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War Trash by Ha Jin
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War Trash (2005)

by Ha Jin

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In War Trash, Ha Jin tells the tale of Yu Yuan - a Chinese "volunteer" in the Korean War, who was captured and endured time in a POW camp. There he falls into the factional conflicts between the Communist and Nationalist Chinese groups, and the American guards but through all the privations and troubles he suffers he continues to hold onto the hope of his fiancée and mother back in China. A epilogue details life for the returnees after the Korean War and the various hardships they endured in spite of the difficulties the POWs endured in Korea.

Ha Jin's novel is fictional but it is historical fiction and though the protagonist and the other characters are fictional the events they are caught up in are based on historical ones, and through it Yu Yuan becomes a avatar for the Chinese soldiers who served in Korea and who, when captured, were cruelly toyed with by the superiors in the hopes of scoring political gains.

The novel powerfully explores the toll wartime experiences can take on a man and on his sense of humanity and decency and yet through it all, Yu Yuan endures everything - he demonstrates a "moving humanity" in the face of extreme inhumanity.

This is an excellent novel and explores a little-known side, especially in China today, to a war often pushed onto the side-lines by conflicts before and after it. ( )
  xuebi | May 30, 2014 |
I am a big fan of Ha Jin's work, and this book does not disappoint.

The book covers a different side to life in the PRC, that of those soldiers who fought in the Korean War. Yuan is a young Nationalist cadet who is sent to Korea by the Communists to fight the South Koreans and their American allies. Woefully ill-equipped, many Chinese are taken prisoner, so most of the action takes place in the P.O.W. camps. The prisoners live on a precarious cliff as those higher up argue as to what is to be done with the P.O.W.'s on both sides. The atrocities of war are all too realistic, with young, inexperienced troops sent into battle lacking the necessary equipment. Victory at any cost.

The inner workings of camp life are well-described, especially the cultural and ideological clash between the Americans and the Chinese prisoners. This is clearest in the wake of the camp commandant, which his soldiers take as a personal attack on his beloved superior, but which Yuan remarks that if the tables were turned would be seen as an attack on China. The struggle between the individual and the collective is strong, Yuan is not an ideological man, but he knows that the only way to get back to his mother and fiancee is to fall in with the Communists. The prisoners, both the North Koreans and Chinese, are caught between the rival political factions. Many don't know want to go back, especially as their being captured will be seen as a total failure. This reminds me of my Grandfather telling us about prisoner negotiations at the end of WW2 - getting British boys back, but knowing that the fate of those being sent back to the East would be bleak.

As a reader, it was Yuan's openness that made me keep turning pages. He weighed up both sides, found both wanting, but didn't lose sight on his ultimate objective of getting home. ( )
  soffitta1 | May 12, 2013 |
An interesting account of Chinese POWs in a UN camp during the Korean War. The first of Ha Jin's booke read, so I don't know how typical it is of his writing, but it struck me as well-researched and it is very engaging. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
This 2004 novel by a professor born in China but now living in Boston is fiction, but reads like a memoir. It tells of a Chinese soldier sent to Korea in 1951 where he is captured after being wounded. He is restored to health by an American surgeon and spends the time till 1953 in POW camps run by Americans. There is some brutality suffered by POWs but they in turn are rebellious and always seeking to do harm to their captors. In most memoirs by POWs one sympathizes with the POW but often one is repelled by the Chinese Communists' behavior as they seek to bedevil their captors. There is real suspense as to what will happen to the central character, who wants to go home to his moher and girlfriend but fears what will happen to him in Communist China, where any one captured is looked on as disgraced. A carefully crafted book, reeking with apparent authenticity, and a gripping book to read. ( )
  Schmerguls | Sep 15, 2012 |
This is the story of Yu Yuan's experience as a Chinese prisoner of war during the Korean War, as told by him as an old man. Yu Yuan had been a student at a military academy suspected by Mao's army of being sympathetic to the Nationalists. He, along with other students, were placed into certain "disposable" units. Yu Yuan's unit was ordered to Korea to assist the North Koreans as "volunteers", rather than regular army. Poorly equipped, supplied, and trained, most of these soldiers were fairly soon killed or captured. Yu Yuan was captured, and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp.

The book provides an insider's view of the society, culture and daily life of a prison camp. A hierarchy develops, with those at the top relieved from most of the drudgery and better provided for, not as a result of anything the captors did, but as a result of the actions of those of lesser status in the camp. Yu Yuan, because he is fluent in English, straddles both elements of the prison society.

Through-out their time in the camp, the prisoners know they will have to choose between being repatriated to mainland China or opting for Taiwan when the war ends and they are released. Those who have already chosen Taiwan are presented as thugs, and pressure the others to make the same choice, sometimes violently and brutally. Yu Yuan can't decide: he is not a Communist, but wants to return to his family and fiancee, who he knows he will never see if he chooses Taiwan. On the other hand, he knows that if he chooses mainland China, he will be under suspicion for the rest of his life. He may even be charged criminally for treason, since it was drilled into him, and other soldiers, that they must never surrender, but die before being captured.

This book is well-written and informative. Ha Jin portrays the Chinese soldiers with what I believe is an accurate characterization of the values instilled in them by the government. At the same time, he has created real people, with real and individual internal conflicts. ( )
  arubabookwoman | May 9, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375422765, Hardcover)

War Trash, the extraordinary new novel by the National Book Award–winning author of Waiting, is Ha Jin’s most ambitious work to date: a powerful, unflinching story that opens a window on an unknown aspect of a little-known war—the experiences of Chinese POWs held by Americans during the Korean conflict—and paints an intimate portrait of conformity and dissent against a sweeping canvas of confrontation.

Set in 1951–53, War Trash takes the form of the memoir of Yu Yuan, a young Chinese army officer, one of a corps of “volunteers” sent by Mao to help shore up the Communist side in Korea. When Yu is captured, his command of English thrusts him into the role of unofficial interpreter in the psychological warfare that defines the POW camp.

Taking us behind the barbed wire, Ha Jin draws on true historical accounts to render the complex world the prisoners inhabit—a world of strict surveillance and complete allegiance to authority. Under the rules of war and the constraints of captivity, every human instinct is called into question, to the point that what it means to be human comes to occupy the foremost position in every prisoner’s mind.

As Yu and his fellow captives struggle to create some sense of community while remaining watchful of the deceptions inherent in every exchange, only the idea of home can begin to hold out the promise that they might return to their former selves. But by the end of this unforgettable novel—an astonishing addition to the literature of war that echoes classics like Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead and the works of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen—the very concept of home will be more profoundly altered than they can even begin to imagine.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:11 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Captured by enemy forces, Yu Yuan, a Chinese army officer serving in Korea in 1951, takes on the role of interpreter due to his proficiency in English, a role that places him in a conflict between his fellow prisoners and their captors.

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