Empire of the Sun is a novel that takes the reader to the pre and post World War 11, and the repercussions of the detonation of the atom bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through the eyes of a very young British boy trapped in a war where there are no winners.
The novel is a first hand description of most of the experiences of the author J.G. Ballard who was interned there from 1942 to 1945 in the same prison camps mentioned in the book. It is a profound and moving account of what it was like to be a boy in Japanese occupied Shanghai at wartime.
J.G. Ballard’s texts have a great deal in common with each other. The Guardian said ‘ he is a writer who can be relied upon. He rarely writes much below his best, and if you develop a taste for his preoccupations you will find it satisfied by any of his earlier four books’. Clearly this opinion gives the reader the impression that the novel is regarded as impressive and should be enjoyed by the reader. The Guardian went as far to say, ‘ indeed, it could be said that if there is still room for a masterpiece about the Second World War, then this is it. Like other masterpieces it gains its initial effect in standing at a slightly oblique and unexpected angle to its subject matter.
Ballard’s heightened sensitivity to violence, as well as the corollary themes of isolation and social chaos, which permeate much of his work, may well have its roots in his childhood in wartime China. Ballard’s rich metaphoric prose and his emphasis on psychological and technological themes make him a somewhat unique and impressive figure in contemporary literature.
Due to the theme being war, the reader can expect the language to be predominately harsh and somewhat vile, this use of language reflects the feelings people have towards war, and the feelings the characters would have felt towards the war. The text can be considered as somewhat surreal writing, that beguiles the reader with its gentleness, yet forces the reader to confront many atrocious episodes concerning the sick, the dying and the dead. The fact that the reader sees them from a child’s perspective makes the descriptions even viler and explicitly shocking. His explicit use of language, and his crude descriptions of the events that occur, lead me to the conclusion that Ballard is unemotionally detached from this story, the events are his memories, yet he doesn’t appear to put any feeling into the characters, this is especially the case within Jim. There are several occasions, where Jim witnesses brutal behaviour, yet no emotions of remorse or feelings of pity are apparent.
Ballard conveys a sense of place, through his descriptions of the different nationalities that are present within the novel. The protagonist British characters are described as stoical throughout the war. The descriptions given presented of the Chinese give the setting of Shanghai. They are constantly described as insignificant people who only survive from the money that the British inject into the country. The Japanese, the nation whom instigated the war are seen as the people that give some of the characters hope. This is the case especially for Jim. Their ‘bravery and stoicism’ impress him. The descriptions given of the Japanese convey a sense of atmosphere. The actions they take create the feelings of many of the characters.
The American and Japanese planes are for Jim a symbolism of hope and freedom. Although he idolises the Japanese kamikaze pilots, the sites of the American planes symbolise and signify the end of the war.
The novel begins prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour. The significance of the reader recognising this event is clear, as there are many references to the way in which this attack is publicised. ‘To Jim’s dismay, even the Dean of Shanghai Cathedral had equipped himself with an antique projector’. This shows the reader that war was a part of life for the people of Shanghai. This point is emphasised by the opening lines of the novel, ‘Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze’. The dropping of the atom bomb is clearly another significant, event that the reader is supposed to recognise. The descriptions of the event given is complex and in thorough detail. ‘But a flash of light filled the Stadium, flaring over the stands… as if an immense American bomb had exploded somewhere to the northeast of Shanghai’. ‘Jim smiled at the Japanese, wishing that he could tell him that the light was a premonition of his death, the sight of his small soul joining the larger soul of the dying world’. To Jim, the event of the atom bomb was symbolic for the death that was coming to him, and the death that had already reached many, his delirium had reached the stage that disallowed him to realise that the light he was seeing was literally a bomb sent from the Americans.
Although Jim is a British boy of the wartime, he has distanced himself from the reality of the war. War as seen through the eyes of a child is an exhilarating and mysterious experience that rarely can be related to reality. The childlike disbelief that war will actually occur is evident many times throughout the novel, ‘Sometimes the Pathe newsreels from England gave him the impression that, despite their unbroken series of defeats; the British people were thoroughly enjoying the war’. It is clear that war to the British at this stage of the novel was considered a form of entertainment. The fact that whilst Jim was watching the newsreels, all he could think about was going to Dr. Lockwood’s party, clearly shows the distance Jim has to the war.
Shanghai during the time the novel was set, was inhabited by British, American and French people. These people were the ‘upper class society’ of China. They were mainly there for their large firms that operated internationally. China was a colony of the British Empire, something, which greatly tormented the Japanese people as they felt they should be the ‘owner’ of China. This great amount of ‘upper class’ people had taken over China, and the local inhabitants had become almost inhuman and insignificant. This fact is clear throughout the novel. The opening paragraph demonstrates this sheer insignificance of this nationality of people. ‘ Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund’. The poverty of the Chinese is demonstrated here, the reader is aware that the Chinese cannot even afford to bury their dead. This description is symbolic for the majority of the Chinese race. Their bodies drift away in the wooden coffins, yet are always brought back by the tide, it is almost as if for the Chinese, there is no escape from this land that submises them so greatly. The imagery of the floating corpses introduces the theme of death and survival that pervades the novel.
Jim’s attitude to the Chinese is demonstrated by one simple thing that he says, ‘Amah, don’t touch it! I’ll kill you!’ Clearly Jim has no respect for his Chinese ‘slave’, he assumes that he has enough power over her to order her death. The beggar outside Jim’s house demonstrates the social difference between the Chinese and Western European classes. ‘Usually his mother would caution Yang to avoid the old beggar who lay at the end of the drive. But as Yang swung the heavy car through the gates, barely pausing before he accelerated along Amherst Avenue, Jim saw that the front wheel had crushed the man’s foot’. Even though the reader is aware that Jim has seen this happen to the old beggar, he doesn’t appear to show any remorse or guilt towards the man, this lack of feelings is shown again when Jim witnesses the beheadings. The description given of the beheading is in great detail, but Jim doesn’t demonstrate that he has any emotions about this public inhumane act. ‘Usually Jim would have paused to observe the crowd’, Jim watched the coolies and the pheasant women staring at the headless bodies’. Jim is observing the situation in a manner that suggests to the reader that he is used to this sort of behaviour. This fact supports the stereotype that Ballard has as a detached and unemotional writer. Jim’s lack of emotion would appear almost abnormal to a reader, as a child would be usually upset and more respectful towards the dead, regardless of their nationality. Jim’s detachment from reality is once again demonstrated.
Dr. Lockwood’s party shows a strong contrast between the predominant nationalities within the novel. The British are indulging in extravagant parties, as a war is occurring. The party is full of British people dressed in bright exotic outfits, the entertainment consists of ‘Cantonese acrobats climbing their comical ladders and pretending to disappear into the sky’. The party is nothing short of what would be expected from the rich Westerners, but readers may regard it as somewhat insensitive to the war situation. The Chinese that are there are ‘quietly removing a dead oriole from the deep end of the now drained swimming-pool’. ‘ There are twenty Chinese women, dressed in black tunics and trousers, each on a miniature stool. They are sat shoulder-to-shoulder, weeding knives flashing at the grass, while keeping up an unstoppable chatter’. Ironically, although the war is occurring, the Chinese people are still working as servants for the British; this shows the lack of importance of the Chinese in comparison to the British who are spending their time at a lavish party.
It is during the party that Jim’s admiration of Japanese pilots first emerges. Whilst exploring an abandoned plane, Jim has his first encounter with the Japanese soldiers. ‘He was about to jump from the blockhouse, when he noticed that a face was looking up at him from the trench. A fully armed Japanese soldier squatted by the broken earth wall, his rifle, webbing and ground sheet laid out beside him as if ready for inspection’. ‘An entire company of Japanese infantry was resting in this old battlefield, as if re-equipping itself from the dead of an earlier war, ghosts of their former comrades risen from the grave and issued with fresh uniforms and rations’. The Japanese appear to be like predators from this description, it is as if they are lying in wait for there pray, this is something that later in the novel Jim begins to admire. The descriptions given of the three nationalities, is a great contrast to what their lives are like within Lunghua Camp. There is almost a role reversal between the British and Chinese, and between the British and the Japanese.
The Japanese, the instigators of the war, ironically are greatly admired by Jim, a boy from a nationality who would be considered one of their vast amount of enemies. This admiration comes in many forms throughout this novel. Jim was ‘impressed by their bravery and stoicism, and their sadness which struck a curious chord with him, who was never sad’. Although Jim deeply admired the Japanese, his admiration for them grew stronger due to them having the things he didn’t. Food the main attributer to life, was something that Jim lacked, and the Japanese had ‘As they smoked their cigarettes the Japanese smiled to themselves, watching Jim devour the shreds of fatty rice. ‘The Japanese soldier who had taken pity on Jim, recognising that this small boy was starving, began to laugh good-naturedly, and pulled the rubber plug from his metal water-bottle’. Food is power within this period of time, it is therefore as if the Japanese are in control of all, they control Jim, but fortunately for him, they do not abuse this power. Due to the kindness of the Japanese soldiers, Jim’s admiration for them has grown. They have helped his survival. This relationship that Jim has with the Japanese occurs many times within the novel.
Private Kimura is example of Jim bonding with a Japanese soldier. Private Kimura’s kindness to Jim is clear within the form of many events that occur within the time that they know each other. Private Kimura ‘had grown almost as much as Jim in his years at the camp’. Jim’s admiration for the Japanese soldier had been noticed and this admiration was fed by Private Kimura ‘often inviting Jim to the bungalow he shared with three other guards and allowed him to wear his kendo armour’. This kindness to Jim is later contrasted by the brutal beating of the Chinese Coolie. Like many of Jim’s previously detailed and dispassionate descriptions of brutal behaviour, the coolies beating isn’t described any differently. ‘Private Kimura walked behind the rickshaw and kicked the wooden seat, hurling the vehicle against the coolie’s legs’, ‘raising their staves, they each struck him a blow on the head, then strolled away as if deep in thought’. Jim whilst watching this horrid event appeared disconcerned he is described to be ‘wondering whether to read an article about Winston Churchill’. All of the British internees of the camp are described to be unconcerned and only sit and observe the event, this demonstrates the differences of nationality status, although the Chinese and the British are both prisoners of war, under the Japanese authority, the Chinese are not given the right to be in a camp and to be looked after, even during times of war, they are inferior to the British and the Americans. The fact that no British internee would help the Chinese coolie shows their sheer unimportance within the eyes of the British. Jim’s upbringing is questionable here. Is he so disconcerned about the brutal event, as he has been hardened by war, or is he so disconcerned due to him being used to this kind of behaviour bestowed upon the Chinese. The most likely answer would be that he is used to this insignificance for Human life regardless of nationality.
The Americans role within the novel is to bring hope. Jim is the predominant character that symbolises this hope. The first American characters to be introduced demonstrate this. Basie and Frank, appear to be using the war as a way to make money, they appear to be disconcerned for their own safety. Frank says that Basie ‘wants to stay in Shanghai now the Japs are here. He thinks we can make a pile of money once we get to the camps’. Dr Ransome, someone whom isn’t particularly fond of Basie tells Jim that ‘it’s a good thing that you’re friends with Basie. He’s a survivor, though survivors can be dangerous’.
Many internees consider the American blocks within the camp as the ‘place to be’, the place where everything is happening. Jim ‘liked the Americans and approved of them in every way. Whenever he entered this enclave of irony and good humour his spirits rose’. ‘There they lay on their bunks and entertained a steady stream of adolescent girls, single British women and even a few wives drawn to them for reasons not very differen’t from Jim’s’. The Americans were clearly the idealised nationality within the camp that held a presence that made them appear to not have any cares in the world, this presence kept many people alive. The Americans symbolised hope, this hope for Jim, came within the shape of the American warplanes. ‘Fearsome American planes emerged like pieces of the sun’. ‘Jim reflected that the prisoners ought to celebrate, throw their clogs in the air, seize the air raid siren and play it back at the incoming American planes’. Although for the prisoners, this should have been a great moment, it wasn’t. The repercussions of the war had taken it’s toll on many of the prisoners, and many like Jim were almost scared to leave the camp, for fear of what life without routine and rules would be like again.
The British internees at Lunghua Camp, unlike the American’s refuse to take in the facts that they are prisoners of war, this is evident by due to the fact that they have named parts of the camp after British roads and places. The Vincent’s, the people whom Jim shared a room with, completely disregarded Jim, even though nationality wise he was one of there ‘own’. Mrs Vincent is described as treating Jim like ‘her Number Two Coolie, and he was well aware that he tolerated this for reasons he barely understood’. Ironically, the British who treat all Chinese with disrespect are treating Jim one of their own, in the same manner. The fact that Jim is only a child makes the situation even more callus. Mrs Vincent a woman who is already a mother, is pushing away a young boy, and not giving him any help what so ever. The curtain that the Vincent’s have up within the room is a clear indicator to Jim and to the audience that the Vincent’s do not want any part in Jim’s life. They do want to face the realities of war and work together, they want to remain a ‘happy’, private family.
The British before the war, were described as being lavish and exotic people, they are now within the camp, shown to be the people who are the more feeble race. They are constantly described to be sat in their own excrement, something, which by many is considered to be degrading, and generally an embarrassing situation. ‘The old women lay in the pools of urine at their husbands’ feet. The English brothers huddled against Basie while Mrs Hug leaned on her father’s knees.’ This description is a complete contrast to the previous way in which the British people were described, this description is somewhat similar to the constant way in which the Chinese people are thought of and said to be like.
Mr Maxted and Dr Ransome two of the central British characters within the novel are separated from the typical British people. They are both characters that give the other internees hope. They both take on roles of responsibility within the camp. Dr Ransome is not only a doctor for the people, along with Basie; he is Jim’s tutor. He therefore provides medical help for internees and mental stimulation for Jim. He could therefore be considered as a person of power within the camp, he has to some extent the power to maintain people’s health, and with regards to Jim, he has the power of knowledge.
Mr Maxted, towards the beginning of the novel, is described as a very easygoing man, ‘Jim admired Mr Maxted, an architect turned entrepreneur who had designed the Metropole Theatre and numerous Shanghai nightclubs. Jim often tried to imitate his raffish manner, but soon found that being so relaxed was exhausting work’, ‘Mr Maxted was the perfect type of Englishman who had adapted himself to Shanghai’. Mr Maxted is clearly an easygoing person, whom is adaptable to many situations. This attribute would help any person survive within the camp circumstances. Mr Maxted on many occasions assists Jim with getting food, making sure he is okay, tasks that an almost father figure would do. Mr Maxted can therefore be considered as a father figure to Jim that remains calm and collected, for the benefit of Jim and many others. Even with the foreboding events that lead to the death of Mr Maxted, he remains calm and gives Jim hope, in every situation possible. ‘Good lad, Jamie – you hang on’. Mr Maxted is remaining hopeful for the sake of this young boy, whom without people to keep him occupied and hopeful, would more than likely be drawing near to his end.
Jim although a British born character, adopts and idolises many other nationality traits. Jim’s dream is to become a Japanese pilot; this is ironic, as it is the Japanese who are keeping the British people within confinement. On numerous occasions, Jim tells the internees of Lunghua Camp, that he wishes to be a Japanese Kamikaze pilot, and how he admires their bravery and stoicism. Jim’s cultural upbringing and multicultural town, make him aware of cultural traits and differences between people from different nationalities. As he is only a young boy, Jim would be more inclined to adopt some of these multicultural traits and admire them; therefore his admiration for the Japanese isn’t unexpected.
Jim’s friendship with the young Japanese pilot makes the reader look upon the Japanese in a not so harsh light. ‘The Japanese raised his wooden stake. Like a sleeper waking from a dream, he hurled it into the nettles. As Jim flinched, he reached into the waist-pocket of his flight overalls and drew out a small mango’.
‘Jim took the yellow fruit from the pilot’s calloused hand. The mango was still warm from his body’. This act of kindness shown from the young Japanese pilot, shows the reader that the Japanese are not all cruel people, although they instigated this particular war, they are at war as well, things concerning food etc, are a problem for them to, and the fact that he has given Jim this exotic piece of fruit demonstrates the Japanese’s kindness.
The novels ends on a somewhat sombre note, although Shanghai has returned to the normal bustling city that it used to be, Jim has grown up and begun to notice the ‘horrors’ of it, he has in many ways become aware of the horrors that the Chinese suffer from day to day. Jim’s confinement within the war has opened up his mind to what is right and wrong in respect to the way in which people are treated. When he witnesses the British and American sailors urinating down the steps, this new awareness becomes evident. ‘Fifty feet below them, the Chinese watched without comment as the arcs of urine formed a foaming stream that ran down the street. When it reached the pavement the Chinese stepped back, their faces expressionless. Jim glanced at the people around him, the clerks and coolies and peasant women, well aware of what they were thinking. One day China would punish the rest of the world, and take a frightening revenge’. Jim’s time within the camp has made him realise that the Chinese are actually alive, their existence has actually become noticeable to Jim, and he now disagrees with the cruel treatment that he once issued onto them.
The final paragraph of the novel is very similar to the beginning paragraph, except the mood is greatly different. The description unlike many in the book appears to have a sense of sadness and feeling to it. Previously when the Chinese coffins were described, a brief description was just given, whereas now, the description ends ‘driven once again to the shores of this terrible city’. This feeling added to the final description given of Shanghai, makes the ending of the book powerful. Ballard known not to include any feeling into his work, ends his story with an impact on the reader, they are aware that Jim feels a sense of sadness and possible hatred to the city that he once thought was a great place to be.
This novel is a first hand description of a war experience, and is therefore considered by many as a ‘masterpiece’. This novel leaves nothing to the imagination, everything is described in great detail, and in a way that paints a picture in the readers mind. This effective use of detached unemotional memories makes the descriptions powerful and creates emotions within the reader.
This novel is considered by the Guardian as ‘above all, a book of triumph and truthfulness of tone’. Ballard’s rich metaphoric prose and his emphasis on psychological and technological themes make him a somewhat unique and impressive figure in contemporary literature. Ballard’s work although considered by many as somewhat grotesque, is thoroughly enjoyed by many today as a great novel, I would agree with this, it is interesting to read, and every word and description grips the readers attention.