One of the (few) benefits of moving into an apartment inherited from a fellow expat is that occasionally they leave books behind. English-language reading material is not difficult to find in China, but stories that delve into the Chinese condition more than the State-approved classics are absent in the bookstores and often guarded by their owners – who know full well their coveted value.
Such a find was mine several months ago, when I stumbled across War Trash, the fictional memoir of a Chinese soldier in the Korean war penned by Ha Jin.
The story follows a young Nationalists-trained soldier, Yu Yuan, as he is ordered away from his ailing mother and young fiancee in Sichuan to the cold and confusing front-lines of the Korean War.
The novel is quick to display Jin’s unfiltered thoughts on the then freshly established Communist Party. Yu, not a communist, is forced to deal with being in the under-supplied and over-propaganda’d PLA, or as they were misleadingly named: “The People’s Volunteer Army”.
“We all knew the enemy was better equipped and highly mechanized with air support, which we didn’t have. But our superiors told us not to be afraid of the American troops, who had been spoiled and softened by comforts. GIs couldn’t walk and were road-bound, depending completely on automobiles; if no vehicles were available, they’d hire Korean porters to carry their bedrolls and food. Even their enlisted men didn’t do KP and had their shoes shined by civilians. Worst of all, having no moral justification for the war, they lacked the determination to fight. They were all anxious to have a vacation, which they would be given monthly.”
The book sorts through the battle scenes in a brief 40 pages, after which Yu and his compatriots are captured by the Americans and become POWs on an isolated Korean island. This is where the bulk of the story begins to unfold. Before peeling back the cover, I had mistakenly assumed that the book would reveal the atrocities the Chinese soldiers faced in the camp at the hands of their captors.
Though full of horrible conditions and painful scenes of punishment and abuse, little if any of it comes from American, or even Korean, hands. The meat of the book is in its on-the-ground presentation of the conflict between those Chinese that had become disillusioned with their Party-run homeland and wished to go to ‘Free China’, and those that rode the Party line and were eager to return to the PRC in hopes awards would be waiting for their loyalty.
Yu, using his command of English, straddles the line – not out of loyalty or disenchantment, but to simply survive and return home to the warmth of his fiancee’s arms and to fulfill his filial duty towards his mother.
Bursting with intricately well-researched details, it’s often hard to remember that Jin is writing fiction. The colours of the novel, from cold muddy yards of the camp to the blossoming fruit trees on the surrounding Korean landscape, paint a believable set for Jin’s characters to play out their part in showing the Chinese involvement in one of the least-known about wars of the 20th century.
A bit of history…
From 1950-53 Korea became a battleground of ideologies. Like so many conflicts of the latter-half of the last century, it was brought on by the carve up of the globe between those under the Soviet umbrella and those backed by the US. In June 1950 the North Korean army, led by Kim Il-Sung and backed with Russian firepower, crossed the 38th Parallel – the line that marked the divide of the country from Russian and American occupation during the Second World War.
Seeing the spread of Communism as a bad thing, and having a crapload of troops still sitting under the command of MacArthur in Japan, the US (under the newly formed UN banner) sent support to the rather banged up Republic of Korea (ROK) army. After some decisive victories, the ROK and UN/US forces pushed the North Korean forces back past the 38th Parallel. With success on their side, the US/ROK force decided to charge ahead in hopes of finally uniting the divided Korean Peninsula.
Thinking, perhaps not unjustly, that the US might continue fighting past the Yalu River and into Communist controlled China, the People’s Republic of China entered the war. The US forces had wrongly assumed that a lack of sophisticated firepower and in turn an inevitable mass loss of Chinese soldiers lives would deter the PRC from large-scale involvement. They were wrong. The Chinese presence stretched out the war and largely helped it come to the stand-still that it still maintains today.
“Wang’s analogy of us as human fertilizer revived thoughts I had been thinking for a long time. True enough, as Chinese, we genuinely felt that our lives were misused here, but as I have observed earlier, no matter how abysmal our situation was there were always others who had it worse. By now I understood why occasionally some Korean civilians were hostile to us. To them we had come here only to protect China’s interests – by so doing, we couldn’t help but ruin their homes, fields, and livelihoods. From their standpoint, if the Chinese army hadn’t crossed the Yalu, millions of lives, both civilian and military, would have been saved.
Of course, the United States would then have occupied all of Korea, forcing China to build defenses in Manchuria, which would have been much more costly than sending troops to fight in our neighboring country. As it was, the Koreans had taken the brunt of the destruction of this war, whereas we Chinese were here mainly to keep its flames away from our border.”
The book, much like this review, isn’t a quick read. It’s full of complicated and sometimes mundane details. When taken sentence by sentence, these details felt a bit too weighty, but as a whole, they were needed to give the story its very believable flavour.
War Trash is one of few, if any, books that captures the divide between the Communists and Nationalists in the formative years following the civil war. Of the roughly 20,000 Chinese POWs in the Korean War, 3/4s did not repatriate – a rather embarrassing figure for the newly-formed People’s Republic. Sadly, as Jin’s novel briefly touches on, that loyal 5,000 men that went back suffered through one of the most trying times of China’s long history. Branded as traitors and criminals who should have shown honour and died rather than be captured… rewards were most definitely not awaiting them upon their return.
A bit about Ha Jin…
Ha Jin is the pen name for Liaoning-born author 金雪飞. A former PLA soldier during the cultural revolution, Jin eventually emigrated to the US while studying there during the troubles of 1989. He has authored numerous books about modern China, and won several awards – including the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award and a Pulitzer nomination for War Trash. He is currently a professor of English at Boston University.
Check out Wikipedia’s Korean War entry, seen unblocked at The Free Dictionary for those of us behind the Great Firewall. Also for loads of Korean war photos (some featured in this post) check out veteran Birchard Lee Kortegaard’s excellent collection.