43 pages 1 hour read

J. G. Ballard

Empire of the Sun

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1984

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Summary and Study Guide


Empire of the Sun is a 1984 novel written by British author J.G. Ballard. In it, Jim, the 11-year-old son of a wealthy British family, is living in the International Settlement in Shanghai, China on the eve of Pearl Harbor, 1941. When Japanese forces attack the Settlement, Jim is separated from his parents. He survives for several weeks by scavenging food from abandoned houses, before being arrested by the Japanese. He is then taken to a prison camp in the district of Lunghua, where he spends the next three years. When the Japanese start losing the war and with the prisoners starving to death, Jim and the other prisoners are marched to a repurposed football stadium. Many of the prisoners die on the way, but Jim manages to survive. He returns to Lunghua camp, now occupied by the Americans, and is reunited with his parents in Shanghai. He then boards a ship for England, leaving China forever. This guide uses the 2014 Harper Collins edition of the text.

Plot Summary

Empire of the Sun is divided into four parts and forty-two short chapters. This guide contains four analysis sections, each corresponding to roughly ten chapters of the text. In Chapters one through ten, Jim, the 11-year-old son of a wealthy British family and the novel’s protagonist, is living in the International Settlement in Shanghai, an area for foreign nationals, on the eve of Pearl Harbor. The next morning, from his hotel window, Jim witnesses the Japanese forces attack and sink a British Ship on the adjacent river. As his family try escaping from the hotel, Jim is separated from his mother, and his father goes to help the British sailors swimming to safety. Jim then wakes up in a hospital ward with no sign of his parents. On being discharged, Jim returns home only to find that his house has been abandoned. He survives the following weeks by entering other houses in the Settlement and scavenging food from them. Climbing aboard an abandoned freighter, Jim meets an American sailor, Frank, who takes him back to his concealed cabin in the shipyard.

In Chapters 11 to 19, Jim meets another, older American sailor in the cabin, Basie, who feeds him. However, in the following afternoons when they make trips to the local Chinese markets, Basie tries to sell Jim. Hoping to surrender to the Japanese and be reunited with his parents, Jim then tricks Basie and Frank into returning to his house on Amherst Avenue, with stories about the luxurious lifestyle lived there. Once at his house, the sailors and Jim are arrested by the Japanese soldiers now billeted inside. Jim is transferred to a detention center for ill and injured Europeans. He hopes to be taken to a prison camp so that he might be reunited with his parents. Jim manages this and is taken on a departing truck. On arriving at the prison camp, their party is turned away because too many of them are diseased. Instead, the truck heads to an airfield south of Shanghai. There, Jim and the other detainees are forced to work on a new runway for the Japanese.

In Chapters 20 to 31, Jim describes life in the Lunghua camp, having spent three years there, after building the airfield close by. Jim, who is now 14, explains how he and the other prisoners maintain a veneer of normality by performing plays, playing sports, and organizing education. However, these attempts are undermined by grim and encroaching realities. The Japanese are losing the war, and the camp is affected by continual American air raids on Lunghua airfield. Just as importantly, the blockaded Japanese are increasingly unable to provide food for the prisoners. Their already inadequate rations are first cut in half then stopped altogether. As rumors circle that the war is over, the now starving prisoners are marched off to the town of Nantao. Many do not survive the journey, but the survivors, including Jim, are herded into a repurposed Olympic football stadium.

In Chapters 32 to 42, Jim wakes up after spending the night in the stadium to see that all the Japanese soldiers have disappeared. A Eurasian man tells Jim that the war is over, and that the Americans have dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Believing Shanghai to be too dangerous, Jim heads back toward the Lunghua camp. He wishes to stay there, but two of the British men who now run it insist on driving him to Shanghai. On the way there, one of the men is shot by some Chinese Nationalists, and the other runs away. Jim is then picked up by a group of bandits. The bandits abandon Jim while looking for loot. Seeing American soldiers at the Lunghua airfield control tower, though, Jim rushes back to the camp. There, he is reunited with his friend from the camp, Doctor Ransome. Ransome tells Jim that his parents are waiting for him. Jim then returns to live with parents in Shanghai for three months. Then he boards a ship to England with his mother and leaves Shanghai forever.