China in Ten Words by Yu Hua (trans. Allan H. Barr). Pantheon Books, 240 pp., $25.95.
For a long time, Jonathan Spence’s Gate of Heavenly Peace has been my book of choice for an introduction to modern China. Spence’s meaty and highly readable 1981 book focused largely on the first half of the 20th century, with a later chapter on the Cultural Revolution and a coda discussing the early post-Mao years. It’s still a great introduction, but as China has continued to develop in important ways, I’ve wished for a book that covered China’s more recent decades with similar depth and flair.
Such a book has finally arrived: Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words, splendidly translated by Alan Barr. This collection of ten essays by the well-known author of the novels Brothers and To Live shares many of the strengths of Spence’s book—accessibility, human interest, telling details, and plenty of facts—but it is a far more personal book, heartbreaking in its honesty and sense of disillusionment. Yu Hua’s essays are filled with information that will be new to many Western readers; but because Yu links his facts with vivid first-hand observations, the reader doesn’t get bogged down. Where most contemporary Western observers can only offer readers a tiny slice of Chinese life contingent on their own limited knowledge and experience, Yu Hua offers readers a rich and complex view of China.
China in Ten Words is remarkable and revelatory on many fronts. The author addresses forbidden subjects like the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations and June Fourth Massacre, tying together past and present, news accounts and personal history, to create a nuanced portrait.
What brings together these diverse subjects is a deceptively simple conceit. Each of the book’s ten essays explores a word or name: People, Leader, Reading, Writing, Lu Xun, Revolution, Disparity, Grassroots, Copycat, and Bamboozle. Four of these terms are familiar Communist Chinese political terms (People, Leader, Revolution); three pertain to literary culture (Reading, Writing, Lu Xun), and the last four (Disparity, Grassroots, Copycat, and Bamboozle) come straight from the current zeitgeist. Although only the last four items are particular to the present moment, Yu Hua’s essays show how each of the ten terms is relevant to China today. Thus, in the deeply felt first essay, “People” (which I suspect translator Barr might have translated as “The People” if he hadn’t needed to stick to the one-word framework), the author observes how ubiquitous and yet “invisible” the term the “People” is, how central to modern China it has been, and how foundational it was in his own life:
In the past this was such a weighty phrase. Our country was called the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao told us to “serve the people.” The most important paper was the People’s Daily. “Since 1949 the people are the masters,” we learned to say.
In my childhood years “the people” was just as marvelous an expression as “Chairman Mao,” and when I first began to read, these were the first words I mastered; I could write them even before I could write my own name or the names of my parents.
But Yu does not leave the essay safely in the past. Instead, he moves forward a couple of decades, and the essay becomes a rumination on June Fourth and its legacy. He recounts his own wanderings through Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 and his interrupted journey back South in the chaotic aftermath of the massacre. Reflecting his faith in the people, he is inspired by the student demonstrators and devastated when the government violently crushes their movement.
Surprisingly, Yu Hua not only discusses the banned subject of June Fourth directly but also devotes an entire chapter of the book to it. In the past, he’s used humor to deflect difficult political questions, and this newfound frankness is striking, but he is nonetheless engaged in a delicate balancing act. In a recent public discussion in November 2011, Yu Hua told an audience at the Asia Society in New York that he didn’t even bother trying to get this book past the PRC censors. The subject of June Fourth is banned in the PRC. With the first essay taking that watershed event as its subject, and much of the book salted with references to the events of 1989, China in Ten Words stood no chance of being published in China. So Yu sent the manuscript straight to Taiwan, where the first Chinese edition was published. He remarked ruefully—but not without humor—that for people in the PRC, there’s always a way around publication censorship: Taiwan. Whether this gambit will keep him out of hot water at home remains to be seen.
Throughout these essays Yu Hua draws connections between the China of the Cultural Revolution and the market-driven China of the post-Mao era of economic reform. At one point he addresses this directly:
Why, when discussing China today, do I always return to the Cultural Revolution? That’s because these two eras are so interrelated: even though the state of society now is very different from then, some psychological elements remain strikingly similar. After participating in one mass movement during the Cultural Revolution, for example, we are now engaged in another: economic development.
Though he writes of continuities, the author is equally concerned with the fickleness and changeability of modern Chinese histories—one could say that mutability has been a constant. As Yu remarks in “People”: “With a flick of the wrist, Chinese history has utterly changed its complexion, much the way an actor in Sichuan opera swaps one mask for another. In the short space of thirty years, a China ruled by politics has transformed itself into a China where money is king.” He elaborates:
In the forty-odd years from the start of the Cultural Revolution to the present, the expression “the people” has been denuded of meaning by Chinese realities. To use a current buzzword, “the people” has become nothing more than a shell company, utilized by different eras to position different products in the marketplace.
The authenticity of the Tiananmen demonstrations harkens back to the idealism of Yu Hua’s childhood, in contrast to the crass branding of Party- and State-controlled capitalism.
In the second essay about a political word, “Leader,” Yu begins by taking apart the meaning of the term in Maoist times, going on to detail the dilution and devolution of “leadership” in contemporary China’s fragmented and commercial culture. This is all fascinating, but the piece really hits its stride when Yu Hua delves into his own feelings about China’s most powerful 20th-century leader, Mao Zedong. By turns fabulistic and humorous, Mao’s over-inflated legend is put on display; and then, with one impeccably timed anecdote, Yu pops that balloon.
“Revolution” shows how much China’s current breakneck development has in common with a frenzied mass movement like the Great Leap Forward. Just as this episode in China’s recent history bore bitter fruit, Yu cautions:
Behind all the glorious statistics in China today, crises tend to lurk. The loans that Chinese universities have relied on to fund their enrollment expansion already exceed 200 billion yuan. This staggering debt is likely to become another fiasco for China’s commercial banks, because Chinese universities lack the wherewithal to repay their loans. At the same time, university tuition in the past ten or fifteen years has risen enormously, to twenty-five or even fifty times as much as it used to be, ten times the rate of income growth. . . . [E]very year we are adding more than 1 million college graduates who cannot find work.
Again and again, Yu connects past to present. The revolutionary violence of the Cultural Revolution has current counterparts in a wide range of situations. Yu’s examples include the violent appropriation of official seals by thuggish businessmen (a variation on bloody Red Guard battles over seals) and the violent eviction of tenants and homeowners by greedy officials (framed as a latter day replay of 1960s era brutality).
One of the most poignant vignettes in the collection concerns the father of one of Yu Hua’s classmates, who became a target of political persecution when Yu was in first grade. The man had always been kind to Yu, but when the persecution began, his warmth faded. Yu cites his last encounter with this man as “[summing] up for me the beauty of the human character”: on the eve of the man’s suicide, Yu saw him walking with his son, looking calm and nonchalant. This sort of grace under pressure is a quality of character that Yu admires, but the background of cruelty gives this moment of a painful edge. Reading this, I felt deeply troubled: if this episode was a high point, then what of the lows?
“Reading” explores the power of language and the author’s own discovery of stories, which were hard to come by for a child in the Cultural Revolution. Although this essay, like the others in this collection, could easily have sunk under the weight of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, it is leavened by quirky asides and Yu Hua’s irrepressible humor. Part of the pleasure of reading turns out to have been his discovery of a secret reading place, and he writes of hot summer days passed in the cool sanctuary of the morgue. It was conveniently located across from the dormitory where he lived with his parents, both medical professionals, and he found that the most pleasant place to relax on sweltering summer afternoons was the slab.
Like most other pieces in China in Ten Words, “Writing” ranges far and wide. It revisits the Big Character Posters of the Cultural Revolution, which the author tried his hand at as a child. Yu Hua also recounts, in a self-deprecating but unapologetic way, how he decided to become a writer, ditching the tedium of dentistry for the laid-back and enjoyable job of writing. But this same essay has darker elements—Yu Hua addresses the extremely violent imagery of his early works, tracing it back to horrifying scenes of political violence that he witnessed as a child in the 1960s and early 1970s. He explains that he had to abandon it to preserve his own sanity.
In the section entitled “Disparity,” Yu ties the current era’s excesses to the throwing off of the repression of the Maoist period. In some senses, Yu argues, the conspicuous consumption of the nouveaux riches is a reaction against Mao-era repression and asceticism. Yu recalls the relative lack of wealth disparity during the first decades of the PRC and compares it to the vast inequalities of the present day and the widening urban/rural gap. The stories illustrating Yu’s points are filled with irony, and one comes away with the impression, time and again, that no one in post-1949 China has been able to escape the fickleness of politics and history. Every movement backfires, every campaign is shot full of contradictions.
The Chinese for the terms, “Grassroots,” “Copycat,” and “Bamboozle” are all part of the popular discourse, a major part of contemporary Chinese culture. Appropriately, these concepts and the three essays devoted to them coalesce around a shared sense of flim-flammery, and while they are instantly recognizable to China-watchers, Yu Hua’s take on them is, as ever, revelatory, even to information-saturated China news junkies. “Grassroots” carries on the theme of reversed fortunes and juxtaposes Cultural Revolution-era anecdotes with contemporary ones. “Copycat” takes as its starting point the the proliferation of pirated goods and fakes (everything from toxic fake milk and fake electronics to officially sponsored Mao lookalike contests); and ; it goes on to show how many Chinese have knowingly embraced the ersatz “as a form of performance art,” whereby “seemingly farcical acts of rebellion that have certain anti-authoritarian, anti-mainstream, and anti-monopoly elements” have become widespread. While presenting this with a certain lightness, Yu Hua argues soberly that this freewheeling trend is a response to inconsistencies and stark “contradictions” within today’s Chinese society. Looking back once more on the forbidden subject of the Tiananmen protest movement of 1989, Yu concludes that the “greatest impact” of the 1989 demonstrations “has been the lack of progress in reforming the political system.” After 1989, economic reforms went forward at top speed, but political reforms, which had been advancing incrementally, “ground to a halt.”
Yu Hua’s China is a place of golden clouds with leaden linings. His observations are leavened with wit and humor, but a grim darkness haunts even his funniest anecdotes. Members of China’s political class will doubtless be getting their hands on illegal copies of this shot across their bow. People outside of China should also read China in Ten Words. It’s uncensored, and it’s legal.
Andrea Lingenfelter is the translator of the novels Farewell My Concubine by Lilian Lee and Candy by Mian Mian. She co-curated the Chindia Dialogs, presented by Asia Society this past fall. Her most recent publication is The Changing Room: Selected Poetry of Zhai Yongming (Zephyr, 2011). She will be teaching Chinese literature at UC Davis in the spring of 2012.
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