Ha Jin (b. 1956)

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Ha Jin is a widely acclaimed author of novels, short stories, and poetry. He launched his writing career in 1990—just three years before joining the creative writing faculty of Emory University in Atlanta—with the publication of a collection of poems entitled Between Silences: A Voice from China.
Since that first book, Jin has produced numerous other works, including the poetry volumes Facing Shadows (1996) and Wreckage (2001), and the short-story collections Ocean of Words: Army Stories (1996), Under the Red Flag (1997), The Bridegroom (2001), and A Good Fall (2009). Jin has also published the novels In the Pond (1998); Waiting (1999); The Crazed (2002); War Trash (2004); A Free Life (2007), his first novel set in the United States; Map of Betrayal (2014); and Boat Rocker (2016).

Early Life and Poetry

Ha Jin is the pen name of Xuefei Jin, born February 21, 1956, in China's Liaoning Province. He grew up during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, served in the army, and completed bachelor's and master's degrees in his home country before coming to the United States in 1985 to pursue his doctorate in English at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, which roughly coincided with the completion of his Ph.D., convinced Jin not to return to China; he soon began writing in English and searching for an academic job in the United States. In 1993 Jin joined the creative writing faculty at Emory University in Atlanta as an assistant professor of poetry. After spending a decade at Emory, Jin returned as a full professor to the creative writing program at Boston University, where he had previously studied writing.
In 1990 Jin, who had only recently begun writing in English, published his first volume of poetry. This effort, Between Silences, and his two subsequent books of poetry, Facing Shadows and Wreckage, offer a sweeping panorama of Chinese history, from the excesses of the emperors to the public enthusiasm and private suffering attending the Cultural Revolution. Often narrative in form, Jin's poems likewise offer a glimpse into the family background and cultural antecedents that color his own writing: his verses trace a path from his home province in China to Georgia and beyond.


Though he was hired by Emory as a professor of poetry, Jin became well known for his fiction. His first story collection, Ocean of Words: Army Stories, is set on the border between China and the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The stories focus on the human experience at the front: they tell of love and longing ("Love in the Air"), the dynamic between leaders and followers ("Dragon Head"), and the shame that can arise from the constraints of Chinese and military culture ("Miss Jee"). The collection won the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Under the Red Flag, Jin's second collection, is perhaps even more brutal in the truths it reveals about China and human nature. The first story in the volume, "In Broad Daylight," which earned a Pushcart Prize, chronicles the public punishment of a married woman who has performed sexual acts for money. The book garnered the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, which is named for Georgia writer Flannery O'Connor and administered by the University of Georgia Press.
In the title story of The Bridegroom, Jin writes about a man who, having taken a homely bride as a cover, is nonetheless found at a gay club and subsequently assigned by the courts to be "rehabilitated" through the use of electroshock therapy. The collection won the Townsend Prize for Fiction in 2002.
Jin's first novel, In the Pond, is a comic tale about a low-ranking worker at a Chinese fertilizer plant who publishes satiric cartoons about the Communist Party and company officials who have passed him over for a housing upgrade.
Jin's second novel and most celebrated work, Waiting, is the story of Lin Kong, a doctor in the Chinese army torn between his responsibilities to his wife, Shuyu, and daughter in the countryside—unwelcome reminders of a loveless arranged marriage—and his girlfriend in the city, an army nurse with whom he has only a platonic relationship because of strict military regulations about fraternization. Chinese law prevents him from divorcing Shuyu without her consent until the couple has been separated for eighteen years. When Lin Kong is finally granted a divorce, he marries the nurse only to find that the long years of waiting have permanently damaged their relationship. The novel won both the National Book Award for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
The Crazed, Jin's third novel, concerns a graduate student's academic coming-of-age at the bedside of his mentor and future father-in-law, an esteemed professor whose "crazed" rants while recovering from a stroke reveal far more about himself and the oppressive life of a Chinese academician than the professor intends.
Jin's fourth novel, War Trash, is the first-person account of a Chinese army officer's struggle to survive a prisoner-of-war camp after he is captured by Americans during the Korean War (1951-53). A winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, War Trash was considered by many critics at the time to be Jin's most ambitious and incendiary novel. While the central character is purely fictional, the mistreatment of the Korean prisoners at the hands of their captors is, according to Jin, a historical reality. The author's representation of these events draws upon his own experience in the Chinese army and his memory that "most of the soldiers were afraid of captivity more than death."
A Free Life, Jin's fifth novel, tells the story of an immigrant family who flees China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and struggles to adjust to American life. The novel's protagonist, Nan Wu, is a scholar and aspiring poet who, along with his wife and young son, is forced to confront a far more mundane existence when he moves to the United States. Over the course of a decade he comes to terms with his new life as a restaurant owner and suburbanite, an experience reflecting that of many upwardly mobile immigrants in metropolitan Atlanta during the 1990s. Though the novel is hardly autobiographical, critics have noted broad parallels between Nan Wu's experience and Jin's own move from China to Georgia.
Jin's sixth novel, The Boat Rocker, traces the quest of Feng Danlin, a journalist and sociology professor, to thwart the success of his ex-wife, a highly-acclaimed author and an activist for the Chinese Communist Party. While the book's main themes are political—Feng learns that the influence of the Chinese Communist Party can stretch all the way to the United States—the novel also deals with more universal themes. Critics have especially praised the novel for Feng's use of humor to castigate both his ex-wife and the Chinese Communist Party.
In December 2006 The First Emperor, an opera cowritten by Jin and Tan Dun and composed by Dun, opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In 2008 Jin published a series of lectures, entitled The Writer as Migrant, which was originally delivered at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Ha Jin continues to write and teach at Boston University. He is married to Lisha Bian, and they have one son, Wen.


Further Reading
Dwight Garner, "Ha Jin's Cultural Revolution," New York Times Magazine, February 6, 2000.

Paula E. Geyh, "Ha Jin," in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 244, American Short-Story Writers since World War II, 4th ser., ed. Patrick Meanor and Joseph McNicholas (Detroit: Gale, 2001).

Paula E. Geyh, "An Interview with Ha Jin," Boulevard 51 (2002): 127-40.

Jocelyn Lieu, "Beating the Odds," Chicago Tribune, November 24, 1996.
Cite This Article
Hughes, Sandra S. "Ha Jin (b. 1956)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 13 July 2020. Web. 28 July 2021.
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