Who is the betrayed, and who the betrayer? It’s clear from the outset that there’s plenty of blame to spread around in this deeply engaging novel about the betrayal of a Chinese mole in the CIA.
Gary (nee Weimin) Shang is a young secret agent for Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists in the culminating days of the Revolution. A graduate of prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, sometimes referred to as China’s Harvard, he is singled out by his handlers to infiltrate an American intelligence unit in Shanghai which later moves to Okinawa, then to suburban Washington, DC, and is finally absorbed into the CIA itself.
Despite begging his handlers at every turn to permit him to return to his wife and children in rural China, Shang is progressively more and more generously rewarded as he rises through the ranks through three decades. He marries an American woman and fathers a daughter, the principal narrator of the novel. The tale is told decades following Shang’s unmasking and conviction of espionage, in first-person chapters narrated by his Chinese-American daughter alternating with third-person accounts of Shang’s life through the decades.
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin ★★★★☆
The author, Ha Jin, experienced first-hand the tumultuous events portrayed in A Map of Betrayal, having lived his first three decades in China. His depiction of the Great Leap Forward and the tragic famine that followed, the Cultural Revolution, and the internecine warfare within the Chinese Communist Party during and after Mao’s final years is the stuff history is made of. By placing his protagonist at the center of US-China relations during the 1960s and 70s, Jin tells the little-known story of the touch-and-go relationship of the two aggressive world powers with a knowing touch, showing an understanding of the complex dynamics at work on both sides.
A Map of Betrayal is not a cookie-cutter spy novel. The suspense (not knowing) is subtle, and the action moves forward at a deliberative pace. In the end, the book is fully satisfying for its insight into the complex human dynamics at play in any difficult relationship — and what relationship isn’t?
Jin Xuefei, who writes under the pen name Ha Jin, joined the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution, leaving at age nineteen for university studies. A decade later, he was on a scholarship at Brandeis University when the Chinese government violently suppressed the student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The incident moved him to emigrate and to write in English “to preserve the integrity of his work.” The author of numerous novels and volumes of poetry and short stories, he has won a passel of literary awards, including the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He currently teaches at Boston University.
For additional reading
This is one of 11 insightful books about China.
If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels. And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers.
If your taste runs to genre fiction, check out my posts:
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10
- My 20 favorite espionage novels
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers
You might also be interested in Top 10 great popular novels.
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.