Beyond the Book: Background information when reading A Free Life

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A Free Life

by Ha Jin

A Free Life by Ha Jin
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2007, 624 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2009, 672 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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The Tiananmen Square Protests

Beginning in mid-April, 1989, thousands of demonstrators anchored by a core group of dissident university students occupied Beijing's Tiananmen Square. In what has been described as the greatest challenge to the communist state in China since its inception in 1949, tens of thousands soon joined in the peaceful protest, angered by widespread governmental corruption and calling for democratic reform.

In May, demonstrations and marches throughout Beijing exceeded one million participants. Late on June 3, 1989, army tanks moved into the square and began firing indiscriminately into the crowd of unarmed protesters. Estimates of the death toll range from 200 to more than 3000, as the Chinese government never released any official data or a list of the deceased. Many more were injured, and still more went missing, were detained, or imprisoned in the months to come. Tens of thousands of people were arrested in June and July alone. Many of the student leaders were smuggled into exile in the U.S and elsewhere. Others were never sentenced, but monitored and harassed by the police for years, driving many to eventually seek asylum overseas.


About The Author

Xuefei Jin, who writes under the pseudonym Ha Jin, was born in 1956 in Liaoning Province in northern China. His father was a military officer. In 1969, at only 14 years of age, Ha Jin joined the People's Liberation Army based at the northeastern border between China and the former Soviet Union. While in the army he began teaching himself middle and high-school courses. After his military service ended, he taught himself English while working the night shift as a railroad telegrapher in Jiamusi, a remote frontier city in the Northeast.

In 1977, when colleges reopened after the Cultural Revolution, he passed the entrance exams and was assigned to study English. Although this was his last choice for a major, Ha Jin received a B.A. from Heilongjiang University and a Masters in Anglo-American literature at Shandong University. He came to the United States in 1985 to do graduate work at Brandeis University, supporting himself as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant and as a night watchman in a factory.

In 1993 he earned a Ph.D. in English from Brandeis. He intended to return to China after completing his dissertation, but after watching televised coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he and his wife decided to make a life with their son in the United States, and when Jin couldn't find teaching work, he turned to writing instead, eventually finding employment at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He now lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.

Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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