Ballard’s terrible Shanghai in Empire Of The Sun

The Japanese committed terrible atrocities in the Second World War, as we all know, but they had no monopoly on cruelty.

One has only to read JG Ballard’s Empire Of The Sun to see what a terrible city Shanghai was when it fell to the Japanese.

I was going through the novel again after hearing on the BBC yesterday about Ballard’s death from cancer at the age of 78.

I was struck by the cruelty and callous disregard for life in Shanghai even before it was occupied by the Japanese.

Ballard describes the boy hero Jim being driven around by the chauffeur Yang, who lashes out at pedestrians with a riding crop to clear the way on crowded Bubbling Well Road. We see a truck carrying professional executioners, a man and a woman lying beheaded in a pool of blood surrounded by a crowd who had watched the execution at a marketplace.

Later, we see some of the locals turn on the defenceless boy when Jim is all alone, separated from his parents in the confusion of the war. An amah slaps him when he goes to a friend’s house. The house is deserted, two of the amahs – whom he knows – are carrying furniture out of the house. Foolishly, he asks them if anyone is at home. The answer is a slap to his face. Later, a shopkeeper with the help of coolie forcibly takes away his bicycle.

Eleven-year-old Jim bears the cruelty stoically. He knows the city is a jungle where the poor and the helpless are treated like dogs. He has seen a beggar’s foot crushed under the wheels of his parents’ car as their chauffeur drove recklessly past the gates out of their house.

Jim is reunited with his parents at the end of the story when the city is retaken by the Americans. But he is no longer the boy he was – he has been hardened by the war.

This is a grim wartime novel that draws on Ballard’s own boyhood experiences in Shanghai during the Second World War.

Ballard describes the buildup to the war, the Japanese troops in an uneasy coexistence with the Allied forces in the International Settlement, where everybody knows the war is coming. The actual invasion is described vividly. The Japanese ships in the harbour open up their guns at the same time as Japanese planes strike Pearl Harbour. Japanese tanks and troops pour into the city, rounding up the British and the Americans, leaving alone the Germans and the Vichy French. 

Jim’s father is taken away to prison by the Japanese. He cannot find his mother, who got separated from him when the Japanese tanks poured into the streets. As he roams around vainly looking for people he knows, he sees Chinese soldiers marching up and down the streets, British and Indian policemen directing traffic with Japanese soldiers standing guard behind them. It is a surreal scene at odds with usual accounts of the war, of Chinese resistance against the Japanese.

The story ends with Jim sailing from Shanghai to England with his mother. Coffins float around their ship, dropped into the mighty Yangtze river by people too poor to afford a burial.  Jim contemplates the scene from the deck.

Below the bows of the Arrawa a child’s coffin moved into the night stream. Its paper flowers were shaken loose by the wash of a landing craft carrying soldiers 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 the terrible city.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

You may also like

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: