Excerpt from War Trash by Ha Jin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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War Trash

By Ha Jin

War Trash
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2004,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: May 2005,
    368 pages.

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Julan wasn't a pretty girl, but she was even-tempered and had a fine figure, a born dancer with long, supple limbs. She wore a pair of thick braids, and her clear eyes were innocently vivid. When she smiled, her straight teeth would flash. It was her radiant smile that had caught my heart. She was terribly upset by my imminent departure, but accepted our separation as a necessary sacrifice for our motherland. To most Chinese, it was obvious that MacArthur's army intended to cross the Yalu River and seize Manchuria, the Northeast of China. As a serviceman I was obligated to go to the front and defend our country. Julan understood this, and in public she even took pride in me, though in private she often shed tears. I tried to comfort her, saying, "Don't worry. I'll be back in a year or two." We promised to wait for each other. She broke her jade barrette and gave me a half as a pledge of her love.

After a four-day train ride, our division arrived at a villagelike town named Potou, in Cang County, Hebei Province. There we shed our assorted old weapons and were armed with burp guns and artillery pieces made in Russia. From now on all our equipment had to be standardized. Without delay we began to learn how to use the new weapons. The instructions were only in Russian, but nobody in our division understood the Cyrillic alphabet. Some units complained that they couldn't figure out how to operate the antiaircraft machine guns effectively. Who could help them? They asked around but didn't find any guidance. As a last resort, the commissar of our division, Pei Shan, consulted a Russian military attache who could speak Chinese and who happened to share a table with Pei at a state dinner held in Tianjin City, but the Russian officer couldn't help us either. So the soldiers were ordered: "Learn to master your weapons through using them."

As a clerical officer, I was given a brand-new Russian pistol to replace my German Mauser. This change didn't bother me. Unlike the enlisted men, I didn't have to go to the drill with my new handgun. By now I had realized that my appointment at the headquarters of the 180th Division might be a part of a large plan-I knew some English and could be useful in fighting the Americans. Probably our division had been under consideration for being sent into battle for quite a while. Before we left Szechuan, Commissar Pei had told me to bring along an English-Chinese dictionary. He said amiably, "Keep it handy, Comrade Yu Yuan. It will serve as a unique weapon." He was a tall man of thirty-two, with a bronzed face and a receding hairline. Whenever I was with him, I could feel the inner strength of this man, who had been a dedicated revolutionary since his early teens.

Before we moved northeast, all the officers who had originally served in the Nationalist army and now held positions at the regimental level and above were ordered to stay behind. More than a dozen of them surrendered their posts and were immediately replaced by Communist officers transferred from other units. This personnel shuffle indicated that men recruited from the old army were not trusted. Though the Communists may have had their reasons for dismissing those officers, replacing them right before battle later caused disasters in the chain of command when we were in Korea, because there wasn't enough time for the new officers and their men to get to know one another.

A week after the Spring Festival we entrained for Dandong, the frontier city on the Yalu River. The freight train carrying us departed early in the afternoon so that we could reach the border around midnight. Our division would rest and drill there for half a month before entering Korea.

We stayed at a cotton mill in a northern suburb of Dandong. Inside the city, military offices and supply stations were everywhere, the streets crowded with trucks and animal-drawn vehicles. Some residential houses near the riverbank had collapsed, apparently knocked down by American bombs. The Yalu had thawed, though there were still gray patches of ice and snow along the shore. I had once seen the river in a documentary film, but now, viewed up close, it looked different from what I had expected. It was much narrower but more turbulent, frothy in places and full of small eddies. The water was slightly green-"Yalu" means "duck green" in Chinese. A beardless old man selling spiced pumpkin seeds on the street told me that in summertime the river often overflowed and washed away crops, apple trees, houses. Sometimes the flood drowned livestock and people.

Excerpted from War Trash by Ha Jin, chapter 1 and part of chapter 2 (pages 6-20) of the hardcover edition.  Copyright© 2004 by Ha Jin. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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