A peek behind the Bamboo Curtain, where Chinese poet Ha Jin, winner of the latest Flannery O'Connor Award, works out the conflicts between tradition and constraint that animate his second collection (after Ocean of Words, 1996). Ha Jin, who writes in English, is a Chinese veteran of the People's Liberation Army and, although he doesn't address political dissidence directly in his work, the 12 stories here all contain that undercurrent of cynicism in the face of authority that's common to military (as well as Communist) societies. Thus, the soldier of ``A Man-to-Be,'' who holds back from taking part in a gang-rape, not only finds himself defensive about his own manliness but is eventually shunned by his fiancÇe's family, who doubt his ability to father children, whereas the hooligan boys who terrorize their fellow classmates in ``Emperor'' discover that their popularity and status increase ever higher with each new atrocity they perpetrate. The abiding tensions of peasant life prove themselves again and again to be deeper than the Party's ideal of the New Communist Man, as in ``New Arrival'' (where a childless couple refuses to adopt a beloved young boy entrusted to their care because of their fear of bad luck) or ``Fortune'' (in which an old man's faith in fortune-telling remains so absolute that he becomes willfully deluded rather than admit that his life has been ruined). Honor remains a powerful primordial force as well, best illustrated in the predicament of the dutiful Party member who disobeys his dying mother's wish for a traditional funeral and is promptly denounced by his comrades for filial impiety; or in the public degradation of a prostitute (``In Broad Daylight''), which, however harrowing, remains a less vivid spectacle than the degradation of her accusers. Splendidly fluid and clear: Ha Jin has managed to make an utterly alien world seem as familiar as an old friend.