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By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Whenever I take a trip that includes stops in Shanghai and Beijing, two people I make sure to meet up with are Jeremy Friedlein and David Moser, the Academic Directors of the CET study abroad programs in those cities. I do this for several reasons. One is that CET has deep ties to China Beat, since the blog’s founding editor Kate Merkel-Hess and current editor Maura Cunningham are both alums. Another reason is that, for almost two years now, CET has been sponsoring a series of literary events at M on the Bund (in Shanghai) and now also Capital M (in Beijing) that put me in dialogue with local journalists and freelance writers. Last but by no means least, Jeremy and David know a lot of interesting people, so getting together with them always leads to my meeting at least one new person worth knowing. In the case of my most recent visit to Shanghai, this meant being introduced to Mary Bergstrom, who has been working on the topic of Chinese youth. Wearing her business professional’s hat, she runs a firm, The Bergstrom Group, that provides expert information on the subject to various international businesses, and wearing her writer’s one, she’s the author of the new book All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Line of Marketing to China’s Youth. I recently sent her a series of questions about her work, as well as a couple that ask her to respond to recent youth-related pieces of writing by Evan Osnos and Pallavi Aiyar, authors well known to readers of this blog. Here are the things I asked her and her responses:

JW: You’ve been tracking trends relating to Chinese youth for years now, so what do you think are three things readers outside of China might not know about young people in the PRC that they should? Or tend to get wrong about this population?

MB: 1. Chinese youth are not “just like” or “on the way” to becoming Japanese or American (or any other population).

Of course they exhibit in some ways like other international cohorts, but in terms of motivations and expectations, they are on their own path that allows them to assign fresh meaning. Without siblings or parents who can really help them navigate modern China, young Chinese are in a unique situation.

2. Consumption is an important social value.

While the word “consumerism” has almost become a dirty word in many places, having the ability to consume has positive meaning in China. It means that you are able to participate in a modern lifestyle; you are not being left out. Unable to participate politically or rebel openly against authority, youth can take their work as consumer pioneers very seriously. Sharing their experiences and expertise helps them build important social capital and get recognition for providing value to their social circles.

3. The future is up for grabs.

Youth in China are doing more than just buying brands and downloading free entertainment, they are quietly and irreverently changing the future of the world we all live in. Youth’s ideas about intellectual property (a product’s value to a consumer is more important than its value to a company), constant digital connectivity (a 24/7 lifeline and best friend), and flexibility about subcultures (valuing personalized mash ups over paying homage to past conventions) are a few areas where youth are leading.

JW: I often stress the impossibility of generalizing about “the Chinese,” due to the enormous variability within the population of the PRC, due to factors ranging from class to region to generation. I assume you would agree about the generation gap idea, which I argue is far more extreme than in, say, the United States due to the rapidity of change in China during the last couple of decades. I wonder, though, if you think regional divides are as crucial among young Chinese as they are among members of other generations. To put this another way, is popular culture and mass media making young Chinese in Shanghai less different than young Chinese in Sichuan than older Chinese in those two places might be in terms of the way they spend their time and think about the world?

MB: Many differences in attitude and behavior in China can be related to access. Because of the Internet, there is a certain amount of common culture that has no physical boundaries. The combination of this connectivity and increased time spent outside communities they are born into (for work, travel, study) allows people to explore specific interests and bring that knowledge back to their own communities.

Regional differences are important and migration patterns complicate matters further but the big and unavoidable difference is that someone from a larger city has more role models and outlets to broaden their ideas about what is possible—and acceptable. Youth in areas with less access are confined to the norms of their immediate communities.

JW: One piece on Chinese youth I’ve come across recently that interested me is this blog post by Evan Osnos. Does it fit in with your feelings about the topic?

MB: An image of an individual figure holding up a sign to communicate a personal feeling is popular online and in magazines. I am glad to see that someone is taking the time to collect and share the style thoughtfully. Hopefully getting a wider audience for the real lives of young Chinese (not just the numbers) will inspire more investigation.

JW: Here’s a second, very different piece on young Chinese I’ve read lately that I liked a lot. Any reactions to this one, which was written by Pallavi Aiyar?

MB: It’s funny. I am reading this article in Paris actually and have just finished an errand for my ayi who just happens to be from Chongqing—buying a gift for her husband who is doing construction work in Inner Mongolia. I was tasked with finding a Swiss watch for him that would cost her more than a month’s salary (but would cost around 5000 RMB). Unlike these young travelers, she is not rich but she does share the same aspiration to show that her family is part of the tide of change, they are not being left behind. This need to broadcast as a modern consumer drives the stories of young Chinese saving months of salary for a luxury branded handbag or newly released mobile phone.

When it comes to paving the way for the next generation, Chinese parents are experts. Even though the article is about privileged families, middle class parents will gladly scrimp for months to help their child access tools that can help them get ahead in the future (extracurricular activities, tutoring, travel abroad, etc.). This article highlights two uniquely Chinese points of view: consumption is an important part of modern life and it is parents’ role to pave the way for youth (with the understanding that youth will then reciprocate when parents age).

The last point in the article that I agree with that may shock readers is a pride in country, even after being exposed to the outside. Chinese are proud of their country’s path and in terms of opportunity, flexibility, and pace of development, they understand that there is no place like home.

JW: Last but not least, about your book that I mentioned in the lead-in to this interview. When does it come out? What sort of audience or audiences did you have in mind when writing it? And what do you think it does that none of the other books on China—and there have been a flood of them lately—do?

MB: I wrote All Eyes East to serve as a testimonial to a truly unique population set adrift into the future without siblings or parents to guide them. When I first began researching youth in China, I wanted a book like this for myself. In all these years working with companies who depend on youth as workers and consumers, I wanted a book like this for them. It is built for those who are considering the market and also for those who have been here for decades.

First of all, it is a true honor and privilege to be able to share this. I wanted to make it a truly fundamental and worthy piece so I planned an outline that would help readers understand young Chinese as people and how their environment guides them as consumers. I gathered years of our own research and hand-picked the most interesting youth phenomena and marketing campaigns that would allow the audience to truly grasp the past and glimpse the future. Interviews with marketing icons, dedicated academics, and brand leaders were also carefully selected to help readers benefit from lessons earned.

I hope that the end result helps get people to feel like they know and understand the biggest game changing population of our time and maybe even inspire them to make better choices because of it. The book is out now in the US, the end of April in Europe and end of May in Asia.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Publisher’s Weekly recently praised Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Frontlines of China’s Great Urban Migration, the new book by talented freelance writer Michelle Dammon Loyalka, for offering a “thorough and insightful examination of the gritty, arduous side of the Chinese economic miracle.” I can also attest, having read the manuscript, that it’s stimulating and enjoyable work. While the University of California Press book, which focuses on a migrant work community in Xi’an, isn’t due out until later this month, you can read an excerpt from it now by clicking here. You can also get a further sense of it from the following Q & A that I carried out with author.

JW: What was the biggest challenge you faced in research and writing this book?

MDL: A lot of literary nonfiction about China is written in the first person, with the author as a central character of the book. From the beginning of this project I knew I wanted to try to convey how migrants view their own lives and situations rather than how I, as a Westerner, perceive them. But keeping myself out of the story proved to be much more difficult than I’d imagined. In Xi’an, migrants rarely have an opportunity to interact with foreigners, so wherever I went I became the center of attention. Eventually they got used to me hanging around and settled back into their daily routines, but it took quite a bit of time to get to that point.

JW: You’ve spent a lot of time in Beijing as well as Xi’an, so what stands out for you as something that doesn’t get talked about enough that is similar about the two cities—and something that might be overlooked that sets them apart?

MDL: People often have the impression of western China being so remote and rural, but that can be misleading. Xi’an has a population of more than 7 million people. In the US it’d be the third largest metropolitan area in the entire country. Like most Chinese cities, it most certainly has under-developed areas, and the migrant enclave that I write about in Eating Bitterness is definitely an example of that. But now Xi’an also has a well-developed, active urban life just like Beijing or any other big city.

If anything, the biggest difference I’ve noticed between the two cities is that Xi’an is transforming much faster than Beijing. During the first two decades of China’s economic reform places like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou shot ahead, while inland cities like Xi’an moved forward much more slowly. I lived in Xi’an from 1999 to 2004, right at the beginning of the government’s push to develop western China, and then again in 2006 and 2007. The rate of change was simply unbelievable—not just in material terms, but also in terms of social norms and values and behaviors. Even for me, having grown up in the States and knowing the direction all this was heading, it was difficult to deal with such an incredibly rapid transition. In Beijing, I don’t get that feeling. Perhaps it was just as frenetic in earlier years, but to me Beijing feels much calmer and more settled than Xi’an ever has.

JW: Novelists are often asked if they have a favorite fictional character, so I wonder if you have a favorite among the people you profile—maybe not so much as a person (I realize you may have kept in touch with them, some may be friends) but as someone to write about? I guess that’s really a way of asking if you have a favorite chapter in the book?

MDL: That’s a tough one. Everyone I talked to had such a different story to tell, and I find each one so compelling in its own way. But if I had to choose a favorite I’d probably pick Chapter 8, “The Big Boss.” It’s about a 32-year old second-grade dropout who’s amassed a small fortune, only to find himself more lonely and dissatisfied than he ever was as a poor man. He longs to turn his focus toward philanthropy, but those around him find this desire completely incomprehensible.

To me his story really does represent the direction China is heading. In recent decades Chinese have focused on material progress to such an extent that anything else is seen as a distraction. But as conditions around the country continue to improve, people are gradually reassessing that mindset. There’s a real restlessness that’s starting to set in, and “distractions” like religion, volunteerism and social activism are all on the rise. As China’s economy continues to rocket ahead, that search for a purpose beyond sheer material prosperity is only going to grow.

JW: I know you are gearing up for seeing the book, which is your first one, appear and that you have some book events on your mind, but is there a next project underway or at least the seed of one being nurtured?

MDL: There are several, but at this point they really are just seeds. And at least one of them has nothing to do with China, so I’m a bit torn by that. It’s easy to come to China for a week or a month or even a year and think you understand what’s going on here. But I think the longer you stay, the more you realize just how complex and nuanced and contradictory today’s China really is. After 13 years here I feel like I’m just starting to get a grasp on the China story, so it seems like a real shame to switch topics now. I guess it’s a decision I’ll need to make soon, but for now I’m just focusing on getting Eating Bitterness out there.

By Jeff Wasserstrom

Every society sees and treats its poorest members differently. The distinctive way that Victorian Britain dealt with poverty is a central theme in many novels by Charles Dickens, the prolific author whose books are getting even more attention as the bicentennial of his birth is being marked. For those more interested in India’s present than England’s past, the book of the moment on this theme seems to be Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which is earning enthusiastic advance reviews and is due out soon (coincidentally or not on February 7, Dickens’ birthday). For China specialists, the most important new publication on the impoverished is one that neither goes as far back as the days of Dickens nor deals with out own time, but is rather Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953. It’s a very impressive first book by historian Janet Y. Chen, a member of Princeton’s History Department. A blurb by China Beat co-founder Ken Pomeranz describes it as a “surprising and creative work” that is “social history of the highest caliber,” and political scientist David Strand and I also have very good things to say about the book on its back cover. Rather than present my own assessment of the book, though, I’ll let you hear about some aspects of it from the author herself. I recently sent Janet a set of questions by email, which she was good enough to answer as follows:

JW: One thing that sets your book apart from a lot of first monographs on the Republican era (1912-1949), from Gail Hershatter’s The Workers of Tianjin, 1900-1949 (1986) to Peter Carroll’s Between Heaven and Modernity: Reconstructing Suzhou, 1895-1937 (2006), is that you deal with two cities rather than just one. Did you know from the start that Shanghai and Beijing comparisons would be part of your project?

JYC: At the outset I considered six different cities. My goal was to write about the experiences of the poor, and I worried that there would not be enough materials. So the initial plan was to do a kaleidoscope, piecing together what I thought would be patchy sources. But against all expectations, I found more archival materials than I knew what to do with. I could have chosen one city, but I had found such amazing sources that I did not want to give any of them up. The single-city focus is the model for urban studies on the Republican era, and the inevitable question is always whether city x was typical or not. By using two cases, I foreground that question, and I use the comparisons to highlight the specific local conditions that shaped experiences of destitution. Crafting a narrative based on two cities was challenging, but ultimately I think my research was much more interesting for it.

JW: In a similar vein, though there are other works I can think of that move from the Republican era into the Mao years (1949-1976), such as Susan Glosser’s Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953 (2003), stopping your story in 1945 (with the end of the war) or 1949 (with the establishment of the PRC) would have been options. Did you consider those, or were you set upon crossing the 1949 divide and dealing with the early 1950s from the beginning?

JYC: The first iteration of the book, in its dissertation form, stopped in 1949. Just about everyone I knew urged me to “do something” about the post-1949 era, and when I finally did, I was very surprised at the continuities that I found. Despite radically different ideological underpinnings, and despite rhetorically emphasizing the National regime’s failure to provide for the welfare of the people, the new socialist state in 1949 embraced many of the assumptions and institutions that its predecessor left behind. The biggest surprise in my research was a moment when I figured out a poorhouse established in the final years of the Qing dynasty in Beijing was still in use in 1950, as a Communist detention center for vagrants.

JW: What was the biggest challenge in terms of archives and materials that you had to deal with in researching this study?

JYC: In retrospect, I was very lucky in terms of timing. I was at the #1 Archive in Beijing and the #2 Archive in Nanjing in 2001 and 2002, and at the time both places were very open and welcoming. That has changed dramatically, and if I were to attempt the same project today I probably would not get very far. At the local archives in Beijing and Shanghai, which the research draws most heavily from, the challenge was literally too much material. I cast my net very widely (since my initial worry was about not finding enough sources). It became a sprawling and at times out of control process—but it also led me to some unexpected places.

JW: Some readers of this interview are likely to be more interested in China’s present dilemmas than in its past, so what would you say makes your book relevant for them?

JYC: It is completely unfashionable to use the words “poverty” and “China” in the same sentence today. But the rising tide of prosperity in Chinese society has produced new forms of homelessness and impoverishment, and questions about government responsibility and public concern and indifference are surfacing as vital issues. I hope this book will provide a historical lens for understanding present-day contestations over the meanings of poverty and welfare in Chinese society.

JW: Finally, just as courses in a meal are sometimes paired with specific wines, can you name a specific book or article on a different period or a different subject that would go well with Guilty of Indigence—or if want to belabor the culinary metaphor, maybe a reading per section like a wine per course?

JYC: I learned a lot from Joanna Handlin Smith’s The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China. For the PRC, Dorothy Solinger writes powerfully about issues of social citizenship (Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logical of the Market). For a different part of the world, Brodwyn Fischer’s A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Earlier this year, a Beijing-based Israeli journalist named Rachel Beitare contacted me out of the blue to set up an interview about the impact the Arab Spring events might have in China. I ended up impressed by the caliber of the questions put to me, so I started keeping an eye out for her byline, in case she published things in English (much of her work comes out in Hebrew, which I don’t read). I wasn’t disappointed, as before long Foreign Policy ran a smart commentary, ”Guilty By Association,” in which Ms. Beitare looked at the way the Party had been not just cracking down on critics of the government but hassling their relatives as well. When I opened a Twitter account, she was someone I made sure to follow (she tweets as @bendilaowai), and she’s one of several China-based journalists I think uses the medium especially well.

I was thus excited to learn from her Twitter posts that she’d made it to Wukan to report on the dramatic events unfolding in that South China community, where villagers have been mourning a fallen protester while engaged in a stand-off with representatives of the government. A recent NPR report described the Wukan struggle as a conflict that “began as a property dispute [and] has escalated into an open revolt [that has become] one of the most serious episodes of unrest that the Chinese Communist Party has faced in recent years.” The Wukan events are important because they underscore just how much anger there is in China over efforts by unscrupulous developers and corrupt officials to take advantage of rural landholders, and have a special interest to me, since just before the story broke Megan Shank and I had made the final corrections on a story, “Anxious Times in a Rising China,” which will appear in the Winter issue of Dissent magazine and focuses on recent protests and expressions of discontent in the PRC.

Eager to learn more about what is going on and to find out what she makes of it, I sent Ms. Beitarie an email with a set of questions; these are provided along with the answers she sent in Tuesday morning (Beijing time):

JW: You recently tweeted that you’d finished a report on the protests. Is it online yet? If not—or if it is only up in Hebrew—can you fill me in on what sort of piece it is, if there’s a main take-away about the state of play or likely prospects of the struggle?

RB: Thank you very much for this kind introduction. The report I was tweeting about will come out in Hebrew this Thursday. It’s a magazine piece for “Calcalist” in which I try to chronicle events in Wukan pretty much hour by hour from Saturday onward (we are still updating it). That was actually my editor’s suggestion and was a good way to give a sense of a story in progress and to record the ups and down in daily life in Wukan these days. It is a bit like tweeting actually. We also tried to give a broader perspective in the text to show how each of Wukan’s grievances is related to a broader issue in China. I suppose the main take-away is that whereas Wukan’s problems are local, a real long-term solution can only come through some wider government reforms in China. I really don’t have a definite view regarding the prospects of the struggle, but I’m not very optimistic. I’m afraid at least for the leaders of these demonstrations, there will be severe retribution, though for the village as a whole, they might get some of their land back, so it can make things a bit better, but I don’t see much chance of a fundamental change under the current system of village governance.

JW: I’ve been following the Wukan events long distance via reports like a much-circulated early one by Malcolm Moore and the later one by Louisa Lim, from which I pulled the phrases used in my opening summary. Have these given me a clear basic sense of what’s been going on and the stakes of this confrontation? Is there anything crucial that you feel is being left out or underplayed in the international coverage of the standoff?

RB: The reports you’ve mentioned were probably some of the best to come out of Wukan, and of course Malcolm Moore deserves all the credit for being the first to break the story to international media. In general I think there has been a lot of really excellent reporting from many different angles. Obviously I haven’t read all the reports, so I can’t say if something has been left out. (Last night in Wukan’s improvised media center, a few locals asked me to show them via my computer whether their issue was really being reported. We did a Google news search that came back with some 1300 hits in English and hundreds in Chinese.) However, one point I can think about that will probably still be open for much discussion is the role the foreign media itself has been playing in this story. Inviting the media in was the villagers’ own decision and helped them get a lot of publicity, but it may land them in even bigger trouble in the end than if they hadn’t. I think we all need some distance from the situation to properly analyze the pros and cons.

JW: A month or so ago, I would probably have been tempted to flag the high-speed rail crash of July as the most significant Chinese political event of 2011, due to the rage unleashed online by the event itself and the Party’s efforts to cover-up what had happened. Others might have put Ai Weiwei’s detention at the top of their list. Do you think Wukan might tell us even more important things about sources of discontent in today’s China than either of those two things?

RB: Oh absolutely. The reason Wukan is such a gripping story is that the village’s situation encapsulates almost all of the big issues that trouble Chinese society: Rural poverty vs. rapid development, unchecked power, growing economic gaps, environmental degradation, corruption, official violence, the balance of power between Beijing and the provinces, it’s all there in one incident. Also, the power of the Internet and social media, as well as their limitations—that was demonstrated in the Wenzhou train crash case and with Ai Weiwei and is also present here.

What’s more, the Wukan case is different than either Wenzhou’s or Ai Weiwei’s in that it takes place in the countryside, where most Chinese still live and where the problems are most acute, but get little attention, so definitely it touches all the most serious reasons for discontent.

JW: Any final thoughts? Perhaps about lines that could be drawn, however tenuous, to connect developments in Wukan to the Middle East and North Africa or the Occupy protests in other parts of the world.

RB: Well, unlike the people in Egypt or Libya, in Wukan they clearly and repeatedly say they do not wish to overthrow the government and trust the Communist party. How sincere they are in saying this remains for us to speculate about but that is the message they want to get out.

Having said that, there are some similarities to some movements we’ve seen around the world this year in both causes and conduct. They are similar in that protest stems from a sense of gross injustice caused by ever growing economic gaps. Another similarity is in the way people form their own mechanisms for self governing a micro-environment, in Wukan like in Tahrir or in tent cities in NYC, Madrid, my hometown, Tel-Aviv, and elsewhere around the world, and in how people gradually find ways to educate themselves about their own situation, the causes of what is happening to them and valid ways to solve their problems.

The situation here is very different, but maybe the sentiment of people power, the will and ability to work together with others to achieve better results instead of trying to get results individually is very similar. Ironically, educating and organizing peasants is how the Communist Party itself got to power so they probably understand better than anyone else the potential of such developments in rural areas, which is why the Wukan case is important—and the situation very risky for Wukan’s people.

This post also appeared at Dissent.

By Jeff Wasserstrom

This article was first posted at the Los Angeles Review of Books blog.

Last year, I finally got around to reading To Live, Yu Hua’s acclaimed 1993 tale of a Chinese Everyman’s experiences through decades of revolutionary upheaval. It’s a little gem of a book, alternately funny and poignant, which somehow manages to feel epic despite its modest page count and tight focus on a small set of characters. After chiding myself for taking so long to get to it, I vowed to make the book required reading the next time I taught a modern China course since it is available in an excellent English language edition, translated by UC Santa Barbara’s Michael Berry. I’m pretty sure now, however, that I won’t be assigning To Live after all.

Before To Live, the top spot on my imaginary syllabus was reserved for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, another short book (whose author, Dai Sijie, provides one of the front cover endorsements for the English language edition of To Live). Yu Hua’s novella, though, struck me as having one major advantage over Dai’s, which is a coming of age tale about the liberating potential of reading and story telling during the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). To Live, by contrast, boasts a far broader scope, addressing not only the Cultural Revolution but the Nationalist era (1927-1949), as well as the early Mao years that preceded and in some ways set the stage for it.

But I’ve moved on from both of these books, and not because my admiration for either has lessened. It’s just that I’ve recently read another short work, China in Ten Words, which is also by a talented Chinese writer and, I think, an even better fit for use in the classroom. I don’t believe Yu Hua, should he read this post, will mind, since he’s also the author of China in Ten Words.

When I heard that an English language edition of China in Ten Words was in the works, I was determined to get my hands on an advance copy. There were several reasons for my enthusiasm. One is obvious and literary: my belated but strongly felt admiration for To Live, as well as my enjoyment of Yu Hua’s short story collection The Past and the Punishments (available in a fine translation by Berkeley’s Andrew F. Jones). Another reason was Yu Hua’s piece in the New York Times, which appeared on May 30, 2009 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen struggle. The commentary’s main theme illustrated the way in which the meaning of the term Renmin (“The People”) shifted during the inspiring protests and subsequent brutal crackdown of 1989. In light of the title of Yu Hua’s book, I thought it likely that it would contain chapters much like the Times piece. Finally, I noted that Pomona College’s Allan Barr was listed as the translator of China in Ten Words. Barr translated the 2009 Times essay as well as another Yu Hua article, “The Spirit of May 35th,” which addressed issues of censorship and free speech in China and appeared in the International Herald Tribune last June.

China in Ten Words, I’m happy to report, lives up to expectations. It manages to convey a great deal of information and insight in just over 200 pages, with ten chapters that focus on a wonderfully diverse set of terms, from “Reading” to “Revolution,” and “Leader” to “Bamboozle.” As expected, Barr captures the loose, colloquial, and occasionally anarchic flavor of the author’s prose.

There was one way, though, in which China in Ten Words was not quite what I thought it would be. I was ready for a book that was similar to the Raymond Williams classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, which limns the transformations that various English language terms underwent during the nineteenth century—an era of rapid change that included the kind of swift industrialization and urbanization that China has been going through more recently. While Yu Hua is also concerned with linguistic shifts, his approach is much less impersonal and analytical than Williams’. In Yu Hua’s book, each of the terms he singles out for attention—revolution, writing, disparity, grassroots, copycat—function more as a counterpart to Proust’s famous Madeleine than as an object of dispassionate linguistic analysis. They serve above all as spurs to memory—opportunities to tell illuminating stories about the past.

In many cases, especially early in the book, the terms resurrect incidents that took place in Yu Hua’s provincial hometown during the Cultural Revolution decade—the period of his childhood and adolescence (he was born in 1960). Take, for example, the chapter he devotes to the word “Leader.” When Yu Hua was young, this term was reserved exclusively for references to one individual: Mao Zedong. Moving deftly between the humorous and the disturbing, as he does throughout the volume, Yu Hua pokes fun at himself for being so swept up in the personality cult mania of the time, recalling how he suspected the fates of giving him a raw deal by forcing him to be born into a “Yu” rather than a “Mao” family.

In contrast and by way of self-critique, Yu Hua also offers the tale of a local official who discovers that sharing the Great Helmsman’s surname can be a curse rather than a blessing. Since the official headed a local committee, some people jokingly called out to him as “Chairman Mao” when he passed them on the street. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the poor man was castigated for putting on airs, pretending to be a “local” Chairman Mao. His defense was that he had never asked people to call him that nor had he called himself by that term. In that supercharged political environment, though, this did him no good, as his accusers pointed out that when passersby had called him “Chairman Mao,” the local official had answered without correcting them for misspeaking.

Allusions to the Cultural Revolution show up so frequently in the first half of China in Ten Words that I forgot about Williams’ Keywords and was reminded again of Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Dai’s novella came to mind most powerfully during Yu’s chapter on “Reading,” which includes a beautifully crafted—and sometimes very funny—anecdote that focuses on the young author being part of a circle of children who pass between them a secret copy of a novel by Alexander Dumas—a literary wonder since nearly all other work they were accustomed to belonged to a single towering author: Chairman Mao.

In the end, however, this is a much braver book than Dai’s. For Yu Hua is not content to direct attention only to the problems that plagued China during the Cultural Revolution era, which served as an endpoint in To Live but in China in Ten Words is sometimes presented, more daringly, as a period with ills that have a direct connection to others sicknesses that have spread in the supposedly glorious current era. (Yu Hua also moves between the Cultural Revolution and later periods in his most recent novel, Brothers.)

It’s true that the Cultural Revolution is a time that China’s leaders would prefer people not look at too closely, since they fear that a full investigation of this complex cluster of events would prove embarrassing to people who now hold high positions. Nevertheless, the official line on the Cultural Revolution is that it was a time of “chaos” that was bad for the country. As a result, both that period and the era of the Great Leap Forward—the misguided utopian campaign-run-amuck of the late 1950s that triggered a famine of truly horrendous magnitude—need to be distinguished sharply from the Reform era that began in the late 1970s, which has seen China’s economy boom and stature in the global order rise.

In light of this, what is most troubling to China’s leaders is when writers draw analogies or links between the suffering caused by Maoist enthusiasms and the problems of the present-day period rooted in official corruption and in development-at-all-cost drives. This is just what Yu Hua does in the most courageous sections of China in Ten Words. And it his treatment of events and phenomena of the post-Mao era that explain why China in Ten Words could not be published on the mainland, even though that is where Yu Hua continues to live and work, operating in the hard-to-describe gray zone of an author who is not a dissident but sometimes writes things that deal with taboo subjects and hence can only appear in foreign editions (a gray zone he dissects eloquently in “The Spirit of May 35th,” his recent International Herald Tribune essay). It is verboten on the mainland, for example, to treat the Tiananmen demonstrations in a sympathetic manner. And this is precisely what he does in the chapter, “The People, ” which opens China in Ten Words and is based on his 2009 New York Times article. Equally provocative is the way in which he links China’s past and present failings in his chapter on “Revolution,” the seventh word he takes up in the volume.

No one disputes the idea that the Communist Party remained committed to “revolutionary” action even after taking power in 1949, Yu Hua writes in his chapter on revolution. “At that point, of course,” he continues, “revolution no longer meant armed struggle so much as a series of political movements, each hot on the heels of the one before, reaching ultimate extremes during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.” What is less readily appreciated, he points out, is what happened next, after “China reintroduced itself to the world in the guise of a freewheeling, market-driven economy.” At that point “revolution appeared to have vanished,” but this was an illusion. In fact, in:

“our economic miracle since 1978, revolution never disappeared but simply donned a different costume. To put it another way, within China’s success story one can see both revolutionary movements reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward and revolutionary violence that recalls the Cultural Revolution.”

“Just consider,” Yu Hua writes, “how urbanization has been pursued, with huge swathes of old housing razed in no time at all and replaced in short order by high rise buildings.” The term “blood-stained GDP” is becoming a popular one in Chinese online debates, coined to described the high human toll of the government’s rush to make the country look as “modern” as possible as quickly as possible. Yu Hua doesn’t employ this newly minted phrase, but he uses ones that are just as highly charged. He writes, for example, of a “developmental model saturated with revolutionary violence of the Cultural Revolution type,” in which many ordinary individuals are once again suffering in the name of abstractions.

It’s rare to find a work of fiction that can be hysterically funny at some points, while deeply moving and disturbing at others. It’s even more unusual to find such qualities in a work of non-fiction. But China in Ten Words is just such an extraordinary work.

Yu Hua and Allan Barr will be appearing at Pomona College on November 9 to discuss “The Making of China in Ten Words, and speaking about “A Writer’s China” at UC Riverside on November 10.

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