Chinese expatriate Ha Jin’s 2002 novel The Crazed
draws on the author’s own experiences in pre-Tiananmen Square China to tell the story of the relationship between a graduate student and his aging advisor. As the older man slowly loses his sanity after suffering a stroke, the younger one listens to his mentor’s ravings, wondering whether he is hearing the voice of a truth-telling prophet or a demented lunatic. Unable to avoid his professor’s influence, the graduate student slowly finds his perspective on his country changing in ways that put him directly in harm’s way.
In the spring of 1989, in the provincial city of Shanning, China, Professor Yang suffers a debilitating stroke that lands him in the hospital. Yang is alone: his daughter, Meimei, is in Beijing, and his wife is in Tibet. One of his advisees is Jian Wan, a graduate student in the Chinese Language and Literature department of a small university. Because Jian is engaged to Meimei, he and a few other students are assigned to care for Yang while he is in the hospital until Yang’s family is able to step in. For Jian, this becomes both a duty and a burden, since he is splitting his time between hospital visits and studying for the exam that will get him into medical school to become a pediatrician in Beijing. Failing the test is not an option: Meimei has her heart set on living in Beijing for the capital city’s prestige, and from there the two of them might even get the chance to go to an American university.
Yang’s stroke has affected his cognition. He spends his days in long, complex monologues about religion, literary criticism, political statements about communism and the Chinese Communist Party, and descriptions of sexual exploits. Sometimes he makes sense, sometimes he contradicts whatever he has just said. Sometimes he is serious, sometimes joking around. While the other students mostly ignore Yang, Jian finds himself mesmerized and confused by what he is hearing.
One memorable set of ravings revolves around the government. Several times, Yang gives long speeches calling anyone who opposes Chairman Mao Zedong a traitor and demanding punishment for anyone impeding the soon to be realized communist utopia. But on the other hand, in moments of seeming clarity, Yang confesses that he has wasted his life doing the bidding of a totalitarian government rather than actually performing the work of scholarship: finding and exposing the truth.
What Yang really believes is unclear until Jian connects these pro- and anti-communist ramblings with the Professor’s description of his sex life. Despite his engagement to Meimei, he also has a crush on another grad student, Weiya Su. A little while into taking care of Yang, who waxes rhapsodically about the body of a young woman he finds attractive, Jian realizes that the young woman is actually Weiya. Yang has been having an affair with her while his estranged wife stays in Tibet. When Weiya brings Yang watermelon out of season and hand-feeds it to him, Yang starts wildly promising that they will be together after they are both dead. There, he claims, he won’t have to be tied to his books and will finally be able to give up his love of poetry, instead, he will be an honest worker, doing farming or some other hard labor. This flies squarely in the face of an earlier passionate defense of Dante’s The Divine Comedy
, a poem Yang said was uniquely capable of being a comfort.
This rejection of his life’s work makes Jian realize what is happening. During the Cultural Revolution period of 1966-1967 – a time when all traces of intellectual life, Western thought, and old traditions were publicly demolished in violent purges – Professor Yang was labeled a "demon-monster" and sent to a reeducation camp. There, he was humiliated and tortured along with other members of the intelligentsia. To escape the danger of being associated with him, his wife grew distant and started seeing another man. Now, in the hospital, he is pouring out the Cultural Revolution ideology that was beaten into him. However much he was able to suppress it for the last twenty years, he has never really gotten over what was done to him.
In the last few chapters of the novel, the action veers away from the hospital. The tone of the novel changes and we are suddenly thrust into a much more action-packed and dynamic series of events. After a series of letters from Meimei describing the growing revolutionary feelings of the students in Beijing and the clear sense that a confrontation between them and government forces is coming, Jian feels inexorably drawn towards Beijing. Once there, he tries to tell himself that he isn’t there for abstract reasons – democracy or freedom. Instead, his “motive was mainly personal—I was driven by desperation, anger, madness, and stupidity.”
Jian finds himself at Tiananmen Square just before the riots break out and are viciously put down. Threatened by nearby officers, Jian is caught in the middle of the massacre with a vague sense of wanting to seem brave for Meimei and wanting to show himself that he is capable of free will. The novel ends on an ambiguous note, as soldiers open fire.