War Trash

Ha Jin

Penguin 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008 https://dannyreviews.com/
A fictional memoir, War Trash tells the story of a Chinese soldier taken prisoner during the Korean War and held in a variety of prisoner-of-war camps. A college graduate and something of an intellectual, Yu Yuan has an uneasy relationship with the communist leadership in the camps, but his knowledge of English makes him indispensable as an interpreter and he witnesses key events and decisions.

The early chapters describe the poor preparation of Yuan's unit, disaster in an attack pushed too far, and a desperate attempt at survival as guerrillas behind enemy lines, before Yuan's injury and capture.

He is treated in hospital by a sympathetic American doctor, but then finds himself in a camp controlled by Nationalists. They try to force everyone to choose repatriation to Taiwan instead to mainland China, sometimes brutally: Yuan is lucky to get away with having "fuck communism" tattooed on him.

Wanting to return to his mother and fiancee, he ends up in communist prisoner-of-war camps on Koje and then Cheju Island. The prisoners get intermittently brutal treatment from their American guards, but aggravate relations first by helping Korean prisoners kidnap a general and then by a symbolic but bloody raising of Chinese flags in an attempt to influence the Pammunjon armistice talks.

In addition to these dramatic events, Yuan also describes ordinary daily life in the camps, and the different responses of individuals to imprisonment. In an episode that appears to be there for contrast, an identity mix-up results in him spending a brief period in a Nationalist POW camp. And a brief final chapter describes his difficult life following his return to China, where he and other ex-POWs are treated as suspect.

They are not really developed, but War Trash has a range of varied and striking characters as well as plenty of action. It also sheds light on a neglected part of a relatively neglected war; it is not history, but most of its incidents appear to be based on real events.

December 2008

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%T War Trash
%A Jin, Ha
%I Penguin
%D 2006
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0141023961
%P 352pp