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Reviews 175 Ha Jin. Ocean of Words: Army Stories. First edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Zoland Books, 1996. 205 pp. Paperback $13.95, isbn 0-944072-58-5. The editors ofthis journal have generated an unusual problem in assigning this volume to—and gaining die acquiescence of—an aging historian as reviewer. The challenge of collecting an even dozen pieces, ranging from vignettes, finger sketches, and cameos to full-fledged short stories, is matched by the challenge of attempting to review such a work. Though the subtide of this collection is "Army Stories," the variety ofthemes is wide-ranging, making it difficult for either aufhor or reviewer to establish a cohesive focus. To begin with, that Ha Jin has a clearly recognizable "primitive" talent (in the best artistic sense) is easily acknowledged. This has been established by the awards he has received for selections ofhis works that have appeared in earlier publications—awards fhat have been justiy deserved. The range ofhis themes here has revealed the depth ofhis knowledge and maturity in dealing with the many facets ofthe human condition, however seemingly concentrated on military life. In fhis vein, while fhe catalogers at fhe Library of Congress have chosen the subject headings for fhis book, some modifications might be suggested: northeastern China; military personnel; and social patterns and customs. The category "fiction," while of course legally necessary, is itself a fiction. These are real stories about real people. The primary focus for this reviewer must be "history": "China" in the first instance and "social," in fhe second. One wishes that fhere had been more time to explore fhe factual background more thoroughly. The data must be readily available , but without it, "China" and "social customs" become anomalous. Not least, we should have more information about the author than the brief mention on fhe back cover of this edition. Obviously, the author grew up in the midst of the infamous "Cultural Revolution ." But in whatregion? He does not appear to be a native ofthe far northeast . Was he a successful candidate (by merit or by influence?) for admission to one ofthe institutes ofhigher education at their reopening in 1978? (Probably.) Was his teacher, Leslie Epstein, to whom he has dedicated this volume, an offspring ofthe celebrated Israel Epstein, which might explain a lot? Under what circumstances or sponsorship did he emigrate in 1985 (to pursue an advanced education )? If so, where did he go?© 1997 by UniversityThe narrator in each selection (are these autobiographical?) reveals some eviofHawai 'i Pressdence ofhigher social status; he is not a mere soldier. Yet there is significant differentiation in the personality and temperament ofeach. More information about what lies behind these similarities and differences might enhance fhe non-Chinese 176 China Review International: Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1997 reader's appreciation ofthe subtieties of Ha Jin's style. Also, due to lack ofmore precise information, there are other ambiguities relating to the larger Chinese context . The reference to the "early 1970s" could be misleading since fhere are allusions in the text that point to die time offhe events in fhis book as between fhe mid1970s to the mid-1980s, and this might cause some difficulty for well-informed readers. Further, the impact ofhistorical events on youth groups in China in the decades from the 1940s to the 1980s has been as individual as it has been profound —for each generation and each region. The strong "winds ofchange" were felt even in the northeast, although the impact was lessened by the distance from Beijing. On fhe other hand, the cold winds from the Siberian border came down with surprising intensity as the relationship between Moscow and Beijing cooled. While there are many elements of social history in Ha Jin's treatment ofthe conditions of army life, what is likely to intrigue the reader (especially the specialist in fhe social sciences) most about these accounts is that they add missing pieces to the puzzle concerning the revolution that has been taking place over the past century , especially as it relates to the environment ofmilitary society. There are many obvious vestiges of the old, despised tradition, and the author has provided fuel for rekindling the debate over continuity versus change...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 175-177
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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