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  • Emotions and dilemmas are universal – Ocean of Words

    Posted on June 4th, 2009 Michele Sun No comments

    Ocean of Words is not the first Ha Jin book that I have read, but it is the first collection of short stories from him. I like it just as much as his Waitingand War Trash, and again his works seem to have the power to weight my heart down and cloud my emotion. I have never experienced the life described in his book, but was totally taken by his words and emotion and feel so lucky that I never have been through the ordeal and hardship that war brings upon human.

    These fictional stories are set on the Chinese-Russian border in the early 70’s, about the life of People’s Army – soldiers, recruits and officers. Ha Jin has narrated so fluently as always and drawn me right into the time and life of Mao’s Communist China. His characters often are very simple and have very little education, and are brainwashed to loyally follow Chairman Mao’s “teachings” to serve the revolutionary and new China.

    The lesson we have learned from the reported event is as follows:
    Our class enemies are still active, and they never go to sleep…
    I suggest we ban this poisonous song and investigate the family
    and political backgrounds of its author…”

    Just like Ha Jin does in most of his stories, his characters have to make hard choices between to stay survived or follow their heart and love – whether it is love of a woman or love of knowledge.

    “We are all human beings and have emotions,
    but there are things more important, beyond love.
    Lots of revolutionary martyrs sacrificed their lives
    for the Party and the New China…
    They loved our nation and the revolutionary cause more then themselves.”

    As an American, I can never imagine myself engaging in the political study sessions and self-criticisms that characters are involved with in Ocean of Words, or the worst serious betrayals from ones I trust.

    “The next day I told the squad about Jee’s midnight fantasy.
    They sat around and asked him what the girl had looked like
    and why he’d compared her to a willow.
    What kind of willow exactly? A weeping willow?…
    Jee was mad at me because he couldn’t remember the dream
    and believed I had made it up.”

    Ha Jin has portrayed the lives which got totally swirled and messed up in a time of chaos, but the emotions and dilemmas are just universal, in the 70’s or today, and in Communist China or in our world. Though the characters are in a world that completely beyond my reach and comprehend, but I found so much similarity in his characters that I feel close to, and sympathetic to. We often have to choose to stay afloat or against the tide in workplace or society; what matters more to us – survival or dignity, and what price one must pay? The stories may be about the revolutionary army life in China, but don’t we all find the similar propaganda and battles in our life?

    Recommend readings – if you have never read works of Ha Jin before, I would suggest to start with his Waiting. Ad if you are interested in life of POW, then read War Trashwhich tells story of POW during the Korean War. And as this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, you should read his The Crazedto see how a government manipulate the smallest events in its citizens’ lives.


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