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A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin

A Map of Betrayal, is a spy novel, but no ordinary one. Like most of Ha Jin’s work, it is a story that can seem simple but resonates deeply beyond merely entertainment value.

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin
Map of Betrayal, Ha Jin (Pantheon Books, November 2014)

The novel also reflects the author. Ha Jin, winner of numerous literary prizes in the West, is one of the most read and respected Chinese-American writers writing in English today. Born in China in 1956 into a military family, he was ten at the start of the Cultural Revolution and joined the army a few months before turning fourteen. Reading while on night duty as a telegraph operator near the Sino-Soviet border, he became interested in foreign literature and after the Cultural Revolution, when schools re-opened in China, Ha Jin studied English and literature. He left for the US on a student visa at age 29 and has not since returned to the land of his birth, at first by his own choice, but more recently because China has denied him an entry visa due to his signing of a petition for democracy. Nonetheless, China is often the focus of his work and Ha Jin is known for tackling subjects like Tibet, the Korean War, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre, that are viewed by the Chinese government as taboo; and few of his books are available there.


Gary Shang, the protagonist of A Map of Betrayal, is a “master spy” working for China, living in Washington DC, who is ultimately betrayed by his own convoluted notion of patriotism. For almost thirty years, Gary sends military and diplomatic secrets to China from his job as a linguist in the East Asia section of the CIA. Revisiting a theme he has explored in earlier novels like War Trash, Ha Jin questions the relationship between the individual and the state and the meaning of “patriotism”.

The story is told through flashbacks in Gary’s life, from 1949 to 1980, which not coincidentally spans the Mao period, the Cultural Revolution, the space race and Sino-Soviet tensions. Long after his death, Lilian, Gary’s adult daughter, tries to piece together her father’s true identity. Gary’s long-time mistress, Suzie Chao, proves invaluable.


When forsythia began to bloom in my backyard, she mailed me my father’s diary, six morocco-bound volumes, each measuring eight inches by five. I hadn’t known he kept a journal, and I had assumed that the FBI seized all the papers left by him, Gary Shang, the biggest Chinese spy ever caught in North America.


There is a lot Lilian doesn’t know about her father’s secret life. She learns from Suzie that she has a half-sister in China as well as a niece and nephew, the product of Gary’s early marriage to a woman from his hometown in Shandong province whom he had to leave behind following orders from the Chinese government to move to Washington DC. Gary longed for his bride but was forbidden any contact by his handlers. This test of loyalty was made more heart-breaking by the fact that Gary was not told he was the father of twins until they were eight or nine years old.


The inherent contradictions in Gary’s life collide head-on when he is tried and convicted of espionage. Gary’s surface reality—his “cover”—is quite banal, but free. He lives modestly in a suburb of Washington with Lilian and her mother Nellie, his only indulgence being his relationship with his mistress Suzie.

This placid exterior belies his interior reality, which is one of “patriotic” self-exile, compartmentalized intimacy and divided loyalty, and this internal reality is even more hellish and confining the more successful he becomes as a spy. He wants the best for China, but becomes disillusioned with the Communist system as he sees the suffering it endures under Mao. After the Little Red Book is published, Gary confides in a CIA colleague, “A septuagenarian war god, my ass. For me, Mao is China’s biggest problem,” and later adds,


His ego is so enormous that he can never swallow his pride in the interests of his country and his people. He sees China not as his responsibility but as his property. He doesn’t understand that even though he’s the head of the nation, he’s still no more than its manager, its servant.


Yet, he cannot simply hang up his spy spurs. When Lilian meets Gary’s Chinese handler years after Gary’s death, he tells her,


He was a special agent—the type we call ‘nails’... A nail must remain in its position ... and rot with the wood it’s stuck in, so a spy of the nail type is more or less a goner.

* * *

As Lilian slowly deciphers her father’s secret life she becomes pivotal to the book’s message. It is through Lilian’s dialogue with her young nephew Ben (the son of her heretofore unknown half-sister) that the author’s finer points are made. Ben, who is from the Mainland but living in the US, is considering becoming a spy like his grandfather. He professes to “love China unconditionally” and Lilian begs to differ, saying that all too often, patriotism is professed by those who depend on the state for so much that they cannot dare to say otherwise. She proposes an alternate vision.


I believe that a country is not a temple but a mansion built by the citizens so they can have shelter and protection in it. Such a construction can be repaired, renovated, altered... If the house isn’t suitable for you, you should be entitled to look for shelter elsewhere... It’s unreasonable to deify a country and it’s insane to let it lord it over you. We must ask this question: On what basis should a country be raised above the citizens who created it? History has proved that a country can get crazier and more vicious than an average person.


It is hard not to read the context of Ha Jin’s own life in this powerful message. One can only hope that in time, Ha Jin’s work will be read in a mainland China that is open enough for a strong civil society to develop and where his books are no longer banned.

Jill Baker is an Adjunct Fellow at the Asia Business Council in Hong Kong.