimes without grace or elegance of language. However, it is an interesting portrait of the inner-conflict that the Chinese people must have faced at the dawn of the Communist age. Yu faces the tough choice between returning to the mainland, possibly declaimed as a traitor for allowing himself to be captured, or moving to Taiwan. The Chinese mentality that is portrayed in the book is confusing to me as a Westerner, but it goes a long way to explain the enthusiasm that the Chinese have for idealogues.

Ultimately I found this to be a powerful, yet simple, tale that exposed vast tracts of Chinese attitude and mentality as well as providing insight into a far-away war.
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LibraryThing member queencersei
Set in a POW camp in the Korean War. Tells an interesting story of a Chinese prisoner in an American POW camp. The Americans are secondary characters in this story. The focus is on the main character and his daily struggle of survival with his fellow prisoners. Details of their daily lives and struggles for food and even entertainment.… (more)
LibraryThing member ShelfMonkey
“Who can bear the weight of a war?€? asks Yu Yuan. “To make witness is to make the truth known, but we must remember that most victims have no voice of their own, and that in bearing witness to their stories we must not appropriate them.â€?

Yu has borne such weight for fifty years. Conscripted by the then newly-founded Chinese Communist Party into fighting in Korea, captured and thrown into a POW camp, he became caught between allegiances, his fate determined by warring political ideologues who viewed his skills as an English translator as a tool for their own ends.

Ha Jin’s novel, War Trash, is a most unsettling book; a fictional memoir so seamless and genuine it reads as non-fiction. Fusing violent history and glowing imagination, written in the first-person style of a man translating his Chinese thoughts into English phrases, War Trash is so finely hued, so real, it takes one’s breath away.

Yu, now an elderly teacher writing his account “in a documentary manner so as to preserve historical accuracy,â€? is hardly a vibrant character. A natural sceptic, Yu is an unassuming man whose only wish during his internment was to return to China.

Life as a POW is not forgiving to those who would remain neutral, as the politics of prisoners serve to form a dangerous microcosm of battling belief systems. Pro-Nationalists treat Communist Party members as traitors to China, dealing out horrific brutalities to loyalists of Mao’s philosophy.

The Communists, however, judge their principles more important than the safety and security of their soldiers, their leaders fixated on propaganda and grabbing headlines. Yu witnesses scores of his comrades slaughtered in tragic prison uprisings designed to promote ideology, fuelling Yu’s reflection that “war was an enormous furnace fed by the bodies of soldiers.â€?

Jin, National Book Award winner for his novel The Waiting, has fashioned a delicate novel that functions on many levels. As moral allegory, War Trash serves as warning to those who blindly obey, realizing that the path to self-realization is best served by one’s own judgements, and not the dogma of others.

Likewise, as political commentary, the parallels to the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay scarcely need mentioning. When Yu comments on the Koreans’ hostility toward the Chinese, “To them we had come here only to protect China’s interests – by so doing, we couldn’t help but ruin their homes, fields, and livelihoods,â€? a more apt description of the current Iraq war there couldn’t be.

War Trash is not meant as polemic; it is a story first, told by a man whose mere survival speaks volumes to his courage. Like Thomas Keneally’s recent, unfairly ignored work The Tyrant’s Novel, it is a tale of man’s awakening to the world state, and his fight to make peace within himself when all about is chaos.

Completing Yu’s tale with a perfectly tuned atmosphere of sorrow, Jin writes an ending of haunting simplicity. “Do not take this to be an “our storyâ€?,â€? Yu writes. “I have just written what I experienced.â€? What Yu experienced was terrifying. What Jin presents is phenomenal.
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LibraryThing member Laurenbdavis
A detailed, beautifully observed portrait of a Chinese POW during the Korean War. Written in a documentary style, the author manages to convey emotion without melodrama. A powerful depiction of an overlooked period.
LibraryThing member TigsW
This book really seemed autobiographical -- it was enormously convincing and the factual style added to that. It provided a quite different take on centralized power and depersonalization of the individual under Maoist China. It was well written and the characters well developed. It was, however, overly long and dragged a little in places… (more)
LibraryThing member shawnd
I read this just after reading Ha Jin's Ocean of Words, a book of stories about life in the Korean War. Moving from that -- many about life at the front -- to this full length novel about life as a prisoner of war during that conflict, was fairly seamless. The protagonist is a rarity -- an English speaking Chinese who was captured while fighting for the Communist Army trying to protect North Korea. The book covers the travails of the main character, Yu Yuan - aka Feng Yan - as he tries to survive, be insurgent, and decide his postwar fate.

The writing is solid and excellent. While comparisons to Joseph Heller and Hemingway would be too great, the 'war fiction-short sentence-flowing events which the soldier is powerless over' feel is ubiquitous. Especially poignant are the beginning and endings which add twists of relevancy and anguish to the already harsh story. Ha Jin is able to provide a believable, realistic account where neither the Communists or the Nationalists come out looking very good.
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LibraryThing member skyrad43
This book is entirely about the POW's lives during the Korean War in the 1950s. The narrator is a Chinese soldier and the book is written as a memoir. It is all fiction based on fact. The book gives a lot of insight into the mind set of China at the time. Taiwan was already separated from the mainland. Life was not easy for the POWs for sure. I think I need to read more about this war.… (more)
LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
This is the story of Yu Yuan's experience as a Chinese prisoner of war during the Korean War, as told by him as an old man. Yu Yuan had been a student at a military academy suspected by Mao's army of being sympathetic to the Nationalists. He, along with other students, were placed into certain "disposable" units. Yu Yuan's unit was ordered to Korea to assist the North Koreans as "volunteers", rather than regular army. Poorly equipped, supplied, and trained, most of these soldiers were fairly soon killed or captured. Yu Yuan was captured, and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp.

The book provides an insider's view of the society, culture and daily life of a prison camp. A hierarchy develops, with those at the top relieved from most of the drudgery and better provided for, not as a result of anything the captors did, but as a result of the actions of those of lesser status in the camp. Yu Yuan, because he is fluent in English, straddles both elements of the prison society.

Through-out their time in the camp, the prisoners know they will have to choose between being repatriated to mainland China or opting for Taiwan when the war ends and they are released. Those who have already chosen Taiwan are presented as thugs, and pressure the others to make the same choice, sometimes violently and brutally. Yu Yuan can't decide: he is not a Communist, but wants to return to his family and fiancee, who he knows he will never see if he chooses Taiwan. On the other hand, he knows that if he chooses mainland China, he will be under suspicion for the rest of his life. He may even be charged criminally for treason, since it was drilled into him, and other soldiers, that they must never surrender, but die before being captured.

This book is well-written and informative. Ha Jin portrays the Chinese soldiers with what I believe is an accurate characterization of the values instilled in them by the government. At the same time, he has created real people, with real and individual internal conflicts.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This 2004 novel by a professor born in China but now living in Boston is fiction, but reads like a memoir. It tells of a Chinese soldier sent to Korea in 1951 where he is captured after being wounded. He is restored to health by an American surgeon and spends the time till 1953 in POW camps run by Americans. There is some brutality suffered by POWs but they in turn are rebellious and always seeking to do harm to their captors. In most memoirs by POWs one sympathizes with the POW but often one is repelled by the Chinese Communists' behavior as they seek to bedevil their captors. There is real suspense as to what will happen to the central character, who wants to go home to his moher and girlfriend but fears what will happen to him in Communist China, where any one captured is looked on as disgraced. A carefully crafted book, reeking with apparent authenticity, and a gripping book to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member nmele
An interesting account of Chinese POWs in a UN camp during the Korean War. The first of Ha Jin's booke read, so I don't know how typical it is of his writing, but it struck me as well-researched and it is very engaging.
LibraryThing member xuebi
In War Trash, Ha Jin tells the tale of Yu Yuan - a Chinese "volunteer" in the Korean War, who was captured and endured time in a POW camp. There he falls into the factional conflicts between the Communist and Nationalist Chinese groups, and the American guards but through all the privations and troubles he suffers he continues to hold onto the hope of his fiancée and mother back in China. A epilogue details life for the returnees after the Korean War and the various hardships they endured in spite of the difficulties the POWs endured in Korea.

Ha Jin's novel is fictional but it is historical fiction and though the protagonist and the other characters are fictional the events they are caught up in are based on historical ones, and through it Yu Yuan becomes a avatar for the Chinese soldiers who served in Korea and who, when captured, were cruelly toyed with by the superiors in the hopes of scoring political gains.

The novel powerfully explores the toll wartime experiences can take on a man and on his sense of humanity and decency and yet through it all, Yu Yuan endures everything - he demonstrates a "moving humanity" in the face of extreme inhumanity.

This is an excellent novel and explores a little-known side, especially in China today, to a war often pushed onto the side-lines by conflicts before and after it.
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LibraryThing member Jeannine504
This book details the life of a young Korean forced into war then twisted about every which by
political winds. I was unfamiliar with the plight of Chinese POWs held by Americans during the Korean conflict in the early 50's and this history carried the story for me. I've been disappointed in the other Ha Jin books - the writing style isn't exciting and the stories are not so new.… (more)
LibraryThing member HHS-Students
Reviewed by: Joey (Class of 2013)

In the book "War Trash" Ha Jin creates a fictional character whose name has changed so much in the book that the closest I can recall is Yu Yaun. This book is different, descriptive, and highly entertaining.

Yuan is a college student enrolled in the military in China. His fiancé is with his mother when he is brought to the front lines in World War 2. He is a bilinguist which makes him quite important in his group. He becomes captured and his plight is to either go to free China and live in comfort or return to Communist China to help his sick mother. If he goes to China the pro nationalists in his prison will try to kill him, but he can’t bear leaving his ill mother.

It’s an interesting plot with an epic climax. Which I haven’t read yet and I won’t spoil. The book is slow at times but very interesting in its own way. You can usually only find books of war containing nothing but war. This one includes an unknown kind of war between prisoners and the prison. To survive in a place designed to let you live in the least minimum amount of living space.

The book is only around 350 pages and holds a whole story that I haven’t finished yet so I can’t really talk about it. It was a good read and is a good size so that it doesn’t seem unending.
The new taste of imprisonment in a book of war gives a good twist. The title fits it perfectly because he becomes nothing to anyone in the war, like trash. I give the book a 4.5 out of 5 stars, read this book.
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LibraryThing member christinejoseph
@ Chinese (Comm.) 1951-53 — to support comm. Korea in war P.O.W. Camp — he speaks English

In 1951 Yu Yuan, a scholarly and self-effacing clerical officer in Mao’s “volunteer” army, is taken prisoner south of the 38th Parallel. Because he speaks English, he soon becomes an intermediary between his compatriots and their American captors.With Yuan as guide, we are ushered into the secret world behind the barbed wire, a world where kindness alternates with blinding cruelty and one has infinitely more to fear from one’s fellow prisoners than from the guards.… (more)
LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Jin's naïf-pedantic style worked well for etching the details of a sad, slow-motion love triangle in the empty, slow-moving world of pre-reform China in Waiting. It works less well for rendering the privations and intrigues of life in a Chinese POW camp in Korea in the fifties, with all the clever improvisational "Great Escape" and boy scout stuff, and the internal denunciations and counterdenunciations and weird machinations about who is gonna get repatriated to China and who to Taiwan, and reaching out across cultural lines for different kinds of interactions with the American captors (not idealized in a shit-eating way, though somehow it perpetually seems like something like that is about to break out and I was worried). It's a great, promising setting but Jin seems to just take you through an utterly plausible, utterly artless series of events and dilemmas as they may have happened to any individual real POW, with no attempt to spin them into a story, and also he has this didactic thing and so in combination it seems like he is constantly trying to teach you a lesson but keeps changing his mind about what that lesson is.… (more)
LibraryThing member TimBazzett
I must admit right up front that I was a bit puzzled with War Trash, which is the first of Ha Jin's books I have read. While the story itself was intriguing enough - a former Korean War Chinese POW recounts his story nearly fifty years later - I found the language used rather wooden and formulaic as the narrator, Yu Yuan, tells repeated tales of the power struggle within the POW camps between the Chinese communists and the nationalists. My problem was that I didn't know if the language used was purposeful, as the fictional narrator had learned English as a young man and it was not his first language - or if the author himself has still not mastered the more personal idioms and nuances of English. I don't want to believe the latter choice, as the book was a Pulitzer finalist and winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award. If the former choice is true, then I guess it's quite an accomplishment. But I'm still a bit confused on this point, and am not sure I'd read another book by this author.

Yuan was an interesting enough fictional creation, a young man torn between the two political camps, but not really attracted to either one, which made him a mostly impartial observer in all the disagreements and even uprisings within the several camps where he spent more than a year in captivity. In the end, however, all these power struggles and intrigues began to get rather tiresome after a couple hundred pages. I will say I learned a lot about this aspect of the Korean War, since many of the incidents described here are based on historical facts. I was never able to identify with the narrator though, not even a little bit. He remained foreign and "different." This is a book I would recommend to anyone interested in the Korean War and its backstory, but not to someone who simply likes a good novel. In that respect I thought it fell short, ironically because it was just too long and somewhat redundant.
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