Author, Book review, Fiction, Ha Jin, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Vintage International

‘The Boat Rocker’ by Ha Jin

Fiction – paperback; Vintage International; 222 pages; 2016.

The Boat Rocker by American-based Chinese writer Ha Jin is a novel about truth, propaganda, censorship, politics and corruption.

It is framed around fraught and complicated relations between China and the West. It posits the idea that literary stardom can be purchased in China if you are willing to become a pawn of the Chinese Government. It also posits the idea that only American journalism can save the world from corruption by exposing lies and reporting the truth.

If that all sounds naive, or too simple a premise, there is a caveat: the story is set in 2005 before Twitter was created and Facebook was in its infancy. The only thing that went viral back then were websites and their comment sections.

A principled journalist

The story focuses on a Chinese expatriate, Feng Danlin, who is a reporter at a small Manhattan-based news agency that publishes a Chinese-language website read by people all over the world. Danlin is a fiercely principled journalist who believes his job is to expose lies wherever he may find them regardless of the consequences.

When he discovers that his ex-wife, Yan Haili — who also lives in Manhattan (now with a new husband) — is set to become China’s biggest literary star, he is suspicious. He has read her writing before and has a low opinion of it. He does some investigative work and discovers the film rights haven’t been sold for millions of dollars as claimed. Nor is the book being translated into 30 different languages, because it still hasn’t been translated into English.

When Danlin writes a series of articles about Haili’s deception, suggesting she’s in cahoots with the Chinese Government, he comes across as jealous and vengeful. But his criticism hits the spot, and Haili tries to silence him by “legal bullying”.

A microcosm of bigger issues

As a premise for an entire novel, the issue of whether a writer is all that she claims to be seems rather petty — and a little bit ludicrous. It also comes across as misogynistic and the tone of the novel, certainly the first half, does leave a bitter taste in the mouth, especially when Haili is often referred to as a “bitch”. (As an aside, I’ve often found that Chinese books written by men do have misogynistic and sexist overtones — Ma Jian’s work, which I love, is a case in point.)

But the author is making a bigger point: that “minor” deceptions (or, should I say, fake news?) such as Haili’s so-called literary success are indicative of major deceptions going on between governments and their people all the time, we just aren’t attuned to them — unless they are exposed by the Fourth Estate.

Jin also makes a bigger point about the consequences, for in China, to be seen to be acting against your government is life-changing — and not in a good way. But in places like the USA, being critical of your rulers is all part and parcel of democracy.

Not so modern journalism

I actually wanted to read The Boat Rocker because it was billed as exploring the “moral dimensions of modern journalism”, a subject I’m interested in because of my past career in the media, and because I also thought — mistakenly, as it turns out — that it might be classified as a “newspaper novel”, of which I have a soft spot (see here and here).

But the journalism aspects of the book are fairly thin; it’s really about propaganda and the way governments (both in China and the USA) use it to influence their citizens.

And what it does have to say about journalism feels terribly outdated now, especially when we’re all lost in our own online echo chambers thanks to the social media algorithms that feed us what we want to hear. And dare I even mention US President Donald Trump and the way he manipulated everything and told barefaced lies and had absolutely no shame about anything?

I did like this comment though:

You claimed that without a country an individual would be nothing, but how many people have been reduced to nothing by their countries? Patriotism is a pejorative word in my dictionary: it connotes spiritual paucity, intellectual blindness and laziness, and moral cowardice. Isn’t it terrible to let only a country form the underpinning of one’s being?

The Boat Rocker is an interesting novel, but, on the whole, I felt ambivalent about it.

I certainly liked the latter half better than the first, because when Danlin eases up on his criticism of his ex-wife the narrative opens up to look at bigger issues, including what it is like to be a Chinese expatriate. The conversations he has with various diplomats and intellectuals are particularly insightful into the mindset of Communist China and its citizens…

13 thoughts on “‘The Boat Rocker’ by Ha Jin”

  1. I wasn’t keen on this one. I think it’s got the attention it gets in the US (so, of course, here too) because his writing is relentlessly anti-Chinese, and that goes down well in the US.

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          1. I’ll read that article, because I remember really loving Waiting. I have a book of his short stories too but have never got around to reading it. Im trying to remember whether there was a misogynistic element to Waiting. There may have been given it involves a man and two women. I have been known to call writers out for it, but I suspect that the whole cultural-personal issue in this one may have overridden

            This does sound a bit uneven, but I do love that quote re patriotism. I must look at your list of newspaper and journalism – is New Grub Street among them – as it’s an area that interests me too.

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          2. Waiting is one of the first “reviews” published on this blog, although it was originally published on a personal website in the early days of the 2000s when I was teaching myself HTML / web design to assist me in my day job. I don’t really remember much about the book but I do know it was translated from Chinese but now he writes directly in English.

            I haven’t read New Grub Street though it’s been in my TBR for years! I really ought to read it… it’s been so long since I read a proper journalism novel. My friends always dared me to write my own because in the dying days of my sub-editing career I used to say someone needed to start recording the ludicrous and sad things happening in the magazine industry which was shrinking and shrinking… In 15 years I saw it go from dizzying heights of mega profits to tiny teams of people putting out publications on a shoestring with little to no ad revenue coming in!

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          3. I’m sure you’d like New Grub Street. You are right about magazines. They were on such a high for a while weren’t they. I think Australians were among the biggest buyers? But now. Have you ever had thoughts of writing fiction yourself?

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  2. It’s interesting, as you point out, how much journalism – or our consumption of news – has changed in the last decade> I think it has always been naive to believe that revealing the truth will change anything, look how often, in the US, as elsewhere when inconvenient facts are revealed it is the whistleblowers who are punished and the not the wrongdoers. eg. the Australian (Howard) government bugging East Timor cabinet discussions to benefit Woodside. Or for that matter Wikileaks.

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    1. I am a strong believer in shining a light into dark corners and exposing the truth because it does change things. But the problem now is that trying to figure out what the “truth” is so difficult because of the propaganda and information wars that occur all around us, all the different political and corporate stakeholders with agendas to push. And this, unfortunately, has given credence to conspiracy theories which in less complex times would never have gained credence.

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  3. I appreciate your reservations about this, especially the way that the world it depicts has moved on. I still think I’d be interested though. China has never had an open media but things seem to be getting worse under the current regime according to a friend (an ex journalist who has lived in China) and of course we’re witness to what’s happening in Hong Kong which did used to have an independent press.

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    1. Yes, I think it raises some interesting issues about propaganda and truth, albeit in an era where “fake news” wasn’t a common phrase. I know when I went to China in 2010 (for a month) I was advised not to say I was a journalist on my visa because the authorities probably wouldn’t let me and then when in China a local Chinese guide told us to be careful about our Google searches and whatever we did we should not type ‘Tiananmen Square massacre” into a search engine!

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