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Authors: Ha Jin

Ocean of Words



The 1997 Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction

Ha Jin’s collection of stories
Ocean of Words
portrays army life in China with subtlety, grace, and infinite complexity. With his fine attention to the manners of his time, and evident technical mastery, he has created out of perverse reality, pure art. The best of these tales wreak pleasure from pain and resound with an irony that distances us not from the characters but from the harshness of their world. Ha Jin has christened a whole new territory in American literature. This debut book, of simple style and understated beauty, is occasion for real celebration.

Ha Jin

Under the Red Flag
In the Pond
The Bridegroom
The Crazed
War Trash

Between Silences
Facing Shadows

Ha Jin

Ocean of Words

Ha Jin left his native China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University. In addition to
Ocean of Words
, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, he is the author of the internationally best-selling novel
, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award; the story collections
The Bridegroom
, which won the Asian American Literary Award and the Townsend Prize for Fiction, and
Under the Red Flag
, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; the novels
War Trash
The Crazed
, and
In the Pond
; and three books of poetry. He lives in the Boston area and is a professor of English at Boston University.


Copyright © 1996 by Ha Jin

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in paperback in the United States by Zoland Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1996.

“Love in the Air” has appeared in
Yellow Silk
“My Best Soldier” in
AGNI, The Pushcart Prize (XVII)
Literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America
(Barnstone and Barnstone, eds.); winner of the AGNI Best Fiction Prize (1991);
“The Russian Prisoner” in
“Dragon Head” in
, “Ocean of Words” in

Jin, Ha, 1956—
Ocean of words: Army stories / Ha Jin.
p.  cm.
ISBN: 978-0-375-70206-8
eBook ISBN: 978-0-8041-5352-2
1. China. Chung-kuo jen min chieh fan chün—Fiction. 2. Soldiers—China—Social life and customs—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3560.I6O24     1998
813′.54—dc21      98-11008

Author photograph © Jerry Bauer

Random House Web address:




Our Most Respected Divisional Commissar Lin:

I am writing to report on an event that occurred last Saturday afternoon. Our Reconnaissance Company, the best trained men and the flower of our Second Division, marched through Longmen City to the Western Airport, where we were to do parachute exercises. While we were passing Central Boulevard at the corner of the First Department Store, I ordered Scribe Hsu Fang to start a song with an eye to impressing the pedestrians. He executed the orders, and the whole company began to sing:

Good-bye, mother, good-bye, mother —

The battle bugle blowing,

Steel guns shiny,

The outfits on our backs,

Our army is ready to go.

Please do not weep in secret,

Please do not worry about your son.

Wait for my triumphant return;

I will see you then, my dear mother.


While we were singing, the march suddenly slowed down, and the uniform footsteps of one hundred men grew disordered.
The words and music, suitable only for lamentation, melted the strength in the soldiers’ feet. I shouted to stop the singing, which in fact became crying. But we were in the middle of the thoroughfare, and my voice could not overcome the loud noises of the bustling traffic, so they continued to sing. Some new soldiers burst out sobbing; even the experienced ones were overwhelmed with tears. Imagine, a hundred of the best-disciplined fighters were bleating without shame on the street like a herd of sheep! And with machine guns and bazookas! People paused on the sidewalks to watch us whining and weeping. Someone commented, “This is a funeral procession.”

I do not blame my men, nor have I criticized Scribe Hsu Fang. They are brave soldiers, and the history of our company has borne that out with ample evidence. Our Most Esteemed Commissar Lin, probably I am partly responsible for this occurrence, because I did not prevent my men from learning the song in the first place. My vigilance of class struggle must have slackened. I thought it would do them no harm if they sang a song that the Central Radio Station broadcast every day. Please do not misunderstand me here: We did not teach this contagious song; the soldiers just learned it by themselves. My mistake was not to intervene in time.

The event I have described demonstrates that this song is a counterrevolutionary one. All the men in my company now feel ashamed, because they were seized by the surprise of bourgeois sentiment. We have all been dishonored and have done damage to the image of our army.

It goes without saying that a true revolutionary song belongs to the kind that inspires, unifies, and instructs, not like the one we sang, which undermines our morale and destroys our solidarity. A good song must encourage people’s upright spirit and must make friends more lovable and enemies more detestable. Commissar Lin, you must remember
those old genuine revolutionary fighting songs; here I cannot help picking out one as an example:

We are all super marksmen.

Every bullet strikes an enemy dead.

We are all swift troops,

Not afraid of waters deep and mountains high.

On the lofty cliffs

There are our quarters.

In the thick woods

There are many good brothers.

If we have no clothes and food

The enemy sends them to us.

If we have no weapons

The enemy makes them for us.

We were born and grew up here,

Every inch of the land is ours.

If someone dares to take it from us,

We shall fight him to the end!

What a song! At this very moment of writing, I can recall that when singing it we walked with tremendous confidence, as if the earth beneath our feet would quake because of us and as if we could topple the mountains and overturn the seas, not to mention eliminate our enemies. I need not dwell on this further, because you, a Revolutionary of the Older Generation, actually grew up with those genuine songs, and you must have a profounder understanding of their nature than I do.

The lesson we have learned from the reported event is as follows: Our class enemies are still active, and they never go to sleep; whenever we doze off, they will take advantage of us, sabotaging Socialism and changing the political color of our army. We must grow another pair of eyes in the backs of our heads so that we can keep them under watch everywhere and at all times.

Our Most Respected Comrade Commissar, on behalf of
my company, I suggest we ban this poisonous song and investigate the family and political backgrounds of its author and its composer. Whoever they are, they undoubtedly have the outlook of the bourgeoisie. They have committed sabotage — their work aims to disable our troops, corroding the iron bastion from within. Also, those who have helped disseminate this song must not be let off their responsibility. Ideally, we should bring a couple of people to the Military Court. We must show our enemies that we are also superior fighters on the Ideological Front!

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