The Crazed – Ha Jin

The Crazed (2002) chronicles the events in the life of Jian Wan, a graduate student at a provincial Chinese university, in the Spring of 1989, on the eve of the Tiananmen Square protests. Jian is ordered by the Communist Party’s secretary of his department to care for his mentor and adviser, Shenmin Yang when the latter suffers a stroke. At the hospital, Yang, alternating between states of lucidity and delirium, recalls songs and speeches from China’s Cultural Revolution era and uncharacteristically declares for all things communism. But he also rants against an academic life in China, stating that intellectuals are just glorified clerks.

I tell you, it’s no use studying books. Nothing is serious in the academic game, just a play of words and sophistries. There are no original ideas, only platitudes. All depends on how cleverly you can toss out the jargon.

This causes confusion and doubt in Jian, who hopes to follow his mentor into academia. Ultimately, Jian decides to abandon the path that he’s on and is eventually caught up in the protests of June 1989. The ending is both frightening and hopeful.

Undoubtedly, The Crazed is political literature. It reads as an anti-communist propaganda. Ha Jin portrays the lengths that people will go to attain and abuse power. How the agents of the state intervene, sometimes negatively, in even the most private moments of people’s lives. The characters of the book, with the era of the Cultural Revolution behind them, are scared into conformity, always fearing denunciation and banishment by Party officials. Yet, the book also reads as a Jian’s coming-of-age story. Forced to confront his life and his choices, he makes radical decisions regarding the course of his life. In any other “safer” environment, this would be ground-breaking. However, again this is 1989 in China. Forces beyond Jian’s control, especially the machinations of party officials, collude and the apolitical Jian finds himself in Beijing, blocks away from Tiananmen Square on the night of the government’s suppression of the protest movement. Historians and political analysts will say that people and students fed up with the China’s government repressive ways marched on the Square and on the government to demand democracy. This is not the case with Jian, who joins the movement to escape his life.

Sitting in the deepening twilight, I felt like a small insect snared in a spider web. The harder I struggled, the tighter he strong, entwining filaments would enfold me, choking the life out of me little by little… I too felt trapped in such an indestructible cocoon, although I hadn’t despaired of escape yet.

The Crazed asks how many of the students, like Jian, took up with the struggle for personal reasons. It reminds us that significant historic events are the sum of smaller, individual actions that are often motivated by differing personal views and circumstances.

Several years ago, I read and loved Ha Jin’s Waiting. The Crazed is, by comparison, a more accomplished novel. The book was a bit slow in the beginning and at times I felt like giving up. I’m glad that I stuck with it because it picked up after the first 75 pages.  The scenes in Yang’s hospital room are filled with poetry and memories of an earlier China. But it is in the action away from the hospital, in provincial and rural China that is most enjoyable, where Ha Jin’s regard for his homeland is most evident. The author, who immigrated to the United States, wrote the book in English. His prose is well-suited  to the atmosphere of the story. His characters, whether students, professors or party bureaucrats, are well-crafted and utterly believable. There is much in The Crazed to enjoy and to ponder. A well-written and a recommended book.

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8 comments

  1. Great review of a great book. I’ve read all of Ha Jin’s novels and this one falls somewhere near the top (I think I may have appreciated War Trash a bit more). Very good point about how individual motivations (including the petty and self-interested) play an important role in significant historical events. Another book that explores this theme in the context of China is Beijing Coma by Ma Jian. I reviewed this book a few months ago and looked at it from the angle of Ha’s view of the intellectual in Chinese society. There’s just so much in this story to think about. Cheers for the review!

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    • Thanks for visiting and commenting. I have War Trash and will read it soon, I hope. I’ve heard of Beijing Coma – thanks for pointing it out. Ha’s view of the intellectual in Chinese society is very harsh indeed.

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  2. This sounds like a perfect book to pick up for the China challenge. I still need to read 3 books for that and couldn’t find the motivation to start anything. Your review changed that, thank you.

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  3. This sounds like a remarkable story. I love how you say that it looks at how individual actions add up to significant events, and that not everyone has the same experiences or motivations. Great review.

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  4. I haven’t read anything by Ha Jin, but I own almost all of them!! I really should get one out of the pile and read it soon. It sounds as though The Crazed is a better place to start than Waiting – thanks for reminding me about these books 🙂

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  5. i ve just got three sisters by another chinese writer ,really not read enough chinese lit ,this looks another great one ,all the best stu

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