Ha Jin: The Writer as Migrant (48)

Virginia Review of Asian Studies
He is a Chinese-born immigrant to the U.S, where he has established himself as a
poet, a novelist, and an academic. He “is inventing a whole new genre of literature that
really only he can write, because he's lived there. He grew up speaking Chinese... but yet
he is writing in English about these direct experiences”. (Weich). He is making China
and Chinese Americans available to a new world and a world of new readers. He is Ha
Jin – the writer as migrant.
It cannot be overstated that Jin is a major figure into the Pantheon of late 20thcentury American literature. His works has swept major American literary awards over
the period of a decade. He is the author of the widely acclaimed novel Waiting (1999),
which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award; War Trash (2004),
which again won the PEN/Faulker Award; In the Pond (2000); The Crazed (2002); He is
also a prolific short story writer. His story collection Ocean of Words (1996) won the
PEN/Hemingway Award. His Under the Red Flag (1997) was the winner of the Flannery
O’Connor Award for Short Fiction while The Bridegroom (2000) was the winner of the
Asian American Literary Award.
Although his works are not autobiographical in a strict sense, Jin clearly
interweaves his personal experience in writings, which capture particulars of his life in
China. Born into an army family in northeastern China in 1956, he came of age during
the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)2. His experience in this most tumultuous period
becomes the inspiration for his short story collection Under the Red Flag, which portrays
the everyday lives of villages and Party officials in that period and its aftermath. In the
collection, the two stories- In Broad Daylight and Emperor- are the most
autobiographical. Written from the point of view of young boys, the two stories, as Ha Jin
says, ‘are based on what I saw on the streets of the small town where my family lived for
more than ten years.
At the age of fourteen, Jin started his five-year service at the People's Liberation
Army (PLA) during which he became involved in the war against the former Soviet
Lezhou Su is a professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He completed his PhD in Humanities at the
University of Louisville in 2012.
2 The Cultural Revolution was a massive political movement launched by Mao. He did it to regain his personal power
by eliminating his rivals in the Party leadership. It later developed into a nationwide chaos with catastrophic
repercussions. I will discuss it in details in the next section under the heading “Historical Context”.
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Union in 1969.3 His experience of serving in the army comprises his Ocean of Words,
another short story collection of vignettes about life in the People’s Liberation Army on
the volatile border with former Soviet Union. One of the most memorable short stories in
this collection is Love in the Air, which is based on his sever-year experience of working
as a telegraph operator after he left the army. The short story depicts a young radio
operator who falls in love with the excellent hand of a woman operator he never meets,
imagining every dot and dash as tender, meaningful words the young woman sent to him
For Jin, writing is to record “memory of those hard facts which cannot be worn
away by time” (Jin Between Silences : A Voice from China, Preface). However, Jin did
not mean literature is equal to a historical narrative. Rather he holds that literature
consists of artistic works made out of history, and “writer(s) should be not just a
chronicler but also a shaper, an alchemist, of historical experiences”. (Jin The Writer as
Migrant 30)
His fiction is always attempting to tell the truth of life, presenting the world he
has witnessed as it is - cruel, harsh and violent. Indeed, Jin never wants to be a benign
writer who caresses the readers’ psyche by beatifying the harsh reality. Readers of his
works will be appalled by the characters and events that he describes: a prostitute is
brutally paraded and humiliated by red guards in the village street; an adulterer castrates
himself as penance for his transgression; an old man invites a gang to rape his young wife
as revenge for her sex laxity.
Kirkus Reviews comments: "A deceptively simple tale, written with extraordinary
precision and grace. Ha Jin has established himself as one of the great sturdy realists still
writing in a postmodern age" (Reviews). Indeed his style bears a trace of Russian
Realism, to which his earlier self-taught experience exposed him. He had little schooling
during the Culture revolution when schools throughout the mainland were closed. Yet he
read widely the classics of Russian literature during his service in the army. When citing
his strong affinity for the classics of Russian literature, he said
“Mainly I learned from them [the Russian writers] the pathos of life. No matter
how comic Gogol is, his stories are tragic. As for Chekhov, the tragic sense of life
is the core of his work. Even beauty in his work is intensified by tragic feelings.
Tolstoy is a giant with unsurpassable energy. His style is honest, straightforward
and simple. Those qualities I cherish. Above all, because the world I describe is
closer to the world they presented, I feel more attached to their works” (Geyh
The military confrontation between Soviet and Chinese forces at Ussuri was caused by border disputes which were
headache revived from the unequal treaties between Tsarist Russia and Imperial China in the second half of 19 th
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His works are regarded as Chekhovian - tragic, honest, straightforward and simple
(M. Zhang 33), for example, his best-acclaimed novel Waiting is a moving tragedy about
a couple who are forced to wait eighteen long years to marry, during which both their
youth and their love lose their luster.
Jin went back to university when the Cultural Revolution came to end in the late
1970s. He completed his degrees in English and American literature at Heilongjia
University (B.A.1981) and at Shandong University (M.A.1984). A year later, he set off
alone for the U.S to pursue the doctorate in poetry at Brandeis. Receiving theoretical
grounding in literary and critical theory, he is well “aware of the subtleties of language”
and “understand[s] the structure of literature” (Geyh 137 ).
His life in the U.S. provides inspiration for his immigrant-themed fiction A Free
Life (2000), which is a story of naturalization of Chinese immigrant family. The
protagonist Nan, his wife Pingping, and their son Taotao, fully sever their ties with China
in the after-math of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre4 and start a new, free life in the
United States. The novel is really semi-autobiographic insofar as the students’
demonstration is also a turning point in Jin’s life. If not for the incident, he would have
returned to his former job at Shandong University as a researcher in American literature.
The incident is a painful experience for the writer much as for the protagonist. In
retrospect, he said, “Though we didn’t undergo it personally in Beijing, it changed so
many lives in the United States. It still hurts me because it has shaped my destiny” (Shan
After making arrangements to bring his family into the U.S, he started to make
every effort to survive in the new land. Ha Jin started writing seriously just after the 1989
pro-democracy movement. Jin’s prodigious talent was first evident in poetry. He had his
first book published in 1990 -- a book of poetry. In the preface, he writes, “As a fortunate
one I speak for those unfortunate people who suffered, endured or perished at the bottom
of life and who created the history and at the same time were fooled or ruined by it.” (Jin
Between Silences : A Voice from China)
His remarks demonstrate that he clearly viewed himself as a spokesman on behalf
of the downtrodden Chinese. However, as time elapsed, Jin has come to realize that it is a
naïve idea for a writer to envision himself as a spokesman, which is in fact a complex,
infeasible, and fragile position, especially for a person like him writing in a trans-national
context. He argues that “a writer’s first responsibility is to write well. His social role is
only secondary” (Jin The Writer as Migrant 28). As he adds, “There is no argument that
the writer must take a moral stand and speak against oppression, prejudice, and injustice,
In brief, it was a pro-democracy movement where students and intellectuals took to streets to demand political
democracy, freedom of speech, and rule of law, protesting against official corruption. As it was developing into an
unleashed political outcry, the Chinese government used fire to clear the protestors at Tiananmen Square. It is estimated
that hundreds of students were shot dead in the brutal action.
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but such a gesture must be secondary, and he should be aware of the limits of his art as
social struggle. His real battlefield is nowhere but on the page. His work will be of little
value if not realized as art” (ibid. 29). Apparently, Jin holds literature is more a piece of
artistic work than a tool of social and political activists. This clearly runs opposite to that
of Mao in terms of the role of literature.5
His negation to spokesmanship should be the result of a crucial change in his selfidentity. Earlier in the 1990s, his emotional attachment to China had remained, which
motivated him to write to keep his memory in art. Identifying himself with his native
country had made him feel obliged to articulate for the people – especially the
underprivileged in the country. Yet as time passed by, he gradually outgrew his emotional
affiliation to China and increasingly identified himself as an independent individual and
an immigrant that would never return. Accordingly, he went beyond spokesmanship,
writing mainly for the sake of art and on his own account. His writings began to change
in theme - his earlier writings are themed with his past experience in China, while his
later works switched to Chinese immigrants’ experience in the U.S. As noted earlier, his
first immigrant-themed novel A Free Life marks the success of the shift. As he writes
retrospectively, “I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is
a way to negate the role of the spokesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn
to stand alone, as a writer” (Jin The Writer as Migrant 28). Metaphysically, the change in
his self-identity marked his triumphal transcendence of nationalism and his embracing
humanities as a universal truth beyond cultural, national boundaries. This philosophical
idea is well reflected in his view of the purpose of literature – “to capture the universal
elements”. (Weich). Thus, transcendence is the key feature of his writings, which is the
focus of the following part.
Transcendence in Theme and in Style
Jin’s writing is mainly about China, yet the country’s particulars are not the focus
and the purpose of his writing; he is not interested in writing idiosyncrasies to expose
difference between cultures. On the contrary, he has been mainly concerned with “truth
that transcends borders and time”(C. W. Liu 78). The universal truth is humanity. His
writing is “all about humanity and human possibilities” which are common across
societies rather than “about a particular society” or about a particular ideology (Jin
"Individualism Arrives in China" 20). For instance, the majority of Jin novels are set
against recent political events and Communism ideology in China. Yet the harsh political
reality serves only as a context in which Jin attempts to explore the complexity of
humanity and individuals’ attitudes toward political events and stifling ideologies. It is in
this context that “the humanities of the characters” will be fully manifested (Geyh 135).
Waiting is an exemplar. It does not concentrate on the Culture Revolution (1966-1976)
but “on the person, the inner life, the life of the soul and how that changes, how the
In 1942, Mao Zedong gave a series of lectures called "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Art and Literature" that made it
clear that literature serves the end of politics.
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emotional life is affected by” the Revolution and Mao’s dictatorship as a whole (Weich).
In common with his many other fictions, Waiting “demonstrat[es] … the complexity of
human emotion [and individuality] which defies simplistic dogma [i.e. Marxism,
Maoism]” (Wong 862).
Jin delivers universal humanistic values in his writes also by exploring the cultural
element entrenched in Chinese tradition. A Tiger-Fighter Is Hard to Find, collected in his
anthology of short stories The Bridegroom, is an example in point. This story depicts the
repeated failures in an attempt to shoot the tiger-fighting scene for a TV program, where
the actor who plays the role of Wu Song in the television scene and is narcissistically
obsessed with his virility ended up in mental disorder. As Ge aruges “The failures …
suggests the death of heroism in the modern age”. In other words, the failures symbolize
“moral infringement or infirmity of ordinary people, usually men, in contemporary
China.” (45)
The tiger-fighting story and its hero Wu Song in a classical Chinese novel Water
Margin6 symbolizes ancient Chinese heroism, much as Robin Hood in English culture.
Although it is a story tinged with Chinese tradition, the theme of “heroism” is universal
and transcends nation and culture. As Ge suggests, “Indeed the discourse of heroism has
become politically and ideologically overcharged not only in China, but in the West as
well...The quest for heroism, in China as in the West, should not start with the prowess of
killing a vermin but with the cultivation of one’s moral and psychological being”(53-54).
In terms of genre, Jin’s stories are micro-narratives of ordinary people’s life. The
protagonists are not heroes but of nobody and anti-heroes on margins, or at lowest ladder
of social stratum. In Waiting, Lin is a victim of the Party’s ideology and Chinese
tradition, being forced to wait 18 years in abstinence for divorce. In The Crazed,
Professor Yang is a victim of Mao’s regime too, a dying intellectual who had been
denounced and tortured earlier in the Culture Revolution. This stylist feature itself is the
embodiment of humanities because the style can be regarded as an attempt to challenge
the official grand narratives of dehumanized Mao’s ideology themed with national
identity and collective movements.
Jin’s concerns of humanities are also reflected in his works being dominated with
the issues of sexuality, and masculinity crisis of various forms. The male protagonists are
emasculated, actually or symbolically, who are featured with sexually impotence,
castration, childlessness, passiveness, and mental disorders. His novels are fraught with
depiction of sex scenes: a veteran of People’s Liberation Army rapes a virgin; a middleaged prostitute is bullied and beaten before the public; an old man arranges for the gang
Water Margin, Known in Chinese as Shuihu Zhuan, is one of the Four Great Classic Novels of Chinese
literature, as Romance of The Three Kingdoms. Set in Song Dynasty (around 13th century), the novel
depicts 108 outlawed wu heroes who seek justice for ordinary people and help the government to resist
foreign invaders.
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rape of his young wife as revenge for her infidelity.
Jin’s concerns with humanities are intimately associated with the revival of
humanities in the 1980s of China. Although Jin writes from the U.S. in a transnational
context in 1990s, his writings inevitably have connections with the literary and
philosophical trend back in China in 1980s when he left China. Coming to the United
States at the age of twenty-nine, he is perhaps much more deeply ingrained in his native
culture and influenced as much by contemporary trend of thought in China as, if not more
than, by that in the West. The fact that he has personal connections with some of
celebrated Chinese writers active throughout 1980s e.g. Yu Hua and Mo Yan is a piece of
evidence that may lend its support.
In that decade, China witnessed such a cultural phenomenon that “there emerged a
literature of critical reflection that attempted to revive a post-Mao humanistic perspective,
whereby matters of love, morality, and other human emotions could be reconfigured as
basic elements of human existence, separated and autonomous from politics.” (Li 23031). Much as Jin’s works, gender and sex issues particularly those related to masculinity
crisis figure in Chinese literature of 1980s. “There was a rather unprecedented and
uniquely shared concern [in the 1980s]…about the (gender and sexual) identity of men”
(Zhong 4).The presence of these issues are indeed the reaction against the “desexualizing
(hence dehumanizing) ” practices of the CCP” (Zhong 53). To search for a real man
became a culture movement across the nation. For male writers, the unprecedented
entanglement with masculinity crisis in their works is the projection of their own identity
crisis. This identity crisis was mainly the result of: 1) loss of their previous identity in
Mao’s years as indoctrinated guardians of the CCP’s policy 2) being inadaptable and
“disoriented” to the radical change towards “an increasingly open, commodified and
contradictor society, where power still remains in the hands of Party” (K. Liu 31).
The emerging emphasis on love, sexuality and humanities as a whole in literature
and arts is the mark of the rising subjectivity on the part of artists and writers themselves,
which resembles to what happened in the European Renaissance centuries ago when
humanism arose as a reaction to the religious extremism of the Dark Age. By reflecting
on subjectivity and humanities issues in writing, the intellectuals who had lived through
Mao’s period were making “a self-conscious effort to redefine the intellectual self as an
autonomous, self-determining, self-regulating, and free subject” (K. Liu 31-32).
This is what Jin experienced. “I must learn to stand alone, as a writer”, Jin stated
explicitly (Jin The Writer as Migrant 28). He redefined himself as an independent person,
speaking mainly for himself and negating his spokenmanship for underprivileged
Chinese. As he reiterates,
“Yes, to preserve is the key function of literature… [However], [t]he writer should
enter history mainly through the avenue of his art. If he serves a cause or a group or
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even a country, such a service must be a self-choice and not imposed by society. He
must serve on his own terms, in the manner and at the time and place of his own
choosing ” (ibid 30).
His stress on literature’s function to preserve memory determines his style in terms
of which realism prevails in his writing. In parallel, realism prevailed in Chinese
literature in the 1980s. The result is the rise of the genre called Reportage Literature. (Liu
Kang 17). Palpably deriving from realism, this genre oscillates between news report and
literature, setting stories of ordinary people in significant historical events, emphasizing
literary values and creativity at little cost of news objectivity (ibid). This echoes Jin’s
view of literature as a piece of artistic works to keep true memory.
Reasonably enough, Ha Jin’s works are associated with literary sentiment and
broader cultural trends prevalent in the 1980s of China, although he has written in
American since 1990s. The implication of the association is that to enrich our
understanding of his writings, the analysis must be situated in context of 1980s’ China.
Unfortunately, there is a general ignorance among Western scholars of his connections
with the literary and cultural trend in post-Mao period.
Transcendence is not only embodied in theme, but also his writing strategies,
namely characterization and use of language. Most of his characters transcend the politics
insofar as, “His characters live with politics but not necessarily divided between the
devoted and the resistant. Most of his characters are not involved in political persecution
and are not persecuted in political movements. But their mentality and living strategy are
typical of the political ideology of the Revolution” (Y. Zhou 154). Set in the Cultural
Revolution, Waiting does not focus on what happens in the political movement itself. The
characters are not directly involved in public humiliation, anti-four-olds campaign, which
feature the Revolution period. However, the protagonist Lin’s mentality is shaped by
Mao’s ideology. It is reflected in the way Lin reads Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. To Lin,
the bold lines about sexuality are obscene and have nothing to do with human vitality.
Lin’s living strategy can be seen in the way he deals with his relationship with Manna.
Because of Maoist tinged rules, Lin cannot walk away from his marriage immediately
without his wife’s consent. He has to wait eighteen years, the legal time required before a
man can divorce without needing his wife's consent. He dares not make the relationship
known to public. They maintain a semi-public romantic relationship for eighteen years
during which they were deprived of any physical intimacy. To go further, Jin’s characters
go beyond race and culture. They do not fall into the stigmas of race and culture. Using
poems as an example, Zhou suggests “the speakers in Ha Jin’s poems are concrete
subjects interpolated by particular dominant ideologies at a specific historical moment,
rather than representatives of cultural and racial difference”(281-2). Thus, Jin shows us
the possibility of writing about the East without falling into the trap of Orientalism.
Transcendence in characterization is the result of writer’s concerns with humanities.
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“I want to write about the soul", says Jin in an interview (C. W. Liu). The soul is
humanities. In revolving characterization around the soul, Jin offers an alternative
strategy of constructing identity and thus deconstructs Orientalism.
Transcendence in Language
For such a bilingual migrant writer as Ha Jin, choice of language for writing is of
great significance. Indeed, discussion of language adoption dominates one chapter of his
The Writer as Migrant, his first work of nonfiction. In that book, he speaks of in what
occasions an exiled writer may adopt a new language for writing. The answer is the three
words: necessity, estrangement, ambition, which are all applicable to Jin himself. For Ha
Jin himself, writing in English is first of all out of necessity. He does so for survival in the
U.S, in material sense and as well as in spiritual sense. Second, using English is also an
act of estrangement, an act of betrayal which “is the ultimate step the migrant writer dares
to take; after this, any other act of estrangement amounts to a trifle”(Jin The Writer as
Migrant 31).
In essence, language is identity. Writing in an adopted language is indeed a social
practice of reconstructing a new, migrant identity. In this sense, adopting English for
writing is one of the strategies available for such immigrant Chinese writers as Ha Jin to
redefine the self as an autonomous, free subject. Given the political context (i.e. 1989’s
demonstration) in which his writings are set, his linguistic betrayal is the way to estrange
himself from his native culture. However, this betrayal is justifiable and legitimate, as he
argues. More often than not, such is the decision writers are forced to make. This betrayal
comes when writers find them “unable to write [in mother tongue] with honesty and
artistic integrity”(Jin The Writer as Migrant 32). Finally, writing in a new language
means transcendence – an ambition and a challenge for the writer. To “find his [or her]
place in his [or her] adopted language”, a writer must aspire for transcendence in his or
her works (Jin The Writer as Migrant 59).
In achieving the ambition, he stresses the potentially positive role of one’s mother tongue.
As he reasons, a new language means to sacrifice one’s mother tongue. Nonetheless, it
should not be an absolute sacrifice. One’s mother tongue must not be in the way of
creating literature. On the contrary, it may offer “its strength and resources”, putting him
or her at unique advantage in making his works potentially transcendent. “Therefore, the
writer who adopts English, while striving to seek a place in this idiom, should also
imagine ways to transcend any language” (ibid 60).
In fact, Jin is successful in transcending both Chinese and English in his writing.
When translating discourse elements specific to Chinese culture, he “blend[s] the
linguistic forms and semantics of Chinese and English to create a hybrid language of his
own”(H. Zhang 307). Such a hybrid not only conveys a distinct sense of Chineseness
while taking into account the literary effects and the textual accessibility to American
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readership. With regards to his language characteristics, Hang Zhang offers a full
examination, analyzing how Ha Jin achieves the linguistic innovation in linguistic units
and devices from curse words to speech acts. Among the examples of the article are such
curse expressions as son of rabbit, son of a turtle. As Zhang argues, on the one hand,
English-speaking readers can make sense of these expressions because of the similar
expression son of bitch in English language. On the other hand, these phrases achieve a
more comic effect and convey Chineseness and nuance between these two cultures.
Language of betrayal is also related to masculinity for male writers. It signifies
reconstruction of masculinity of the writer. This is well demonstrated in his semiautobiographical novel A Free Life (2002). The protagonist is facing the same question as
Ha Jin himself: which language should be used in writing? This question goes beyond
language to his male identity, to which I will come back later on.
Cultural Translation
Ha Jin writes about China mainly for English-speaking readership. His writing
success is due to his amazing ability to make Chinese culture accessible to the readership.
The question is how he makes it happen. As I observe with interest, his protagonists and
other characters, in various degrees, are exposed to English language and the culture. In
War Trash, the I-narrator is a party cadre who speaks English well and serves as an
interpreter. In Crazed, the protagonist is a Chinese professor from the Department of
English Studies of a university in China. The narrator is the professor’s graduate student.
In Waiting, the Commissar Wei is fascinated with Whitman. The character is much
influenced by his teacher who “knew English well because he had been educated in a
missionary school” (Jin Waiting 145). Above all, the protagonist of A Free Life (2002) is
an immigrant intellectual who finds himself entangled between Chinese and English
Admittedly, this shared feature is intimately connected to the writer’s own identity
and his experience. Nan in A Free Life (2002) to a large extent is a true reflection of the
writer himself (although Jin himself denies it). Another instance is the character of
professor in Crazed, as he admitted, who is modeled on a professor teaching
Existentialism he knew when he studied in China. Nonetheless, it is important to point
out such characterization is a wise writing strategy purposefully employed by the writer.
It is by using this strategy that Jin makes it possible to translate Chinese culture without
interrupting the flow of narrative. That is to say, the Chinese characters, exposed to
English language and culture, often serve in the texts as a bridge between both cultures,
and between the writer and readers. It is through their words and actions that Jin has
Chinese cultural elements delivered to English-speaking readers without intruding the
narrative. The non-intrusive narrative is a distinctive feature found in his works. With
regards to that, the literary critic Oh offers a detailed analysis. As Oh observes, on the
lexical level Ha Jin strikes a good balance between accurate use of lexicons in
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representing Chinese culture and textual accessibility to American readership. His
analysis goes beyond lexicon to discourse level, finding that Ha Jin makes a successful
effort to blend in an non-intrusive way cultural backdrops into texts such as interior
monologue and the narrative, "thereby preserving aesthetic integrity of his prose" (Oh
422). On some occasions, as Oh also points out, Ha Jin intentionally leaves a bridgeable
culture gap to force American readers to make a more cognitive effort in reading. Overall,
the critic points out that his success in writing relies mainly on his creative use of English
and his effort to make culture translatable.
More interestingly, it is by these characters that Western cultural legacy is elicited
and brought into the texts as analogies, equivalents to, opposites to, or illustrations for
Chinese cultural backdrops. It is another non-intrusive way to make Chinese culture
accessible to Western readers. For example, Robert D. Sturr analyzes Whitman’s
presence in Waiting, where Ha Jin presents Whitman and his poems as a voice of
individualism in opposition to Maoist ideology. It is by narrating how the characters in
Waiting read Whitman that Jin reveals to his English-speaking readers the Chinese
mentality shaped by Maoism.
As Sturr states:
Whitman is more than an influence on Waiting; he appears as icon representing
the pleasures of both free expression and privacy that were lost under the
deadening influence of Maoist philosophy. The presence of Whitman is
connected, then, to the primary theme that animates much of Jin's writing: the
enormous price that ordinary individuals were forced to pay in order to maintain
the communist vision of continuing political revolution and class warfare (2-3).
Waiting is not alone in drawing upon the legacy of Western culture. Another
example in point is the above-mentioned short story A Tiger-Fighter Is Hard to Find,
which invokes the image of shark-fighting from the Hemingway’s novel The Old Man
and the Sea as a cultural adaption of tiger-fighting for his American readers. As the story
depicts, when the actor prepares for the shooting of the tiger-beating scene, the director
gives him The Old Man and the Sea to read, saying “A man’s not born to be defeated, not
by a shark or a tiger” (Ge 53). By establishing congruity between the tiger-fighting story
and the Hemingway’s novel, Ha Jin make accessible the qualities that the Chinese
warrior (or tighre-fighter) Wu Song shared with the fisherman in The Old Man and the
Sea: “human resilience and endurance and indomitable volition that enable both of them
to survive in the ordeals” (ibid).
Transcendence vs. Neo-Orientalism
Ha Jin’s faith in universality and transcendence has stirred much debate, which is
over whether or not his works are the discourse of neo-orientalism in the guise of
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transcendence. Some commentators, especially the critics residing in China, denounce his
novels of being tinged with neo-colonialism and pandering to Western audiences by
demonizing China. Yiqing Liu of Beijing University charges that Ha Jin, in an attempt to
advance his literary career, “curses his own compatriots and to become a tool used by the
American media to vilify China, emphasizing the backwardness of China" and
'portraying the Chinese as ignorant and repressed” (Eckholm "Web").
Concurring with Liu, Ying Yan in her article Ha Jin: A “Real” Follower of NeoOrientalism attempts to demonstrate how Ha Jin caters to Western readership’s hunger
for exotic culture and politics of China. The article aims to demonstrate in three aspects
how Ha Jin served as accomplice to reinforce the negative stereotype of China already
circulated among the West. Yan argues that in order to survive as a writer in the U.S, Ha
Jin must please English readers by writing what English ears can take in terms of
subjects, values and perspectives. Yan also argues Ha Jin’s discursively self-colonializing
discourses are located in the characters he portrays, among them are a shameless whore, a
foot-binding woman and asexual or impotent men, etc. Through uglifying, feminilizing
and objectifying the Chinese, Ha Jin satiates the curiosity of American readers for a peep
into the exotic oriental culture. Finally, according to Yan, Ha Jin’s neo-colonialism can be
found in his creating plots at the cost of historical truth. Yan suggests while there is room
for a writer’s creativity in dealing with history, Ha Jin goes too far, thus consolidating the
negative stereotype and misunderstanding of China held by the West (31-37).
Of course, there are many other critics who defend for Ha Jin, claiming Ha Jin
does not fall into Orientalism, but on the contrary subverts Oritentalism indeed. This
view is widely held by those critics in the West. As noted earlier, Zhou’s view seems to
be a representative. He says that “Ha Jin’s writings ...offer an alternative, viable strategy
for disrupting Orientalism and for challenging the status quo of power relations
underlying representation” (X. Zhou 275). Following Laclau’s view of universalism that
“The universal is an empty place, a void which can be filled only by the particular”
(“identity” 2000, 58 / 275), Zhou argues that “Jin’s representation of ‘”universals”
through the particulars of the Chinese is especially subversive” to the “monopoly of the
white male as the signifier of the universal”(X. Zhou 274).
The two opposite views are the two sides of the same coin, both having a grain of
truth while both reflecting the constraints of the critics’ own frameworks, theories, and
ideologies in reading. First, there is every reason to suspect that the criticism from
Chinese scholars is politically motivated. The fact supportive of this speculation remains
that most of his Jin’s works are banned in Mainland China on the political ground.
Banning his works is just an exaggerated and inappropriate reaction on the part of
Chinese authority. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied there in the texts exist negative
images and specificities of China- the people and the culture - which fit in and reinforce
the stereotypes of Chinese culture already held by the West. For example, the footbinding woman and some feminine images of Chinese men fit in well with the views
Virginia Review of Asian Studies
affiliated to Orientalism. Reinforcement of the stigma should be at least the effect of his
writing on his readers, although it may not be the writer’s original purpose. When asked
how to avoid the risk of orientalizing in his works, he said, “I never had a sense of
audience, though I do have a sense of how much the English ear can take. Whenever I
start working on a book, I will have some literary models, the great masterpieces, which I
hold as a standard. Of course, I cannot reach that high, but that prevents me from sinking
too low” (Shan 150). His remarks seem to imply that he never purposefully orientalizes
the representations of his works. If there is any orientalism discourse found in the works,
it should be the response of readers.
On the other hand, Western critics are right in saying that Ha Jin’s works
successfully transcend nation, culture and politics, representing “universals” through the
particulars of China. Nonetheless, it can be doubted that common readers would perceive
it. In most cases, they are unlikely to read to that deep, I am afraid. Moreover, too much
emphasis on universalities may lead us to dismissal of particular aspects of Chinese
culture and of targeting the possible stereotypes. It seems to be urgent to present a close
reading of the particulars in his works from a perspective of cultural insider (Chinese
native). Such a reading may help English-speaking audience to fully appreciate Chinese
culture, and reduce the risk of inaccurate and partial understanding of the culture as result
of the constraints of their own ideologies. This will ultimately make contribution to
combating stereotypes of Chinese culture already circulated in the West.
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