Ha Jin lied about his age when he was 14 years old so he could join the Chinese People's Liberation Army in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. He left his native China in 1985, and now writes about China, solely in English for the benefit of English-speakers. War Trash, his fourth novel was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
It's hard to believe that there is not an element of autobiography in this story. Our main character is Yu Yuan, who is drafted into the newly formed Communist army and is sent as part of a corps of 'volunteers' to fight against the Americans in the Korean War. The short-comings and lack of preparation on the part of the Communists soon become apparent to our protagonist, as he watches hundreds die around him. Eventually he is captured by the Americans and following surgery, he is sent to a POW camp.
Despite having faced hardship out on the battlefield, it is in the POW camp that Yu faces the toughest challenges of all. The POW camps are split between the majority Nationalists, who want to be released to Free China (Taiwan) and the Communists who want to return to China. Yu's English language skills means that both sides are interested in him, but all Yu wants is to return home to his elderly mother and fiancee.
The tale is very simply written, sometimes without grace or elegance of language. However, it is an interesting portrait of the inner-conflict that the Chinese people must have faced at the dawn of the Communist age. Yu faces the tough choice between returning to the mainland, possibly declaimed as a traitor for allowing himself to be captured, or moving to Taiwan. The Chinese mentality that is portrayed in the book is confusing to me as a Westerner, but it goes a long way to explain the enthusiasm that the Chinese have for idealogues.
Ultimately I found this to be a powerful, yet simple, tale that exposed vast tracts of Chinese attitude and mentality as well as providing insight into a far-away war.