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Ha Jin’s ‘Map of Betrayal’ unearths espionage on two continents

“A Map of Betrayal” by Ha Jin is the kind of brilliant fiction, a story of shifting personal loyalties across broad swaths of territory, that can only be done by one with a deep knowledge of two cultures: in his case, China and America.

A note about the author: The novelist Ha Jin was born in Harbin, China, in 1956. He was involved in the Cultural Revolution as a young man, spent time in the army, and took a couple of degrees in English while in his native land. Jin was on scholarship at Brandeis in 1989 when the Tiananmen tank episode rumbled onto the world scene via television. That unforgettable scene was enough to make him realize the Chinese government was cracking down on dissent.

Ha Jin remained in the United States shortly after this took place, on a path to U. S. citizenship. He took a Ph.D. and began a successful writing career in English. He won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner award for his novel, “Waiting,” as well as being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches at Boston University.

“A Map of Betrayal” is the story of American university teacher Lilian Shang who, in later life, takes on a mission: to find out more about her father, Gary, who was convicted as a spy by the United States.

Lilian lives in College Park, Md., near Washington, D.C. After a divorce, she marries Henry, a man who was recently widowed. Henry manages a three-story property that they live in and own. Lilian was born in the United States of an Irish American mother, Nellie, and Chinese father, Gary Shang, born Weimin Shang, from north of Shanghai.

Gary is now deceased. He was convicted decades ago as a mole within the CIA, one of the biggest catches by the U.S. government. He had sent back important secrets to mainland China for decades, beginning in 1949, leaving Shanghai and going to Okinawa to work for a U.S. radio station during the day and working at night for the U. S. military base, translating Chinese-language documents.

“In late October 1950, when the Chinese army ambushed and mauled the U.S. troops east of the Yalu,” he knew that he had become more valuable to China. Now he would be assigned increasingly dangerous tasks. “He hid his face … while tears streamed down his cheeks.”

These were not tears of joy, but already an indication of “torn loyalties.” Gary had now entered more deeply into the American spy trade as a Chinese mole, eventually making his way to the “farm”, the home of the CIA, in Langley, Va.

A “real life” aside: there have been some “big catches” by the CIA and, of course, ones “that got away,” about which we know nothing.

Some successes: in 1985, for example, the “year of the spy”, the CIA reported that “14 Americans were arrested and/or convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and its allies, as well as for Israel, China, and Ghana. Included were John Walker (whose ring of spies stole vital secrets from the U.S. Navy), CIA’s Edward Lee Howard (who eluded the FBI), CIA’s Aldrich Ames (who began working for the KGB in April 1985), and FBI’s Robert Hanssen (who volunteered to the Soviets in October 1985). The latter two were arrested and convicted years later.”

Back to Gary Shang: Lilian is anxious to pursue her father’s life and its untold mysteries. She knows quite a bit from newspaper stories, but she would like to fill the “holes and gaps,” by a visit to China to further reconstruct his history.

But first, Lilian visits Suzie Chao, a former mistress of her father. Suzie lives in Montreal, and Lilian became aware of her existence when Suzie sent her journals belonging to her father after he died. Lilian was glad to have received the six morocco-bound volumes; materials about which she had no knowledge.

A personal work log, they recorded his life from 1949 to 1980. One of the books was filled with aphorisms, loved by her father, one especially: “Unearned suffering is redemptive,” from Martin Luther King Jr. She devours the diaries. They energize her all the more in pursuing the trail of her father’s secrets.

Lilian wonders if Suzie knows of another Chinese woman on the mainland that she’s heard about, Gary’s first wife, Yufeng Liu. Suzie does not, but she has some knowledge of someone who might know: an uncle and Gary’s handler for three decades, Bingwen Chu.

Lilian’s chance to investigate on-scene comes when she wins a one-semester Fulbright lectureship to Beijing Teachers College for the spring of 2011. She pursues Suzie’s tip with the hope of finding her father’s uncle, Bingwen Chu, who used to work for the Ministry of National Security. He could be helpful. That is, if he were still alive at such an advanced age. Because Lilian speaks Mandarin, a young official she approaches is eager to help – more so because she’s teaching some courses at his alma mater.

Bingwen Chu is found. He is living in a suburb of Beijing, and Lilian arranges to see him: “…a small withered man with a bush of white hair and a face scattered with liver spots, but his eyes were still bright and alert. Given his age, eight-seven, he was in good shape. He appeared at ease and glad to see me,” she says.

In a few paragraphs, Ha Jin lays out the theme of the novel. Lilian asks Uncle Bingwen, “…was my dad a good Communist, a sincere believer?” she asks.

Uncle’s reply: “Well, it’s hard to say. But I know this: he loved China and did a great service to our country.”

Lilian: “Did it ever occur to you that he might have loved the United States as well?”

Uncle: “Yes…I could sympathize with him. No fish can remain … unaffected by the water it swims in. In a way, we have all been shaped … by forces bigger than ourselves.”

Gary might have wished to return to China, but he never did. He was called in the trade a “nail.” That is, as Uncle Bingwen explained, “a nail must remain in his position…and rot with the wood it’s stuck in, so a spy of the nail type is more or less a goner.”

Gary was accorded the rank of general and some of his information went directly to Chairman Mao, Bingwen concluded. Gary was a Chinese hero, a legend. “Shang,” an unusual name in Chinese, is translated as meaning “esteem.’

Paradoxically, Gary loved reading D.H. Lawrence, the novelist’s “poetic prose, the spontaneous narrative flow, the earthy myth, and also the daring eroticism.”

One can see why Gary might have liked that prose. It sums up much of the secret activity in his life.

The novel shifts seamlessly back and forth with chapters beautifully written that reveal more of Lilian’s discoveries, interlaced with other chapters denominated by various years – 1955, the year he moved to Alexandria, Va. – for example; 1961, the year he was naturalized; 1962–1963, the year Gary moved into his new office in the suburb of Langley; and others, that describe Gary’s activities until his death.

An important perception from “A Map Of Betrayal” and something to remember for brighter would-be spies: If you commit to betray, you can’t whine about all the good things that you have forfeited. When you betray, you get betrayed in return.

It is a heavy burden in life to carry. One becomes shaped by forces bigger than oneself and over which there is no control. It is a sadness not to be overcome.

Michael D. Langan is a retired U. S. Treasury Department enforcement official.


A Map of Betrayal

By Ha Jin


320 pages, $26.95