is a historical novel by Ha Jin. First published in 2004, this PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel considers the experiences of Chinese soldiers imprisoned in American POW camps during the Korean War. The book received widespread critical acclaim upon publication and received a 2005 Pulitzer Prize nomination. Critics believe it is Jin’s most successful and complex novel. Ha Jin is the pen name for Jin Xuefei. He is a short story writer, English professor, poet, and novelist. He typically writes about China in English for political reasons. He is best known for his historically accurate world building and his imaginative writing.War Trash
begins in 1951 during the Korean War. Only a decade before Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it is a politically divided and unsettled environment. Yu Yuan is a mild-mannered Chinese academic currently serving as a clerical officer in Chairman Mao’s army, the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA). He does not like Communism, but he is forced to accept it as a political reality.
Yuan’s backstory is important. As a teenager, he trained as a cadet at the Huangpu Military Academy. Before the Communists seized control of China, the Nationalists controlled the academy; Yuan enjoyed serving under them. Thanks to political pressure, he must now support North Korea in the war effort against South Korea. North Korea has Chinese backing. The academy sends him to Korea where he must serve in the 180th Division because, unlike most Chinese officers, he speaks and reads enough English to act as a translator.
Yuan wants to go home and follow his own political beliefs. He misses his single mother and his fiancée, Tao Julan. He does not expect Tao to wait for him because he has no idea when he will be home again. He is depressed because he knows that she will probably find someone else. His mother worries that he won’t come home because Korea is a warzone.
One day, Yuan and the 180th Division cross into South Korean-occupied territory. South Korean and UN forces ambush them. Many officers are killed, but the soldiers take Yuan hostage because he speaks some English. They place him in a POW camp. Yuan assumes he won’t last long in this terrifying place.
Tensions mount in the cramped camp between loyal Communists and pro-Nationalists. Yuan wants to return to the Nationalist side, but he is scared to let anyone know how he feels. What concerns him most is keeping a low profile. When he is placed in the pro-Nationalist camp, part of him feels relief, whereas the other part knows the pro-Nationalist camp is a death sentence. China will never let him return if he sides with the Nationalists; he will never see his mother or fiancée again.
Finally, officers let Yuan declare where his loyalties are. Despite what his heart wants, he sides with Communism. He serves as an emissary between his camp leaders and the Chinese camp. Although he chooses Communist China, Yuan knows that the longer he is isolated from China, the harder it is to return. The government distrusts anyone in POW camps because it is dishonorable for officers to let other soldiers capture them.
Deciding he cannot keep up the pretense much longer, Yuan sides once again with the Nationalists. A camp on Koje Island takes him in. The other POWs hate him because he chose Communism first, but Yuan isn’t there to make friends. He just wants to go home. When the UN and the North Koreans sign a peace treaty, Yuan forgets about the war and worries more about what the Chinese people will think of him when he returns.
Yuan must make a life-changing decision now that the Korean War is over. He can defect to a neutral country and leave China and Korea behind, or he can choose between the Communists and the Nationalists. His friends warn him against choosing exile or escaping to another country, because the government will take its anger out on his family. Yuan knows his friends are right and he must return to China, whatever the consequences.
The major problems begin when Yuan returns home. Because he spent time with the Nationalists, the Communists don’t trust him. They isolate him, making it difficult for him to find work or make friends. The main issue is that Yuan shamed himself when the UN captured him. True Communist party members must fight to the death rather than spend time in a POW camp. No one cares what Yuan thinks anymore because death is more honorable than imprisonment.
To make matters worse, Yuan learns that his mother died while he was a prisoner. She died thinking that Yuan shamed her. Tao refuses to marry Yuan because he is a national embarrassment. With no alternative, Yuan retires from military life and becomes a teacher. Eventually, he marries someone else and gives his children the college education and the freedom of which he once dreamed.