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War Trash by Ha Jin

One of incomparable benefits of the rise of Chinese writers in the past decade or so is the new view they bring to well-trodden issues and periods. There are, for example, (at least) two sides to every war, and in War Trash, Ha Jin brings us the Chinese side of the Korean view, uniquely seen through the eyes of a Chinese POW.

War Trash by Ha Jin
War Trash, Ha Jin (Penguin Books Ltd, May 2005; Vintage Books USA, May 2005)

Yu Yuan is a young Chinese army officer of less-than-perfect background due to military training that began under the Nationalists. He is one of a corps of “volunteers” sent to Korea and captured. His command of English puts him in a special position as one of the few that can communicate with both the captors and internees.

The tales of hardship and petty humiliation will be familiar to readers of other books about camp life. However, many of the humiliations and privations were the result of Nationalist vs. Communist rivalry and infighting: in Korea, the Chinese civil war was still on. Quite a few Chinese where “turned” while prisoner and went to Taiwan.

Yu’s camp life was not without drama, from taking the camp commander hostage to setting up secret codes. But is Yu’s psychological battle that rivets: in an almost complete vacuum of information, Yu fights to stay true to his promise to return to his mother and fiancee.

For Western readers, Ha Jin helps us remember that there are two sides to every war. Asian readers should feel grateful that the other side has finally been told.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.