The promise and disappointment of Ha Jin’s The Boat Rocker
There are a group of Chinese writers, or writers of Chinese heritage, that make bigger waves overseas than they do in China. Sometimes it’s because they have become naturalized and offer more to the Western or immigrant communities for which they write. Other times it is because it is “scar” literature, writing about an era many Chinese prefer to forget. On occasion, it is simply because they engage in politics or China-bashing that wears thin at home. Often it is because the books are simply banned.
Ha Jin is a mix of all this. Having won the Pen/Faulkner award twice, one of only four writers to do so, there is little doubt that Jin ranks as a fine novelist. Consequently, his latest book The Boat Rocker comes as a disappointment, being little more than an airport novel with occasional touches on themes of Chinese identity and the role of the Chinese state acting as censors of literature and news.
The book’s problem is not that it is a pot-boiler without much literary merit, or that it dares to take on big, complex themes facing modern China. It’s that a flimsy book of this nature is ill-suited to take on Jin’s more serious ideas, which are lazily clamped onto a dull, fanciful plot.
The Boat Rocked but the Earth Didn’t Move is a story from our issue, “Taobao Town.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.