The place is the chilly border between Russia and China. The time is the early 1970s when the two giants were poised on the brink of war. And the characters in this thrilling collection of stories are Chinese soldiers who must constantly scrutinize the enemy even as they themselves are watched for signs of the fatal disease of bourgeois liberalism.
In Ocean of Words, the Chinese writer Ha Jin explores the predicament of these simple, barely literate men with breathtaking concision and humanity. From amorous telegraphers to a pugnacious militiaman, from an inscrutable Russian prisoner to an effeminate but enthusiastic recruit, Ha Jin's characters possess a depth and liveliness that suggest Isaac Babel's Cossacks and Tim O'Brien's GIs. Ocean of Words is a triumphant volume, poignant, hilarious, and harrowing.
"A compelling collection of stories, powerful in their unity of theme and rich in their diversity of styles."--New York Times Book Review
"Extraordinary...[These stories are shot through with wit and offer glimpses of human motivation that defy retelling...Read them all."--Boston Globe
"An exceptional new talent, capable of wringing rich surprises out of austere materials."--Portland Oregonian
About the Author
Date of Birth:February 21, 1956
Place of Birth:Liaoning, China
Education:B.A. in English, Heilongjiang University, 1981; Ph. D. in English, Brandeis University, 1993
Read an Excerpt
Our Most Respected Divisional Commissar Lin:
I am writing to report on an event that occurred last Saturday afternoon. Our Reconnaissance Company, the best trained men and the flower of our Second Division, marched through Longmen City to the Western Airport, where we were to do parachute exercises. While we were passing Central Boulevard at the corner of the First Department Store, I ordered Scribe Hsu Fang to start a song with an eye to impressing the pedestrians. He executed the orders, and the whole company began to sing:
Good-bye, mother, good-bye, mother-
The battle bugle blowing,
Steel guns shiny,
The outfits on our backs,
Our army is ready to go.
Please do not weep in secret,
Please do not worry about your son.
Wait for my triumphant return;
I will see you then, my dear mother.
. . . . . . .
While we were singing, the march suddenly slowed down, and the uniform footsteps of one hundred men grew disordered. The words and music, suitable only for lamentation, melted the strength in the soldiers' feet. I shouted to stop the singing, which in fact became crying. But we were in the middle of the thoroughfare, and my voice could not overcome the loud noises of the bustling traffic, so they continued to sing. Some new soldiers burst out sobbing; even the experienced ones were overwhelmed with tears. Imagine, a hundred of the best-disciplined fighters were bleating without shame on the street like a herd of sheep! And with machine guns and bazookas! People paused on the sidewalks to watch us whining and weeping. Someone commented, "This is a funeral procession."
I do not blame my men, nor have I criticized Scribe Hsu Fang. They are brave soldiers, and the history of our company has borne that out with ample evidence. Our Most Esteemed Commissar Lin, probably I am partly responsible for this occurrence, because I did not prevent my men from learning the song in the first place. My vigilance of class struggle must have slackened. I thought it would do them no harm if they sang a song that the Central Radio Station broadcast every day. Please do not misunderstand me here: We did not teach this contagious song; the soldiers just learned it by themselves. My mistake was not to intervene in time.
The event I have described demonstrates that this song is a counterrevolutionary one. All the men in my company now feel ashamed, because they were seized by the surprise of bourgeois sentiment. We have all been dishonored and have done damage to the image of our army.
It goes without saying that a true revolutionary song belongs to the kind that inspires, unifies, and instructs, not like the one we sang, which undermines our morale and destroys our solidarity. A good song must encourage people's upright spirit and must make friends more lovable and enemies more detestable. Commissar Lin, you must remember those old genuine revolutionary fighting songs; here I cannot help picking out one as an example:
We are all super marksmen.
Every bullet strikes and enemy dead.
We are all swift troops,
Not afraid of waters deep and mountains high.
On the lofty cliffs
There are our quarters.
In the thick woods
There are many good brothers.
If we have no clothes and food
The enemy sends them to us.
If we have no weapons
The enemy makes them for us.
We were born and grew up here,
Every inch of the land is ours.
If someone dares to take it from us,
We shall fight him to the end!
What a song! At this very moment of writing, I can recall that when singing it we walked with tremendous confidence, as if the earth beneath our feet would quake because of us and as if we could topple the mountains and overturn the seas, not to mention eliminate our enemies. I need not dwell on this further, because you, a Revolutionary of the Older Generation, actually grew up with those genuine songs, and you must have a profounder understanding of their nature than I do.
The lesson we have learned from the reported event is as follows: Our class enemies are still active, and they never go to sleep; whenever we doze off, they will take advantage of us, sabotaging Socialism and changing the political color of our army. We must grow another pair of eyes in the backs of our heads so that we can keep them under watch everywhere and at all times.
Our Most Respected Comrade Commissar, on behalf of my company, I suggest we ban this poisonous song and investigate the family and political backgrounds of its author and its composer. Whoever they are, they undoubtedly have the outlook of the bourgeoisie. They have committed sabotage-their work aims to disable our troops, corroding the iron bastion from within. Also, those who have helped disseminate this song must not be let off their responsibility. Ideally, we should bring a couple of people to the Military Court. We must show our enemies that we are also superior fighters on the Ideological Front!
My Revolutionary Salute,
I Remain Your Loyal Soldier,
Political Instructor and
Party Secretary of
Longmen, May 27
It began as a bet at the Spring Festival. After the feast, the soldiers of my company were playing chess and poker, chatting and cracking roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds. In the Second Platoon some men were talking about women and bragging of their own ability to resist female charms. Gradually their topic shifted to the Shanghai girls at the Youth Home in Garlic Village. How were the girls doing on the holiday eve? What a pity there was no man in their house. Who would dare to go have a look and ask if they miss their parents and siblings?
Someone said he would pay a Spring Festival call on the girls after eleven. Another boasted that he would take a bottle of wine to that house and have a cup with them. Emboldened by alcohol and the festive atmosphere, they indulged themselves in the big talk.
Then Kong Kai declared he dared to go and sleep on the same brick bed with the girls. This was too much. Everybody thought he just wagged his tongue, and they told him to draw a line somewhere if he wanted to talk sense. But a few men challenged him and even proposed a five-yuan bet. To their amazement, Kong swung his quilt roll on his back and set off for the Youth Home.
There was only one young man living at that house, but he had left to spend the holiday with his family in Shanghai. Unlike the country women, those city girls had tender limbs and looked rather elegant. They knew how to use makeup and wore colorful clothes.
Kong entered the Youth Home and dropped his quilt at the end of the brick bed. The five girls were too shocked to stop him. He climbed on the bed, spread his quilt, lay down, and closed his eyes. For half an hour, they didn't know what to do about this man, who wouldn't respond to their questioning and tittering and instead was sleeping or pretending to be asleep. They brought out candies, chocolates, and frozen pears in the hope of inducing him to open his mouth, which like his eyes was shut all the time. They even cooked him a large bowl of dragon-whiskers noodles with garlic, ginger, and two poached eggs, hoping the fragrance might arouse his appetite. Nothing worked. One of them put a few lamp-soot stains on his face, saying, "This makes him look more handsome." They giggled; still he remained motionless. Finally, the five girls decided to keep watch on him by turns throughout the night, for fear he might do something unusual once they went to sleep, though they knew Kong by sight and didn't feel he was a bad man. Each of them sat beside him for one and a half hours while the rest were sleeping at the other end of the large bed. The oil lamp was burning until dawn.
On hearing of the incident at daybreak, Commander Deng and I set out for Garlic Village right away. It was crisply cold, and a large flock of crows were gliding over the snow-covered fields, clamoring hungrily. A few firecrackers exploded in the village that sprawled ahead like a deserted battlefield. Among some wisps of cooking smoke, two roosters were crowing on and on, as if calling each other names. In the north, the Wusuli River almost disappeared in the snow, and beyond it a long range of cedar woods stretched on the hillside like a gigantic spearhead pointing to the Russians' watchtower, which was wavering in the clouds. Though day was unfolding, the Russians' searchlight kept flickering.
When we arrived Kong was still in bed. The girls were all up, some washing clothes while others were combing and braiding their hair. They looked jubilant, humming light tunes and giggling as if something auspicious had descended on their household. At the sight of us they stopped.
"Lock up the door and don't let anyone out," Commander Deng cried. With a mitten he wiped the frost off his mustache, his deep-sunk eyes glinting. He spat a cigarette end to the floor and stamped it out. Orderly Zhu executed the orders.
Kong Kai heard the noise and got out of bed to meet us. He didn't look worried and gave us a toothy grin. His broad face was smeared with soot, but he still had on his fur hat, whose earflaps were tied together under his chin. I felt relieved; it seemed he hadn't taken off his clothes during the night. We brought him into the inner room and began our questioning.
It took us only a few minutes to finish with him. He tried to convince us that he had slept well. That must have been a lie. How could a young man sleep peacefully while a girl was sitting nearby with her eyes on him all the time? And another four sleeping on the same bed? Didn't he know his face still had stains of lamp soot on it? But we didn't ask him those questions, for it wasn't important for us to know how he had felt and what he knew. We cared only what he had done.
Convinced that nothing serious had taken place, we put him aside and brought in the girls one by one. Each questioning was shorter than two minutes. "Did he touch you?" Deng asked a tall, pale-faced girl, whom we had got hold of first.
"No." She shook her head.
"Did he say anything to you?"
"Yes or no?"
"Did he ever take off his clothes?"
In the same manner we went through the other four girls, who gave us identical answers. Then we brought our man home, believing the case was closed. On the way back I criticized Kong briefly for intruding into a civilian house without any solid reason, especially on the Spring Festival's Eve, when the Russians were most likely to cross the border and nobody was allowed to leave the barracks.
At once Kong became a hero of a sort. Those foolish boys called him "an iron man." Together with his fame, numerous versions of his night adventure were circulating in the company. One even said that the girls had welcomed Kong's arrival and lain beside him by turns throughout the night, patting his face, murmuring seductive words, and even drawing a thick mustache on his lip with charcoal, but the iron man hadn't budged a bit, as though he were unconscious. We tried to stop them from creating these kinds of silly stories and assured them that the girls were fine, not as bad as they thought. They'd better cleanse their own minds of dirty fantasies.
A month later Kong's squad leader, Gu Chong, was transferred to the battalion headquarters, to command the anti-aircraft machine gun platoon there. Gu suggested we let Kong take over the Fifth Squad. Indeed Kong seemed to be an ideal choice; the men in our company respected him a lot, and he was an excellent soldier in most ways. So we promoted him to squad leader.
Who could tell "the iron man" would be our headache? In a few weeks it was reported that Kong often sneaked out in the evenings and on weekends to meet a girl at the Youth Home. There were larch woods at the eastern end of Garlic Village; it was said that Kong and the girl often wandered in the woods. I talked to him about this. He said they had gone in there only to pick mushrooms and daylilies. What a lie. I told him to stop pretending. Who would believe the iron man had become a mushroom picker accompanied by a girl? I wanted him to quit the whole thing before it was too late, and I reminded him of the discipline that allowed no soldier to have an affair.
One Sunday morning in April, Orderly Zhu reported that Kong had disappeared from the barracks again. Immediately I set out with Scribe Yang for the larch woods. When we got there we came upon two lines of fresh footprints on the muddy slope. We followed them. Without much difficulty we found the lovers, who were sitting together by a large rock. They saw us approaching, and they got up and slipped away into the woods. We walked over and found five golden candy wrappers at the spot. I told the scribe to pick up the wrappers, and together we returned.
Scribe Yang said he recognized the girl, whose name was An Mali. The tall, pale-faced one, he reminded me. I recalled questioning her and didn't feel she was a bad girl at all, but a rule was a rule, which no one should break. Kong was creating trouble not only for himself but also for our company. We had to stop him.
Soon the leader of the Second Platoon reported that there had been confrontations between Kong and some men in the Fifth Squad. One soldier openly called him "womanizer."
In May we held the preliminary election of exemplary soldiers. As usual, we had all the guns and grenades and bazookas locked away at the company's headquarters for five days, for fear somebody might be so upset about not being elected that he would resort to violence. There had been bloodshed during the election in other units, and we had to take precautions.
All the squad leaders were voted in except Kong Kai, though three of his men got elected. The soldiers complained that Kong had a problematic life-style. Commander Deng and I worried about the results of the election, particularly about Kong, so we decided to talk to him.
After taps, we had him summoned to our office. The kerosene lamp on the desk was shining brighter with the new wick Orderly Zhu had put in. I walked to the window to look out at the moonlit night while Deng read a newspaper at the desk. Beside his elbow lay a blue notebook and a pen; whenever he came across a new word, he would write it down. He had only three years' education.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Ha Jin's debut collection of short fiction, Ocean of Words.
1. Ha Jin has said, "I do believe in universals. I believe literature works on similarities, not differences" [Atlanta Journal]. The characters in these stories are soldiers and officers in a world to which American readers have had almost no access. How does Ha Jin manage to make you intimate with, and sympathetic to, their concerns and dilemmas? What is universal about these characters, and what, if anything, do you find difficult to identify with?
2. In the story "Dragon Head," the militia sings a song based on a quotation from Mao Tse-tung: "A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another" [p. 53]. The activities Mao mentioned are ones we would associate with leisure and with culture, both of which are highly prized in American life. Would you consider a class revolution, such as the one Mao tried to create, at all possible in the United States? Can you imagine Americans engaging in the political study sessions and self-criticisms that characters are involved with in Ha Jin's work? What do people do for fun and relaxation in these stories, since activities like reading and painting solely for personal pleasure are forbidden?
3. What techniques does Ha Jin use to reveal the inner lives of his characters? How does his use of narrative voice and point of view create a sense of variety and affect your response to various stories?
4. Though it is always purely speculative to identify a work of fiction as autobiographical, would you say that Ocean of Words has the feeling of something that actually happened to its author? What do you find most moving about this story? Why has Ha Jin positioned it as the final story of the collection?