Consortium Book Sales & Dist.
ISBN: 1581950063

Ha Jin' s Under the Red Flag is a book of short stories set in China during the Cultural Revolution. A unifying theme appears to concern how individuals negotiate between two worlds, the old and the new, and how these worlds come into conflict. Set in the small town of Dismount Fort or in surrounding rural villages, the stories are full of compelling action and wonderfully drawn characters: peasants, members of street gangs, village bureaucrats, military officials, and the occasional professional.
        Motivated by powerful emotions—ambition, loyalty, love, sexual desire, shame, anger, jealousy, greed—the characters act in big ways, and often violently. Two farmers watch while their boars battle for mating territory; a man, denounced for having an affair with his sister-in-law, manages to resurrect himself through self-castration; a father murders his son because a fortune teller has told him that the boy stands in the way of his becoming a general. There is gang violence, the destruction of a wedding feast by the local military, and the violence of crowds egged on by Red Guards attempting to purge the country of "bourgeois demons".
        There is also violence done to the human soul. The decision about whether to bury or cremate a loved one becomes frought with political peril. Private sexual indiscretions are treated as perversions and find their way into becoming village gossip in the name of the public good. Children are used as informants and as a means of punishing adults for their "crimes," and, to the reader's horror, joyfully take part.
        While these are all heady themes, the author manages to deal with them in a way that is not at all off-putting—rather, by deftly changing between a satirical viewpoint and a sympathy for the humanity of his characters, he draws us into a world very unlike our own. Once there, we are confronted with unpredictable plots that keep us wanting to find out what happens next. And as we read, we are struck by the vulnerability of these characters as they swim, tread water, or flounder between the waves of the political system and the undertow of tradition, at any moment apt to be broken upon rocks or dragged under the swell.    

First appeared in the High Plains Reader, March 2000