Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard is based on his childhood in China during World War II. Published in 1984, the novel’s portrayal of a child’s survival and transformation from child of privilege to becoming another innocent victim in a pointless war, garnered immediate acclaim and won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In 1987, Steven Spielberg directed a young Christian Bale in the award-winning film adaptation of the book.
Jim Graham is an eleven-year-old English boy with a passion for airplanes living in China with his parents. Pearl Harbor had just been bombed and the Japanese have occupied the Shanghai International Settlement.
The turmoil and confusion of the war separates Jim from his family. Forced to fend for himself, he lives in abandoned mansions and eats leftover scraps. Foraging for food and shelter, he meets and begins a friendship Bassie, an American air steward.
The Japanese troops eventually find Jim and he is sent to the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center where he is reunited with his friend. They are later transferred to the prison camp. The boy hopes that he will find his parents there but they are still missing. However, Jim is able to integrate into the camp, gaining the affection of the commanders and cooks. Using his survival instinct, he aligns himself with people who would be essential to his survival. The atrocities of war does not break his spirit and the youngster continues to dream of becoming a pilot and is enjoys watching the fighter jets fly over the camp.
He believes that his mother and father are in the Soochow prison camp and hopes to find them. However, just as when the war first broke out, Jim fantasizes that once the fighting is over and he recovers his guardians, life will continue as before.
It is now 1945, four years after he was first sent to the camp, and Jim struggles to survive. However, he continues his education from the elder prisoners, such as Dr. Ransome, who teaches him Latin and mathematics. He is transferred along with Mr. Maxted, who once rescued him from death, to the Nantao prison. During the march, the detainees are allowed to rest by the Olympic stadium where Jim witnesses the white flash of the atom bomb hit Nagasaki. After Mr. Maxted’s death and once again alone in the war, he decides to return to Lunghua which had been his “home.” On the way back, his body infected with the bomb’s radiation, he encounters a fallen Kamikaze pilot who gives him a mango. Jim who has identified with the Japanese, several of whom had shown him kindness and been elemental to his survival, begins to hope that he and the airman can fly away towards freedom. However, the young aviator is already dying. The corpse’s youthful face reminds Jim of his own and he attempts to place some Spam in its mouth, but is shocked when it bites down on his finger. Though Jim could no longer save him, he imagines the story of Lazarus rising from the dead.
“Electrified” and with newfound hope, he returns to Lunghua. However, he arrives to find the camp overtaken by the Americans who are taking away the bodies he believes that he would have “raised from the dead.” Jim has now gone mad. Mr. Ransome tends to him saying, “Poor fellow, you’ll never believe the war is over” and lets him know that his parents are outside.
Two months later, Jim and his family are preparing to return to England. He is reminded of Ransome’s words and reflects on the war. Though three months have passed since the end of the conflict and the unnamed graves have been leveled, many people are still struggling. He does not share his arduous experience with his parents. Leaving Shanghai, he realizes that a part of him will always stay in the “terrible city.”
“Yet only part of his mind would leave Shanghai. The rest would remain there forever, returning on the tide like the coffins launched from the funeral piers at Nantao. Below the bows of the Arrawa a child’s coffin moved onto the night stream. Its paper flowers were shaken loose by the wash of a landing craft carrying sailors from the American cruiser. The flowers formed a wavering garland around the coffin as it began its long journey to the estuary of the Yangtze, only to be swept back by the incoming tide among the quays and mud flats, driven once again to the shores of this terrible city.” (120)
Ballard’s book leaves the reader with the message: War never ends. Unlike other books that glorify war, painting heroics images of its winners and distorted, evil depictions of the opponents, Empire of the Sun is a raw and honest portrayal of the horror, ambiguous nature and overall futility of war.
It is also a story of a child maturing into a young man. His mental and physical transformation occurs during one of the most tumultuous periods in history.
Early in the novel, Jim’s wealth, status and color protect him from the strife of the people and the war. Before he loses his parents, he notices that most of the foreign expatriates do not react to the war, merely continuing with their parties and other engagements. They are oblivious to the suffering of the Chinese, since the battle has not yet personally threatened their existence. However, when the conflict reaches a climax, the book’s first lesson is that all social orders become meaningless and that war’s devastation spares no one.
Interned in the camps, Jim learns to survive. Continuing with his studies and becoming friends with the others, he creates order in the chaos and is a testament to man’s endurance and strength at the face of adversity. He begins to find the value in the little things, such as appreciating the flight of the fighter planes and keeping his dreams alive. Though it may seem as though his fantasies keep him from facing reality, it was actually essential in his maintaining his existence. He was able to separate his mind from the horror of his situation, which in effect, allowed his body to continue.
Jim also learns about man’s capacity for cruelty, which is not limited nor defined, such as his experience with Lieutenant Price, by a person’s race or nationality. However, in recognizing his own tendency towards unkindness, such as keeping food to himself, he discovers that “evil” is rooted in the struggle to survive and the mechanism of war. In relation to this, one of the most fundamental teachings in the book is the protagonist’s view towards the Japanese. He does not demonize them and through his encounters, realizes that war is not black and white; there are no clear heroes and villains, winners and losers. Despite suffering great hardship in the camp and the media’s portrayal of them, Jim maintains a high degree of respect and empathy towards them. In the corpse of the young pilot, he sees his twin, alluding to the fact that beyond ethnicities and citizenship we are all human beings, subject to the same sensibilities, anguish and desires.
Thus, as strife continues in all parts of the world, Empire of the Sun is a reminder of the realities of conflict beyond the glorified images in history books. Beyond time, homelands and generations–war is the loss of innocence.