A short protest story

‘Saboteur’, by Ha Jin

Read it here in about 15 minutes.

In relation to the 2022 Winter Olympics, thinking about how we can use literature to protest…

Jin was born in China. He was studying his PhD in America when the Tiananmen massacre occurred, and, disillusioned, decided to remain in the US, where he now has American citizenship. He writes short stories and novels, and lectures in Creative Writing at Boston University.

The protagonist in ‘Saboteur’, Mr. Chiu, accidentally falls foul of the local authorities, while on his honeymoon in Muji (the fictional city where many of Jin’s stories are set) – he is arrested for complaining when a policeman spills water on his shoes, and is imprisoned and tortured, along with the colleague who comes to rescue him. There’s a touch of the surreal here – well, a reader not familiar with China may interpret it as such! – but the farcical situation exposes the daily corruption of those in power in Jin’s China.

Chiu is incredulous that someone of his stature, a university lecturer, could be treated this way in his own country; and despite the fact Chiu himself was arrested without having committed a crime, he supposes that Fenjin (his rescuer), who has been tied to a tree, ‘must have quarreled with the police to incur such a punishment’ – this demonstrates that the general public are vulnerable to abuses of power inflicted by their own government, yet indoctrinated to be clueless that this sort of behaviour is commonplace.

Once released, our protagonist takes a petty, but deadly revenge (one that is foreshadowed on the first page), and ‘sabotages’ the restaurant food in the town centre; this is doubly ironic, because the crime the police charged him with after the shoe-wetting incident was ‘sabotage’, and because the ill-treatment he experiences at the hands of the police causes his hepatitis to flare up and enable this sabotage. It is typically of Jin to use such pathetic small revenges in his short stories, and it is apt, because for the oppressed, this is often all they can muster.

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