“Saboteur” by Ha Jin may seem a straight cut reading pleasure to most people. Its plot, which is carried out smoothly, allows reader to understand the story without questioning much of the outcome. Discrimination and abuse of human rights’ are not new issues, even in today’s world. Yet it is impossible to understand why the antagonists in ‘Saboteur’ conduct acts that seem implausible without us even knowing the setting of the story. To solve this mystery Ha Jin wittily gives us the idea, of here and when it happens.
Here, we can, at least try to decipher the circumstances so that the story, straight-to-the-chase aside, becomes meaningful to us. Laden with expectations that the readers would understand the current situation of this story, Ha Jin brings out the historical setting, consisting of political, social and cultural elements as well as geographical and physical as all are important in this story and they influence the story line. The political environment depicted in the story is revealed in the line which stated that: “The cultural Revolution was over already”.
This information is given blatantly to give insights into the story. The cultural Revolution is the period of which, Ha Jin tries to stress. And when the protagonist, Mr. Chiu, a professor from Harbin University is discriminated, he tries to make some senses from what the two policemen have done to him while he is having lunch with his bride. He is very assured that China is past the Cultural Revolution and that, supposedly, discrimination or abuse is a very dark phase that this country, China, has to go through. Cultural Revolution described here was launched by Communist Party of China Chairman Mao Zedong (“Mao Zedong”).
During this period, Mao Zedong established a mass youth militia called Red Guards to overthrow Mao’s perceived enemies and seize control of the state apparatus. There were mostly comprised of middle school students and university students. They travelled throughout China going to school, universities and institutions spreading the teachings of Mao. They had a darker side however, as they were violent and oppressive to those who went against the teachings of Mao, or those who criticized him. It is also possible that Mr. Chiu was suspected as part of the already condemned military group The Red Guards.
This is proven when Mr. Chiu has to face the Chief of the Investigation Bereau. He could be suspected based on two reasons. Firstly, he is a professor of Harbin University; therefore he belongs to the intelligentsia. The intelligent community; especially students or colleges or university were often perceived as the black elements or the ‘black anti-party gangsters’ during the Cultural Revolution period. Secondly Is because he teaches Marxists materialism, which could indicate his support for Mao Zedong’s political preaching. Furthermore, Mr. Chiu is shocked to know that they already have a file about him, even though this is the first time he travels to Muji City.
But this does not means that Mr. Chiu was a part of the military group because there Is not a slightest hint. Ha Jin’s depictions of the post-Cultural Revolution are very vivid and accurate, because, even though the Cultural Revolution is over, the governmental rehabilitation is not due until 1983. During this period, people still suffer, for wrongly accused crimes, such as foreign spies and their life suffer consequently. Many of the authority figures are still affected by Mao’s dictatorship, during his reign in Communist Party.
This is clearly reflected in the story where Mr. Chiu is ordered to write a letter to confess a crime which he did not commit. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong urges leaders to rise in self-criticism or the criticism that purges the others: The Community Party does not fear criticism because we are Marxists, the truth is on our side, and the basic masses, the workers and peasants, are on our side (Yuan Gao 144) This somehow denotes Mao Zedong’s urge for a freedom-of-speech nation; a country that is not afraid to make or to receive remarks.
China, until today, is known very well for its vocal approach in the political world; given now that it has large veto power. But what if this freedom of speech violates the freedom of the citizens? This could be another means of oppression to the masses since many critics who supports Chinese democracy (as opposed to the official view of Communist Party) describes this ‘urge’ from the authority as ‘too much government and too little popular participation’.
Citizens are forced to lay claim to false statements, to agree on many things that they disagree and to do many things they never intend to do. During the Cultural Revolution, artists and intellectuals experienced a level of oppression that is difficult, even now, to comprehend. Ironically, Mr. Chiu is offered to sign his self-criticism carrying a date that is July the 13th: “I hereby admit on July 13, I disrupted public order at Muji City Station and I refused to listen to reason when the railroad police issued their warning. ”.
July 1968 is a symbolic date during Cultural revolution, when, student activists as the ed Guards expanded their authority, and accelerated their efforts at social reconstruction (Yuan Gao 122-132). They began by passing out leaflets explaining their actions to develop and strengthen socialism and they even held public meetings to criticize and solicit self-criticism from suspected ‘counter revolutionaries” (those who do not agree on Mao’s revolution idea, especially those who support ‘the four olds’; old ideas, cultures, manners and customs. Here is another reason why, Mr. Chiu could be suspected as an ex-member of the Red Guards.
Even though, it is stated that the story takes place sometime in the post-Cultural Revolution period, bear in mind, that what the writer wants to stress is how much the cultural Revolution affects the lives of the nation. The story somehow borders between the ‘present and the past’. It is blend of what people have gone through during the Cultural Revolution and the repercussions of the years after. Geographical setting in ‘Saboteur’ plays the significant irony. It is an element that implies the state of the masses. Ha Jin, like in his other works, chooses China as its central geographical setting.
In this case, China is a crucial choice; based on a chosen period, (post-Cultural Revolution). The world focuses on the inevitable chaos that the period has caused; not only to the citizens of China, but also to many western countries which term the Cultural Revolution years as a dark phase. It has somewhat tarnished the image of China in the west. It is a country where human rights are barely audible, and citizens’ pledge for freedom is vague, and often, in the slow sobriety of the nation, takes form in the rigid governmental force that allows so little participation from the citizens.
Therefore, discrimination spreads like wildfire. Muji City, is a busy fictional city with plethora of masses coming in and out of it. This signifies the growing urbanization of the city. As it is stated: “Hundreds of people were rushing around to get on the platform to catch the buses to downtown. Food and fruit vendors were crying for customers in lazy voices’. This does not tell of the growing business in Muji City, it also changes people’s behaviour towards self-conscious and individualistic citizens. In this way, antagonists in the story may easily take advantage of the situation, such as discrimination.
Are the people so powerless during this period that no one wanted to stand up for Mr. Chiu’s for his rights? It seems very clear that the people around do not care much, or better still, do not intend to care at all. It is possible that this type of society cares about rightly or wrongly imposed acts upon another person, because they know if they were to pick their noses in to someone else’s business they will damage their own right and safety. Therefore, what better ways than just to make up for the statements, become so called ‘eyewitnesses’ to Mr. Chiu’s misconduct and get away, intact.
For a character like Mr. Chiu, who is critical of those like the police, who concentrate on destroying society and its order, he manages to show through his eyes that society, unpleasantly, is more like the police officers than Mr. Chiu. For instance, the witnesses who made testimonies against Mr. Chiu are a depiction of the society as a whole. They are willing to die in order to conform to what the government and the authorities promote. There are also a few worthy of mention about Mao Zedong: “In the center of the square stood a concrete statue of Chairman Mao” and, “The party had been propagating the idea that all citizens were equal before the law”.
The glue in the story is that Mao Zedong is linked to a propagation of equality. How ironic is this: Mao statue is erected right in the middle of the hustle-bustle city, a powerful figure that flashes ‘justice and freedom for all’ and yet discrimination and oppressions happens right in front of it. Does injustice towards masses done by the police men or authorities is a form of continuality of Mao Zedong’s unwavering Communist approach or a form of saying their hatred towards his ideology of his Party? The relationship of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution is controversial.
Although there is general agreement that Mao was responsible for the Cultural Revolution, there is also a considerable dispute concerning the effect of the Cultural Revolution on Mao’s legacy. The party argued that the Cultural Revolution should not denigrate Mao’s earlier role as a heroic leader in fighting the Japanese, founding both the People’s Republic of China and for developing ideology which underlies the Communist Party of China. However, outsiders argue that the Cultural Revolution was merely one of a series of events which illustrates Mao’s low moral character.
This links back to the question whether Mr Chiu is involved in the Red Guards force, and why, his accomplishment in life as a lecturer backfires him in a purely coincidental occurrence. The Red Guards was manic during the period, an uncontrollable society to an extent where even the policemen could not handle. This has degraded the authorities’ capability to handle the nation. Paradoxically, this is a result of Mao’s preaching; urging revolution for new China, at the same time, condemning the innocents in his own country. Is he a good example for the citizens to follow?
Or is he just misinterpreted for good reasons? The policemen’s act could be a revenge; symbolically to Mao, not merely to the citizens for his failure on showing exemplary filial behaviour. Therefore the question still hovers: Is Mao the good guy or the bad guy? Another fact that we have to bear in mind is that, The Cultural Revolution also brought to the forefront numerous internal power struggles within the Communist Party, many of which had little to do with the larger battles between Party leaders, but resulted from local factionalism and petty rivalries.
Therefore the people of China might be ‘manufactured’ by the same Communist Party of China, but they might have different levels of belief about it. The square is a venue that genuinely becomes the sole eyewitness to what happened in the story. It is a stage where all acts of sabotaging happen, the authorities sabotaging an innocent man who, with an intention to perform retribution, killing hundreds of innocent people of Muji City. The physical setting of the story really sets its mood as well as the development. The broad day light tells the openness of Muji City.
Its liberating space, free of constraints and dense population refers to freedom and ability to grow; individually and as a society. In this space, humans are expecting total control of life; what to do and where to go. In this case Muji City is a place for Mr. Chiu and his bride to cherish his final days of newlywed’s honeymoon. Mr. Chiu and his bride are having lunch in the square with ease. Although the surrounding is very busy and packed with people, they do not expect pandemonium, at least, not occurring to them.
The openness of Muji City tells very much of how Mr. Chiu thinks; a scholar who is able to use his senses and to come out of the old mould of China and move ahead with new ideas, such as following the Marxist Model as promoted by Mao Zedong. The contrast of his broad daylight is the jail. It is where Mr. Chiu is dragged to; abused and becomes hopeless. The jail represents a confinement; in so many ways; disposition, expressions, opinions, suggestions and most of all the restricted areas of rights. Here, Mr. Chiu becomes someone whose intelligence can backfire himself his rationality and belief of being treated equal as a citizen of China does not mean anything to the antagonists.
The jail is the main domain of the antagonists. Muji City is a catalyst to a greater power where constraints do not exists to them (antagonists; the policemen and the Chief of Bureau). Hence, Mr. Chiu has to succumb to the authorities. This is proven with these lines: “As long as he remain coolheaded and reasoned with them, they probably wouldn’t harm him”. At this point Mr Chiu also remembered the old saying, “When a scholar runs into a soldier, the more he argues, the muddier his points becomes”(28). This is the irony of intellectual people of this time; being portrayed as weak while in society they are usually seen as the opposite.
This means, historically, leaders and powerful figures are usually those who are intelligent and philosophical, and also educated; but those who are in power much like the officer who the writer describes as ‘tall and of athletic build’ are the opposite. As Mr. Muji is back in the streets of Muji City, the irony of physical setting once again conjures. The city that seems harmless becomes alarmingly detrimental. This can be seen from the lines: “The air smelled of rotten melon. A few flies kept buzzing above the couple’s lunch”. This filthy imagery becomes a silent medium of possible attacks.
While many walk over it, without even thinking of possibilities that diseases could spread in a dirty street, Mr. Chiu has carefully and intentionally laid out a plan of destruction. He is very certain of what he is doing; hopping from a teas stand to a stall; a stall to a restaurant, a restaurant to another. Somehow in this context, Mr. Chiu has misused his intelligence for something far worse than one could imagine; a plan of destroying the innocent lives of Muji City. In conclusion, by focussing on the different types of settings in “Saboteur”, it is clear that a reader is able to comprehend the incidences and characters better.
The settings provide a reader with a better picture of what the writer intends to portray in this story. Ha Jin has wittily gives us the idea, of here and when the story happens for us to be able to solve the mystery underlying this story. Now a reader can decipher the circumstances in the story to make it more meaningful. We can now understand why Mr. Chiu is truly the saboteur, like the officers whom he hates. Therefore, Mr. Chiu, whom we think has better qualities than those officers who have imprisoned him, turns out to be a “saboteur” himself as he is willing to destroy the lives of others in order to benefit himself.
Courtney from Study Moose
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