Ocean of Words

The place is the chilly border between Russia and China. The time is the early 1970s when the two giants were poised on the brink of war. And the characters in this thrilling collection of stories are Chinese soldiers who must constantly scrutinize the enemy even as they themselves are watched for signs of the fatal disease of bourgeois liberalism. —from Amazon.com
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Short stories detail the lives of Chinese soldiers along the contested border between China and Russia during the 1970’s

Field of Interest/Specialty: International Affairs / Secondary English
Posted On: 05/31/2011

Amiena Mahsoob, M.A.T.
Former 10th Grade English Teacher
Ocean of Words is a collection of short stories detailing the lives of Chinese soldiers along the contested border between China and Russia during the 1970’s following the 1969 border clashes that nearly resulted in war. Many of the stories are thematically similar to other works, such as All Quiet on the Western Front, which explore the lives of young men at war caught in what is often the monotony of waiting punctuated by moments of struggle and death. The soldiers prepare for a war that will never come. Even so, the young men are not safe, mostly from themselves as they struggle with their masculinity, desire for women, and role in society.
The stories also address the chaos wrought by the Cultural Revolution, particularly in the rural reaches of China. The soldiers are—physically and psychologically—detached from the Communist government, which results both in the lack of proper supplies and also paranoia resulting from their misunderstandings of shifting Communist ideals. This sentiment is portrayed beginning with the first story, “A Report,” in which a low level officer writes a report to his superior about a song that his soldiers sang which he is concerned is counterrevolutionary.
The writing style and sense of irony in the stories that can also be found in Ha Jin’s other works, such as Waiting. Forced to destroy and deny anything marked as counterrevolutionary, people will resort to dissimulation and isolation, Ha Jin seems to claim in stories such as “The Fellow Townsmen.” Other stories, such as “Too Late” portray the unreasonable demands of the Communist party, particularly the class distinctions that haunted younger generations, often destroying their chances for party membership. In contrast, “Ocean of Words” is a good example of attitudes of members of the Communist party who valued education. “The Russian Prisoner” portrays the life of a Russian prisoner held by the Chinese soldiers who in turn captivates his captors.
Use in the Classroom
These short stories could be used in part or in whole with a mature high school audience. In an English class, they could be used as part of a unit focused on war. The stories could serve as a contrast to works with strong hero characters. In a social studies class, the stories could be part of a study on the repercussions of the Cultural Revolution, and would serve as a less cheerful contrast to works such as Red Scarf Girl. The stories could also provide a ground-level view of Sino-Soviet relations.
Be sure to read the stories carefully to be certain objectionable content is avoided.
Note the content concerns for the following stories:
“A Contract” describes the tensions between two soldiers and contains some inappropriate language.
“Miss Jee” details the harassment and hazing of a soldier.
“A Lecture” includes cannibalism (but is otherwise a fascinating alternative history of the Long March).
“My Best Soldier” which describes a scene of bestiality, is probably one of the best and most ironic stories.