At last our Emperor gave orders—we began
confiscating books and rounding up scholars
who had slandered the royal family
using ancient stories to mock the present.
All books in our Empire had to be surrendered
to officials within a month, except those
on agriculture, divination, and medicine.
Disobeyers would have their clans erased.
About five hundred scholars were taken
to Bliss Hall to be tried by the ministers
who matched them in learning and eloquence.
Our swords were gleaming in the sunlight
that poured in through the open windows.
How pasty their faces suddenly turned.
They pointed a finger at one another
trying every trick to save their own skins;
some peed and crapped in their robes,
one stopped breathing before his trial.
Thank heaven for the divine retribution—
over four hundred of them were hauled out
and dumped into their joint grave.
We had fun, slapping and spanking them
with our swords before we knocked them down.
Of what use were their clever tongues?
Where were their headfuls of knowledge?
Under our shovels, in the smoke of books,
they screamed Mother and called us Brothers,
but no words could deter cascades of dirt.
Ha Jin’s most recent books are the novels The Boat Rocker (2016), A Map of Betrayal (2014), and Nanjing Requiem (2011). His writing first appeared in AGNI when he was a graduate student at Brandeis University. He has since published eight novels, six collections of poetry, four short story collections, and one book of essays. His novel Waiting (1999), based on his experiences during five years in the Red Army, won the National Book Award and the PEN/ Faulkner Award. He received the PEN/Hemingway Award for his first story collection, Ocean of Words (1996), and the Flannery O’Connor Prize for his second, Under the Red Flag (1997). In 2005 he received a second PEN/ Faulkner for War Trash and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the director of the Creating Writing Program at Boston University and a member of AGNI’s [Advisory Board]. (updated 5/2018)
Ha Jin’s story “My Best Soldier,” first published in [AGNI 33], was reprinted in The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Short Stories from a Quarter-Century of the Pushcart Prize.
Read “[On Language and Embracing Failure as a Writer: An Interview with Ha Jin]” by [Jessica Keener].