The Chinese-born American author offers the fictional memoirs (historically based) of a Chinese officer’s difficult years as a POW in the Korean War—and the more difficult return to China after the ceasefire.
Yu Yuan is no one’s idea of a revolutionary, but as an army cadet at the Nationalist military academy in 1949, he greets Mao’s victory over the Nationalist forces with genuine relief, disgusted as he was with the corruption and incompetence of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. He continues his military career under the Party and is eventually assigned to a “volunteer” unit of Chinese forces supporting the North Koreans against UN forces in the Korean War. Here, after his unit is ambushed, Yuan falls into American hands and is sent to a POW camp on an island off the Korean coast. He is pleasantly surprised to find little of the abuse that Party propaganda had assured the Chinese they would meet at the hands of American captors, but he is subjected to political pressures all the same. The Americans offer the Chinese prisoners a choice of repatriation to either Taiwan or the mainland, thus dividing the camp into Communist and Nationalist factions that fight among themselves. Although not a Communist, Yuan feels bound to return to China for the sake of his mother and fiancée, and this brings down upon him the wrath of the Nationalist prisoners, who go so far as to hold him down and tattoo anti-Communist propaganda on his chest. Even without the tattoo Yuan is a marked man back home, especially when the Cultural Revolution unleashes a pogrom against anyone deemed to have been tainted with Western ideas. But Yuan is canny enough to get by, and, having survived revolution, war, and prison, he manages to outlive the fanatics in the end.
Another brilliant installment in Ha Jin’s history of modern China (The Crazed, 2002, etc.), written with his usual understatement and clarity.