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War Trash Reader’s Guide

By Ha Jin

War Trash by Ha Jin


PEN/Faulkner Award Winner and
New York Times Best Book of the Year

“Powerfully moving. . . . Brilliant and original. . . . Timeless and universal. . . . Nearly perfect.” —The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of Ha Jin’s new novel War Trash, the winner of the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.


When Yu Yuan, a seventy-three-year-old Chinese man, visits his son and grandchildren in America he writes a memoir to leave as a legacy for them. War Trash is that memoir: it describes the time he spent as a Communist “volunteer” soldier in the Korean War. He assumed he would be fending off American and South Korean attacks on the Manchurian border, but he ends up crossing the Yalu River, suffering starvation and exposure in an under-supplied army, being gravely wounded by an American grenade, and then being captured and held in POW camps in South Korea.

Yu Yuan is a quiet man, an intellectual who learned English from a missionary in his home village. His skill serves him well in prison, as he is a valued interpreter for the Chinese political leaders and their American captors. Because he had spent time in the Nationalist military academy before Mao’s rise to power in 1949, his loyalty to the new Communist China is in question. In the prison camps, the Americans favor the pro- Nationalist forces loyal to Chiang Kai-shek, who receive far better food and shelter. While living conditions for the pro-Communist prisoners are appalling, what they dread most are the “screenings” in which they will be asked to choose between returning to their homes and families in Communist China, or being sent to Taiwan. The choice is not simple: soldiers in Mao’s army have been ordered never to surrender, and death and suicide are considered more honorable than being captured, so the prisoners face certain shame and punishment if they return home. Yu Yuan wants to go home at all costs—he is the only child of a widowed mother and has left his beloved fiancée Julan behind.

Yet by the end of this extraordinary tale—and three years of captivity—Yuan’s whole perspective on his life and his attachments has changed, and he learns that in more ways than one, he can never go home again.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The novel opens with Yuan’s description of his tattoo and his plan to have it removed. He is writing his story, he says, in order that his children and grandchildren may read it and “feel the full weight of the tattoo on my belly” [p. 5]. What has it meant, for Yuan, to have his body marked with political slogans? How is the writing of his memoir related to the removal of his tattoo?

2. Yuan wants his grandson to become a doctor and wishes he himself had been one: “If I were born again, I would study medical science devotedly. . . . Doctors and nurses follow a different set of ethics, which enables them to transcend political nonsense and man-made enmity and to act with compassion and human decency” [p. 5]. Is Yuan’s reverence for doctors largely a tribute to Dr. Greene, who operated on his injured leg? What does the statement suggest about Yuan’s feelings about his life as an English teacher?

3. War Trash is narrated entirely in the first person by the novel’s protagonist. How effective is the narrative voice in adding realism to the story? Do you agree with Russell Banks, who wrote, “You have to keep reminding yourself that this is a work of fiction and not an actual memoir” [The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 2004]. How does the intimacy of the narrative affect your preconceptions about the Korean War and its aftermath?

4. Why do the pro-Nationalist soldiers hate the Communist soldiers so much? Why do most of the prisoners hold on so fiercely to their factional loyalties, particularly given their remoteness from the ongoing drama of the war and the uncertainty of their fates upon returning home? What do the uprising and the kidnapping of General Bell, and later the battle over the flag at Cheju Island, tell us about the energies of the prisoners?

5. Yuan is an idealist, as Dr. Greene has pointed out [p. 54], and on Koje Island he observes the deterioration of his fellow prisoners as they fight over food: “When led by the Communists, they had been good soldiers and seemed high-minded and their lives had possessed a purpose, but now they were on the verge of becoming animals. How low could an ordinary man fall when he didn’t serve a goal larger than himself?” [p. 69] Yet as time goes by, Yuan finds that those who rigidly devote themselves to ideological causes also become less human. Does he continue to believe in the idea of serving a goal larger than himself?

6. In explaining why he has been instrumental in discriminating against the Communist soldiers, Father Woodworth tells Yuan, “I’m not just a clergyman but also a soldier. I came with both the book and the sword” [p. 81]. Is it possible to be both a clergyman and a soldier? Why does Yuan conclude, “My conversation with him upset me profoundly and shattered my illusion that there might be shelter in God’s bosom for every person” [p. 81]?

7. After Yuan’s friend Ding Wanlin is tortured by the Americans, the Communists suspect him of having given up information about Pei and kill him. What is most painful to Yuan about Wanlin’s death?

8. When pro-Nationalist leader Wang tells Yuan that the Communists “use men like ammo,” he thinks, “[Wang’s] words conjured up the horrible image I hadn’t been able to shake off—that the war was an enormous furnace fed by the bodies of soldiers” [p. 76]. What events contribute to Yuan’s growing disillusionment with Commissar Pei and the Party members? What is most unsettling about the ideological fervor of the Communists?

9. Yuan notes, “In the art of inflicting pain, the Chinese and the Koreans were much more expert than the Americans” [p. 86], and he describes their various methods. Yet he also describes the Americans’ use of the water jail in their torture of Commissar Pei [p. 85] and recounts how “a GI shot a prisoner, a latrine man, who had accidentally tripped and splattered a bucket of night soil onto the jeep the GI was driving. The man bled to death before the ambulance came” [p. 245]. What is the tone in which Yuan describes these acts of torture? What is the experience of reading War Trash in the wake of events in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo?

10. Wang tells Yuan that he seems like someone who will have “a great career”: “Why can’t you go to Taiwan with us? Without an able man among us, no one here will get anywhere, and again we’ll be dumped to the bottom of society” [pp. 96–97]. What is it about Yuan—aside from his command of English—that seems to set him apart and makes all factions in the prison, including the Americans, desire his loyalty?

11. The pro-Nationalists tattoo Yuan and Dajian with anti-Communist slogans, eviscerate a man before their eyes, and later force them at knifepoint to declare their destination as Taiwan or have their tattoos removed with a primitive knife. Yuan realizes that they had only tattooed “those who would be valuable to them and those who were their deadly enemies” [p. 111]. Having chosen Taiwan in his terror, Yuan thinks, “Deep down, I wished I could have been as brave as a genuine Communist, who, crazed and fanatic, viewed death without flinching” [p. 112]. What details contribute most powerfully to the horror of the scenes on pages 101–12 in which the pro-Nationalists attempt to win converts?

12. What is the significance of Yuan’s Bible reading, and why is the loss of his Bible so difficult for him [p. 128]? How does the Bible—particularly Ecclesiastes—influence Yuan’s philosophical and spiritual outlook on life [p. 317]?

13. After the uprising, an American lieutenant expresses his anger about the prisoners’ having ruined General Bell’s career: “He played baseball with us. He’s a powerful pitcher.” Yuan replies, “I’m sorry for him. Also for the hundreds of Koreans killed in Compound 76 and for the villagers whose homes were burned down” [p. 192]. What does this exchange tell us about the difference in sensibility between Yuan and Lieutenant East? How do the Americans and their behavior come across in Yuan’s narrative?

14. What kinds of resonance does the title War Trash carry, particularly in view of the dignity of Yuan’s narration? What are the connotations of the words, and do they extend beyond prisoners like Yuan?

15. Why does Julan refuse to marry Yuan once he returns, given his devotion to her? Is it possible, since the message comes from Julan’s brother, that her family has insisted that she refuse to see Yuan again? Compare her brother’s message [p. 344] with Yuan’s memory of their last night together, when Julan told him, “From this day on I’m your wife. Remember, even if I’m dead, my ghost shall be with you” [p. 137].

16. Russell Banks writes that while War Trash is a “powerfully moving . . . nearly perfect” novel, it is not an entertaining one: “Jin does not wish to entertain but to inform and put his readers in a place where most of us would choose not to linger. . . . Readers are likely to finish War Trash feeling like they, too, have escaped this terrible camp” [The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 2004]. How does the pace of the story contribute to this feeling of being inside the novel? In forging so powerful a relationship between the protagonist and the reader, what does Ha Jin achieve?

17. If you have read other novels or memoirs in which ordinary people bear witness to devastating historical events, how would you compare War Trash to them? What does Yuan’s story reveal about history and ideological struggle? How effectively does the story convey what it feels like to be used, punished, betrayed, or forgotten by one’s country?

18. Ha Jin has said that War Trash will be his last book on China; he wants to write about the immigrant experience and is working on a novel set in America. How might the loss of home experienced by Yuan and the other prisoners compare to the life of the writer in exile?

19. How surprising is the fate the former prisoners face upon their return to China? What is the effect of reading about the three principles imposed upon the prisoners, the study sessions and the denunciations they face? How would you define Yuan’s philosophical attitude as he arrives at the end of his story?

About this Author

Born into a military family in northeastern China, Ha Jin joined the People’s Army at fourteen and served for five years. He left his native land in 1985 to attend graduate school in English literature at Brandeis University and, for complicated reasons, has never returned to China. Of all his books, only his internationally bestselling novel, Waiting, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award, is available in China because it is not offensive to the government. He is also the author of the short story collections The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award; the novels The Crazed and In the Pond; and three books of poetry. He lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.

Suggested Reading

Susan Choi, The Foreign Student; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead; Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong; Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory; Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life; Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom; Frank McGuiness, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me; Marilynne Robinson, Gilead; Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress; Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918–1956 and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Billy Wilder, Stalag 17; Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army. See also Ha Jin’s bibliography [pp. 351–52].
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