I Dare Not: The Muted Style of Writer in Exile Ha Jin

By Albert Wu, Michelle KuoJanuary 11, 2015

I Dare Not: The Muted Style of Writer in Exile Ha Jin

Waiting by Ha Jin
The Crazed by Ha Jin
War Trash by Ha Jin
The Writer as Migrant by Ha Jin
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin

A POWERFUL TROPE exists within the Chinese literary imagination: the scholar-hero, who speaks truth to power through his poetry and is then banished. In exile he writes from the far corners of China, still singing songs of lament, hoping the emperor will pay heed to his prophecies of the realm’s decline. In the Chinese tradition, this exile is downtrodden, poor, and wept over.

Ha Jin writes in effective exile. He has not returned to China since he left in the mid-1980s, and the Chinese government refuses to grant him a visa, even when his mother was very ill. Yet Jin declines the label of exile. “I don’t think of myself as a dissident, and I’m more of an immigrant than an exile,” Jin said in an interview with The Paris Review. “An exile has a significant past: he often lives in the past and has to define himself within the context of political power.”

Jin’s reluctance to identify himself as an exile, a person with a “significant past,” for us suggests that he bears some amount of historical guilt. When gunshots killed protesters and tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989, Jin watched the event on television in America, on the sidelines. Whether due to humility or self-awareness, he feels a chasm between what he can say and what he has earned the right to say. Without a “significant past,” he seems to be saying, Jin lacks the moral authority to speak on certain subjects, in certain ways.

In a sense, all of Jin’s works can be read as attempts to resolve this tension within himself — he desires to speak for China yet fears he lacks the authenticity to do so. What if I had stayed? How might I have compromised myself? Who would I have become? Like ghosts who refuse to leave your house, these questions haunt the migrant self. Such alternate paths are penumbras that dwarf the present.


His is an unlikely biography. Born Jin Xuefei in northern China in 1956, Jin lived through the Cultural Revolution, during which he was a member of the Red Guard and, later, a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army. When the Cultural Revolution ended and universities were reopened, Jin studied English. He immigrated to the United States in 1986, traveling to Brandeis University to study American literature. After publishing poetry, Jin burst onto the literary scene with a collection of short stories in the mid-1990s that won major literary prizes. In 1999 his novel Waiting won the National Book Award, and he has since published five novels. His most recent, A Map of Betrayal, was just released last November. Quietly and unassumedly, Jin has emerged as one of the most prolific American novelists of the past two decades.

In spite of his success, Ha Jin’s prose has divided critics. Unanimously they have celebrated Jin’s courage to write in English — Jin is, of course, a non-native speaker. (In an admiring profile of Jin in 2000, Dwight Garner asked, “How can someone write English so fluidly, yet speak it so haltingly?”) But when John Updike reviewed Jin’s 2007 novel A Free Life, he noted that “the novel rarely gathers the kind of momentum that lets us overlook its language.” Reviewing a collection of Jin’s short stories, The Bridegroom, Claire Messud wrote that “his works read as if he had written them in Chinese and merely undertaken the translations himself.”

Critics suggest that Jin’s flat style results from either the fact that English is not his first language or his desire to convey an effect of translation, so that a reader grasps an “authentic” China. We don’t disagree, but we wonder if a third reason is at work as well: Jin’s ambivalence about his own status as a writer-in-exile mutes his prose.

In The Writer as Migrant, a published collection of lectures that he delivered at Rice University in 2008, Jin reflects on the transformation of his writerly conscience. He recalls that when he first started writing, in the early nineties, he had the ambition to “speak for those unfortunate people who suffered, endured, or perished at the bottom of life and who created the history and at the same time were fooled or ruined by it.” But now he feels ambivalent, even sheepish, about his desire to act as a spokesperson. “Gradually, I came to see the silliness of that ambition.” Other writers, Jin notes, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Lin Yutang, achieved celebrity in their native countries before they were banished. These writers were truer spokesmen for their countries, he implies. Those writers had a clear purpose, affirmed by a loyal base of readers and followers back home.

Perhaps Jin’s absence from his homeland, as well as his denial of carrying a “significant past,” explains the lack of passion in his own characters. His typical protagonist is neither a central player in revolution nor an authority. He is educated, sensitive, and critical. He is capable of being manipulated, but also of reflection. He rarely gets angry, perhaps not feeling entitled to such a demonstrative emotion. He yearns for his family. He wishes to take care of his mother. He is never a hero, at least not in the conventional sense of being driven by public-minded ideals. The politically agnostic protagonist appears repeatedly in his writing. A medical doctor seeking a divorce from his wife in Waiting; a captured prisoner in War Trash; a student of literature in The Crazed; and, in his new novel A Map of Betrayal, a Chinese migrant living in America, who turns out to be one of the most significant spies in the country’s history.

While the timid protagonist appears often in Jin’s work, the Chinese state is his true constant. Its character can be counted on: spineless, manipulative, untrustworthy, and corrupt, the state treats ideology as provisional and people as disposable. In Waiting, the most despicable character is Geng Yang, a rapist who becomes a rising star in the Party. In War Trash, the US military asks a high-ranking Chinese general to send his assistant for “re-registration.” The general, believing that the US may plan to kill or hurt his invaluable assistant, orders the narrator, a soldier, to go in his place, at which point the narrator realizes that he is “trash” to the Chinese government.

Frequently in Jin’s novels, Chinese people realize that they have been betrayed by the state. Within his oeuvre, War Trash and The Crazed probe the theme of betrayal most poignantly.

The Crazed, published in 2002, gives us a character with passion unusual in Jin’s novels: Yang is not self-doubting at all, but rather loud and sick and raving, a man whose near-madness has made him bold. It is 1989 and people are gearing up to protest in Tiananmen. Yang is dying and being tended by a student of Chinese literature, Jian, whom Yang had hoped would gain entry into a graduate school in America. But Jian fails the TOEFL (test of English as a Foreign Language) and has no choice but to remain in China. Yang tells Jian he can have no real future in China as a scholar, where all students are required to take a “political exam” in which they must regurgitate Party propaganda (while the Party leaders finagle to get their own kids in foreign graduate programs).

“Who is an intellectual in China?” Yang asks, despairing over an environment where students are asked to spy on each other and professors collaborate to suppress student protests. “The truth is that all people in the humanities are clerks and all people in the sciences are technicians. Tell me, who is a really independent intellectual, has original ideas and speaks the truth? None that I know of.”

“I told you, I’m just a clerk, a screw in the machine of the revolution,” Yang continues, as his shocked student listens. “We are of the same ilk and have the same fate, all having relapsed into savagery and cowardice. Now this screw is worn out and has to be replaced, so write me off as a loss.”

The Crazed can be read as a counterfactual to the author’s life. What if Jin, like Jian, had failed the TOEFL and been unable to immigrate to the States? Would he have gone to Tiananmen? Or, what if Jin had gone back to China to teach in 1989? Would he have become like the crazed professor, pronouncing from his deathbed that all professors were “clerks,” beholden to the state, unable to live freely as intellectuals? These two protagonists, one elder and one younger, are the people he might have been, the people he escaped becoming.

Yang urges his student to read The Divine Comedy. It saved his life, he says. When the Cultural Revolution broke out, he was called a “Demon-Monster” by rebels, because he had translated foreign poems and once praised Goethe. Tormented by revolutionaries on campus, he was forced to wear a dunce hat with his family name. A bucket filled with water was hung around his neck, to keep his back bent and his head low. Elsewhere in the book, it is implied that he begged the rebels not to burn his books, to no avail.

“But during the torture I would recite to myself lines from The Divine Comedy,” he tells Jian. “They could hurt me physically, but they could not subdue my soul.” Then he asks Jian, “Where are we now? […] We’re certainly not in paradise, are we?” China, he says, is between hell and purgatory.

Later, on the bed where he will die, he recites Beatrice’s words in Paradiso:

You are so close to ultimate bliss […]
that you must purify your passion
And keep your eyes clear and keen.
Before you go further into it,
Look down and see how much of the world
I have spread beneath your feet.

A scene in War Trash also involves betrayal and a poem — this time Chinese. A Chinese soldier has been captured in a South Korean POW camp during the Korean War. Chinese POWs feel deep shame in China, because they are viewed by society as cowards, expected to die rather than surrender. At the camp, the Party’s commissar purposely stages an insurrection in hopes that it will embarrass the US, cause a diplomatic incident, and attract attention from his superiors back in China. The mission is doomed to fail, but nonetheless the commissar goads his men, manipulating their desire to “prove” themselves loyal. “Defend our national flag with our blood and lives!” he tells them, as prisoners make weapons out of scraps. “Suicidally blind” to the superior resources of the Americans, 63 Chinese men are killed, loyal to the death. Meanwhile, the commissar observes the clash from afar, unharmed.

The soldier lays wreaths on the graves of his dead comrades. A Chinese poem, draped over the wreath, ends the scene: Yearn not for native soil — / Your loyal bones can lie in any green hill.

Here we have two scenes, two protagonists. Both are betrayed by their government. Seeking consolation, both turn to poetry — one to a Chinese poem, one a Western poem. But the poems serve opposite ends. One helps lay men to rest, the other convinces a man to keep living. One consecrates the earth, the other offers entry to the heavens. One recognizes yearning for native soil, assures him that bonds between man and country last beyond death; the other prepares him to leave his country forever — to a new home, to afterlife, to bliss.


Drawn to both Western and Chinese literary traditions, Jin makes explicit the complex question of dual loyalty in A Map of Betrayal, in which a Chinese spy lives on American soil. If, in Jin’s previous novels, the man betrayed by his state has no option but to endure humiliation, now he has the choice to migrate and live elsewhere. But it is not easy to shake the old, enduring love of one’s birthplace.

A Map of Betrayal shuttles back and forth between a contemporaneous first-person account from the narrator, Lilian Shang, an American professor of Chinese descent who is looking for her father’s family in China, and a historical account of her father, Gary Shang, who, decades earlier, was arrested and charged for espionage. Even though the writer of the third-person account is never identified, we are led to believe that it was written by Lilian.

A Map of Betrayal is written in the tradition of John le Carré’s spy novels, where the spy himself is morally conflicted. Not much happens externally. At times, the novel and its protagonist move with frustrating slowness. Even his recruitment is uneventful: he joins the Communist party because he needs a job, and scores well on a political exam. He lacks the physical skills required for police work. Seeing that he is a good English speaker, his supervisors order him to apply for a job in the foreign services.

We see Gary Shang go to work. He is dangerously naive at first; he doesn’t know, for instance, that information he passes on about Chinese POW prisoners held in Korea will get them executed. Likewise he fails to see through his handler, who tells him, among other lies, that the Chinese state will take care of his family. Nor does his handler tell Gary of crucial events in his family’s life: when his wife gives birth to twins; when one of the twins dies; and when the government loses contact with the family at a time when starvation is almost certain.

“Be patient, brother,” the handler says, as Gary again voices his wish to return home and see his wife and his parents. Gary is told to stay in America and that keeping his identity secret is paramount. When Gary reports that he is dating an American woman, the handler encourages him to wed her. But what about my wife and parents? Gary asks. The handler tells Gary that he must live in America as long as he can. “This makes me feel like an exile, banished by my own comrades,” Gary responds bitterly.

Consoling him, the handler tells Gary that he is “destined for greatness” and will one day return home “with honor and glory.”

But Gary comes to like living in the United States. He hums Hank Williams to himself; he jots down quotes from Theodore Roosevelt; he frequents jazz clubs. He continues to work as a spy not only to help his family, but also because he sincerely (and not inaccurately) believes he is aiding China-US relations.

When he realizes he has been played by his Chinese handler, Gary does not become angry. Rather, he rationalizes each move that his handler has made while his own agony is only glimpsed, kept beneath the surface. Although Jin gives Gary a dramatic courtroom scene, in which he explains his dual loyalty to both the US and China, A Map of Betrayal offers little emotional satisfaction in its resolution; it feels at once unsurprising and unprobed.


The China of today is not the same China that Jin grew up in. In A Map of Betrayal, Jin addresses China’s dramatic contemporary transformations through the observations of professor Lilian Shang. Returning to China for her research, Lilian sees billboards that proclaim: WELCOME MIGRANT WORKERS! She attends a performance that is busted by the police. She watches students throw eggs at a university professor who advocates a policy of internet censorship. (“Down with the Internet Berlin Wall!” the students yell.) She visits “Chocolate Town,” an area where swelling numbers of African immigrants sell and hawk their goods, and in doing so risk deportation.

Each of Lilian’s encounters appears proffered to demonstrate the Chinese state’s ineptitude or bad faith. But Jin’s almost clinical voice, delivered through Lilian, tends to flatten rather than give life to the vibrant possibilities in modern China. An exception to this is the character Juli, an underground artist who plays in a rock band. It is through Juli that we see thriving pockets of underground and online activism and the existence, however ad hoc, of an artistic community that criticizes the Chinese government, despite ongoing suppression of free speech and democratic movements. (Ai Weiwei is the most prominent and outspoken example.)

But the abstract concept that opportunities exist in China to become self-actualized remains abstract, in Jin’s voice. Jin’s language has been described as flat, but more precisely it is emotionally removed, seemingly alienated from the core of human feeling. This alienation at times obtains an odd power: one senses that Jin is driven by a belief, born of the Cultural Revolution, that emotional fervor is both destructive and cheap. As a member of Mao’s Red Guard, Jin witnessed firsthand the inflammatory rhetoric that the state engineered to incite passions and turn children against their parents, citizens against each other.

As a new generation of Chinese writer-exiles settles in the West, we wonder whether Jin’s flat, alienating style will come to be regarded as a kind of artifact, a self-preserving fossil of the trauma generated by those who, as Jin and other soldiers and citizens did, witnessed the mixture of real and manufactured emotion that fueled collective mania. We speculate whether Jin thinks to himself: why would he, an émigré who lives a secure life in America, distantly removed from a brutal past, feel that he has earned the right to create a hero when few during his generation had a chance to be one? His muted language and muted characters suggest an author who chooses to err on the side of plodding, careful caution, who dares not presume he knows too much.


Michelle Kuo is a writer and lawyer. She is working on a book, to be published by Random House.

Albert Wu teaches history at the American University of Paris.

LARB Contributors

Albert Wu (@albertowu) is an associate professor of history at the American University of Paris. His first book, From Christ to Confucius (Yale University Press, 2016), examines Sino-European through the lens of missionaries.He has published in academic and popular journals, including American Historical Review, Commonweal, and The Point. With Michelle Kuo, he writes a weekly newsletter: ampleroad.substack.com
Michelle Kuo (@kuokuomich) is an associate professor at the American University of Paris. Her award-winning book, Reading with Patrick (Random House, 2017) combines memoir, reportage, and research on racial and economic inequality in rural Arkansas. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of BooksPublic BooksThe Point, and other publications. She has worked as an attorney for undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and incarcerated people. With Albert Wu, she writes a weekly newsletter at ampleroad.substack.com


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