November 2011

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By Jonathan Campbell

An excerpt and then some from Campell’s new book, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll (Earnshaw Books). Learn more about Campbell and his work on Chinese rock and roll at his website.

Yaogun, or rock and roll, started in May, 1986, when Cui Jian, then a twenty-four year-old trumpet player and pop singer, sang “Nothing to My Name” at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, and on the television sets of the nation watching at home. But not much is known about the context of that performance.

It is important to recognize that though Cui Jian’s hit song emerged, basically, from a vacuum, the deep mark upon the nation that “Nothing to My Name” left was the result of Cui first being let into the tongsu [popular music] house he proceeded to set alight. For reasons obvious to those familiar with Cui’s yaogun output, he is not eager to delve deeply into his early days in the pop world. “Back then,” he said, referring to the days when he sang other people’s pop, “was my introduction to music in general. Late 1985 was my introduction to rock.” But he was enjoying himself. “From when I was small, I only thought about doing music. At the time, I liked it.” He wasn’t too particular, back in the early days, about what type of music he was playing or hearing, just as long as he was making music. In addition to songs penned by the official pop world, he sang a number of Western hits, all the while blowing a trumpet in the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble (now called the Beijing Symphony Orchestra). “Whatever kind of music was okay by me. But what we could hear was limited.”

His earliest recordings are rarely mentioned and seem to have been erased from his canon; 1989’s Rock and Roll on the New Long March is considered his real debut. Other recordings – with his band, Seven-Ply Board; with the pop-singer collective the Hundred Stars; as a solo artist doing Chinese versions of Western pop; or albums like Vagabond’s Return – are not what people have in mind when they invoke the Great One’s name, but they are an essential part of not only Cui’s story, but of yaogun in general, showing the state of affairs for rockers and rockers-to-be in the mid-eighties. Cui’s pre-Long March output featured songs written by Cui with lyrics provided by others and combined, in an extremely fractious manner, with a kitchen sink’s worth of musical tools, from straight-up acoustic guitar picking through to the then-brand-new musical technologies. The soft-pop strains bring to mind less rock legend than tongsu singer and of the influence of Teresa Teng, the Carpenters and Kenny Rogers. Certainly Cui’s signature singing style was present early on, with strained vocals that might be hinting as much at philosophical trouble as they point to trouble in his mid-section, and is noteworthy in the lack of the sugary-sweetness of his tongsu counterparts. The material may be far from what one expects of a rock legend, but it contributed to Cui garnering, if you’ll forgive the pun, a Name. “By 1986 I could tell that I was famous,” he said. In May of 1986, he became infamous too.

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By Paul R. Katz

As Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections approach (just a little more than two months from now, on January 14, 2012), the former is shaping up to be a real puzzler. In theory, President Ma Ying-jeou should be having a cake walk: relations with China are better than ever and the economy is running at a reasonable clip, especially when compared with so many other nations throughout the world. Yet at this point in time most polls show him either holding only a slim lead or else mired in a statistical dead heat with DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. Why?

Ma’s term started better than most. A man of charisma and integrity, he won the 2008 election by a landslide after popular disgust with the corrupt antics of the Chen Shuibian administration, garnering 7,658,724 votes (58% of the total) to overwhelm the Frank Hsieh ticket (5,445,239; 41%). Moreover, he swept into office with something Obama can only dream of: a nearly three-quarters supermajority for his party (the KMT) in the Legislative Yuan (81 of 113 seats or 71.68%, as opposed to a paltry 27 seats for the DPP). This majority remains substantial, despite the fact that the DPP and independents have whittled away at it over the years. There are also the advantages of incumbency, the KMT’s substantial assets, and strong support from a substantial percentage of the Taiwanese elite. The Ma administration has even been able to persuade the Central Election Commission to hold this particular election two months earlier than usual, just prior to the Lunar New Year, to allow Taiwanese businessmen in China the chance to return home to vote (Many are reckoned to be KMT supporters, and Taiwan has yet to institute a viable absentee ballot system). Yet the election remains closer than many had originally anticipated.

It is true that Ma proved unable to fulfill all of his campaign promises, but this is usually the case with elected leaders. Still, as in the U.S., most Taiwanese voters seem most concerned about the economy. Since Ma assumed office in 2008, closer links to China have given a major impetus to Taiwan’s economic growth. Nonetheless, critics point to the failure the Ma administration to reach the goals of his “633” policy, namely an economic growth rate of 6 percent, unemployment rate of lower than 3 percent and per capita gross domestic product of over US$30,000. Many college graduates now start at jobs with salaries averaging just over NT$20,000 per month, while far too many working class families struggle to make ends meet on monthly salaries of NT$30,000 (no indigenous form of Occupy Wall Street has arisen, yet). There is also growing concern about companies making their workers take unpaid leave (無薪假).

Apart from income gaps, there are regional ones as well. One especially troubling report released by the Ministry of the Interior noted that the average life expectancy of the Taiwanese people reached 79.18 years in 2010, the highest ever recorded. However, people in the capital city of Taipei have much longer lifespans than those in the poorer parts of Taiwan, especially along the island’s east coast. People living in Taitung and Hualien had the shortest life expectancies in the country in 2010 at 74.24 years and 74.96 years respectively, while the average life expectancy of Taipei residents stood at 82.42 years. This 7-8 year gap reflects the vastly uneven distribution of medical and public health resources throughout Taiwan.

Rising prices have sparked increasing anxiety and frustration. Many commodity prices are skyrocketing, except for those of Taiwan’s agricultural products (like bananas), that people had once assumed would be exported to China. The plight of Taiwan’s elderly farmers has attracted particular attention, particularly after the DPP produced a highly effective TV commercial about this issue that concluded with the news that the KMT had recently blocked an attempt to raise these farmers’ pensions (老農津貼). The KMT is well aware of the potential impact of this issue on the election campaign, but its legislators have yet to reach a consensus as to how much to raise pensions. Matters were made worse by a fraudulent commercial (since pulled) that appeared to show farmer Huang Kunbin 黃崑濱 (affectionately known as “Uncle Kunbin” or Khun-pin peh 崑濱伯 in Southern Min), a star of the touching documentary about Taiwan’s farmers entitled “Let it Be” (無米樂), adopting the KMT’s positions. To many farmers and residents of the peripheral areas mentioned above, the Ma administration seems aloof and indifferent, particularly following the devastation caused by Typhoon Morakot (For previous writings on recovery from the typhoon, see here).

It does not help Ma’s cause that the KMT is suffering its share of internal divisions (this is also the case with the DPP, but its elites seem willing to paper over their differences in order to regain power). Ma’s attempts to reform the party have offended many of its elders, some of whom appear to be only reluctantly supporting him. Concerns have also been raised about the so-called “金馬體制”, a reference not to Quemoy and Matsu but Ma’s close ties to his leading adviser King Pu-tsung 金溥聰, who some have branded a modern-day Heshen 和珅 (1750-1799) due to his seeming ability to know Ma’s policies before some ministers (ironically, King is an ethnic Manchu, reputed to be a cousin of the last Qing emperor Puyi 溥儀).

Still, despite all of these problems, Ma has consistently been able to maintain his lead over Tsai, despite a looming challenge from James Soong (see below). Therefore, many commentators were quite puzzled by Ma’s decision to suddenly suggest that Taiwan might consider signing a peace treaty with China in the coming decade. Then, in the face of furious criticism, Ma shifted course by stressing that any peace treaty would have to be approved by referendum before being signed, a stance that appears to contradict staunch KMT opposition to holding any plebiscites on “political issues”. Ma’s announcements may have been an attempt to shift the debate to his strength (Cross-Strait ties) and distract attention away from domestic issues, but the recent decline in Ma’s numbers suggests that this tactic may have backfired.

Ma is now facing additional pressure because Soong has followed through on his plans to pursue a third-party PFP campaign (again), attracting over 350,000 signatures in support of his candidacy. However, it remains unclear whether Soong will end up siphoning more votes from Ma or Tsai.

As for Tsai, nobody can be sure whether she has the “right stuff” to solve Taiwan’s problems, but her campaign is now kicking into high gear and attracting huge crowds at its rallies, including the 30,000+ who attended the opening of her campaign headquarters in New Taipei City. One seemingly minor but actually significant event was a decision by the Control Yuan to investigate the Tsai ticket for allegedly accepting illegal campaign contributions when three small children (triplets, actually) donated their piggybanks to her campaign (see the following video). Tsai’s staff had to return the money, causing the triplets’ grandfather to make an even larger donation in their place, but the resulting outrage and disbelief have prompted her campaign to announce a drive to collect 100,000 piggybanks full of donations (see here and here). Whether this will amount to anything remains to be seen, but many have been struck by the symbolism of the small donations that are largely responsible for fueling the Tsai campaign, which contrast markedly with the size of the well-oiled KMT machine and the support some local corporations as well as Taiwanese businessmen in China are credited with providing to Ma. If these patterns continue, the entire election may come to be cast as a battle of The People vs. The Machine.

At this point in time, either Ma or Tsai can win, although Ma would seem to retain an overall edge. For Ma, the keys to victory will be doing what he can to ensure that the economy stays strong, persuading the people to recognize and appreciate his many achievements, and hoping that nothing untoward happens to disrupt Cross-Strait ties. In Tsai’s case, she will need to stay focused on message of social justice, which helped the DPP gain power back in 2000, while avoiding the thorny issue of Taiwanese identity. Both candidates will have to keep a close eye on how Soong’s presidential bid develops.

By Noa Nahmias

Zhou Enlai has generally been one of the less controversial and more popularly loved figures amongst the early leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. More moderate than Mao, Zhou is not seen as directly responsible for disastrous campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and he is consequently still highly regarded even amongst people who otherwise criticize the CCP and its past, or present, leaders. Zhou Enlai is thus perhaps the safest “card” the Communist Party can play when discussing its history, a figure whose name evokes such responses as “honest”, “loyal” and even “handsome”. As another visitor to the Zhou Enlai Memorial Hall in Tianjin remarked during one of my trips there, “he’s better than Mao”.

Entrance to the Zhou Enlai-Deng Yingchao Memorial Hall in Tianjin

This memorial hall, dedicated to Zhou and his wife, Deng Yingchao, reveals much about the national narrative promoted by the CCP and the particular role of Zhou Enlai within it. Zhou was a student at Tianjin’s prestigious Nankai Middle School and later at Nankai University (although he did not graduate, expelled after being arrested for his involvement in political activities). A large statue of him is positioned in front of the main entrance to the university, and stones carrying Zhou Enlai quotes can be seen around campus. His time in Tianjin influenced his political activity, and the city is proud to have him as one of its former sons.

The memorial hall was quite busy on the Thursday morning of my visit, with three or four tour groups in the main building at the same time. The first panel of the exhibit gave a succinct overview of Zhou’s official biography. He was born at the end of the 19th century, with China experiencing hardship both from within and without (内忧外患). At a young age he resolved to dedicate his life to “elevating the Chinese people” (为中华之崛起), studied in Tianjin, was a leader of the “anti-imperialist anti-feudal May Fourth patriotic movement”, went to Japan and Europe and decided, after deliberation, that he was a committed Communist and would do anything to spread the Communist ideology.

This is what exhibit designers have decided visitors need to know about Zhou Enlai: he was the son of a traumatized, humiliated China, who vowed to dedicate his life to serving the people. The date or place of his birth are not mentioned, nor are the details of his turbulent childhood, which included several moves. Rather, this first panel sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition, in which Zhou’s personal life is almost completely missing. Making this split between the public and private even more noticeable is the fact that memorial hall planners separated the exhibits on Zhou and Deng Yingchao, assigning each to a separate floor in the building. From what I have seen in the past, such a division is unusual as far as memorial halls go in China.

In the more detailed panels that follow, visitors might be surprised to learn that Zhou Enlai, the shy, subtle and sometimes silent leader, was in the drama club and starred in several plays during his years at Nankai Middle School. Also on display are poems he wrote and samples of his calligraphy, as well as his contributions to the student paper. According to the display, Zhou was a leader of the May Fourth movement in Tianjin, although records from that time do not mention his participation in the movement until October 1919. The fact that Zhou was most probably not even in Tianjin during the month of May, or a student at any institution (he only got accepted to Nankai in June of that year), does not prevent the display from linking his return from Japan to the movement and presenting him as a leader of revolutionary activities. The message is clear—Zhou had his heart in the right place from the get go.

Statue of Zhou Enlai (right) shaking hands with Zhang Xueliang

Zhou Enlai’s time in Europe emphasizes the second theme of the museum—“international Zhou Enlai”. As opposed to Mao Zedong, who rarely left China, and only after the establishment of the PRC, Zhou received an international education—first in Japan and then in Paris, where he finally “accepted Marxism”. This moderate, cautious leader would later serve as the link between Mao’s government and the outside world. Discussing the pre-PRC era, the display focuses on Zhou’s efforts to negotiate with the Guomindang during the 1930s. A large statue shows him shaking hands with the warlord Zhang Xueliang, after their 1936 meeting in Xi’an, in which Zhou convinced Zhang to side with the Communists. However, the aftereffect of that meeting—the Xi’an Incident—is not mentioned. The civil war that followed the Japanese defeat is also noticeably omitted, but an entire wall shows photos of Zhou in negotiations with Guomindang representatives and other non-Communist figures such as Song Qingling during 1945. Clearly, the exhibit positions Zhou as a figure related to peaceful negotiations, nation-building and cooperation, rather than chaotic revolution. This is comfortably in line with the currently preferred historical narrative of the CCP, which focuses on harmony and nation-building rather than revolution and upheaval.

The exhibition moves on to the PRC period to spotlight Zhou’s various activities as state Premier: visiting factories and villages, reading a book to a group of children, having tea with an old man from his hometown. On the other side of the exhibit room, Zhou’s international side is emphasized again: on display are some of his best Western-style suits (but also his “Sun Yat-sen” suit), pictures of him drinking wine and meeting foreign diplomats at airports, as well as a large table listing all his trips abroad throughout his term as Premier. Zhou Enlai is thus characterized as the open-minded leader who was ready to engage the world, even when Mao was preaching complete self-reliance.

The Cultural Revolution is only briefly addressed, but the same themes recur here. Zhou’s role is summarized in the heading of the display—“efforts to put Cultural Revolution in check”(苦撑”文革”危局). This part shows pictures of Zhou and Deng Yingchao eulogizing Chen Yi, who served as foreign minister, was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and died in 1972. Zhou is lamenting the dead, not criticizing but trying to maintain order.

The memorial hall clearly outlines the more important aspects of Zhou’s life and career as far as the official CCP narrative is concerned. He is presented, subtly enough, as quite the opposite of Mao Zedong. Zhou is the rational, composed builder while Mao is the hot-blooded revolutionary. The fact that Zhou’s personal life is rarely exhibited serves to portray him as a strict civil servant—most memorial halls do mention, for instance, date of birth and most times carry a picture from the subject’s marriage ceremony. On the other hand, Zhou is also depicted as the internationally minded leader who was responsible for China’s diplomatic connections and its involvement in the world, undoubtedly a theme which is important to the CCP today, as observers are calling on China to play a responsible role in world politics. Indeed, Zhou Enlai is exactly the type of leader today’s CCP would like people to associate it with.

Noa Nahmias is a Master’s student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researching Nationalism in contemporary China. She is currently studying at Nankai University, Tianjin.

Emily M. Hill, Smokeless Sugar: The Death of a Provincial Bureaucrat and the Construction of China’s National Economy, Vancouver/Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2010. 336 pp. $85.00 (cloth).

By Elisabeth Köll

As Emily Hill’s monograph Smokeless Sugar promises in its subtitle, readers learn about the death of a provincial bureaucrat, Feng Rui, and the construction of China’s national economy before WWII through an analysis of his short but productive career. The story is anchored in the complex figure of Feng Rui and his execution in 1936 by the Guangdong provincial government, which serves as a lens on the development of economic policies in theory and practice under the Nationalist government. Feng had been a protégé of General Chen Jitang, who resigned in July 1936 after a failed attempt to independently gain support from other regional and national leaders to mobilize forces against the Japanese encroachment in the north, thus de facto challenging Chiang Kai-shek’s power. After Chen’s departure, Chiang replaced the top tier of the Guangdong provincial government, and Feng Rui as a former prominent member became a welcome target for the central government to reaffirm its political authority through capital punishment.

As Hill explains right at the beginning, the charges against Feng Rui were constructed in the context of a general anti-corruption campaign in 1936 and centered on issues related to China’s tariff policies and the deteriorating economic relationship with Japan. China had achieved full tariff autonomy in 1929, and the ability (or inability) to collect revenue became a crucial marker for the nationalist central state to gauge its relationship with provincial governments and Japan. The enforcement of tariffs, control of commodity smuggling and the collection of tariff-related revenue turned into considerable challenges for the central government and the Chinese Maritime Customs Administration as the institutional enforcer. As origin of the Republican movement under Sun Yat-sen and his successor Chiang Kai-shek, Guangdong province assumed a special status during the Nanjing decade (1927-1937), characterized as a semi-autonomous province with strong regional, military-backed authorities. Not surprisingly, under Chen Jitang the coastal province of Guangdong imported large quantities of duty-free goods, many from Japan, whose imperialist regime also increased smuggling activities in the Northeast by the mid-1930s. Bringing Guangdong leaders like Chen Jitang and their military and fiscal resources into the fold of the central government turned into a major mission of Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s, and Feng Rui’s fate became part of it.

Hill develops her story in eight chapters, allowing readers to follow the career of Feng Rui from his early years in Guangzhou and academic training overseas to his position as director of the Guangdong Bureau of Forestry and Agriculture and official supervisor of the Guangdong Sugar Monopoly. Feng Rui had to deal with economic protectionism through taxation of imported commodities but also with a new form of import substitution under which Chinese manufacturers repackaged imported goods such as cement, medicines or white sugar as their own branded products. We follow Feng’s efforts to build and protect Guangdong’s sugar industry, in particular his role in the province-led construction of factories for processing sugarcane. As Hill shows in the last chapter, these sugar mills survived the war and civil war and became the backbone of industrial revival in Guangdong after 1949. Her excellent analysis of the sugar mills as business and administrative institutions support her conclusion that pre-war industrialization sponsored by the state not only laid the foundation for industrial progress under the new socialist government but also showed the capacity of regionalism in the form of provincial state sponsorship.

Guangdong’s proactive role in initiating industrialization during the 1930s reflected in many ways Feng Rui’s theoretical concept of integrating agriculture, industry, and commerce as a new model of economic planning for the Republican nation-state. With a strong academic background in agriculture and interest in economic reform, Feng did not shy away from proposing an alternative path to the capitalist model for China’s future development. While the implementation of the concept in the sugar industry was not without challenges, it places the protagonist firmly within China’s emerging industrial economy as a “bureaucratic broker who linked together social spaces, economic sectors, and geographic zones” (p. 10). Hill discusses his role as negotiator on behalf of the Guangdong provincial government and uses the competing trade interests of central and provincial governments as focus to demonstrate the personal advantages and disadvantages of brokerage as a function of economic activity.

Smokeless Sugar presents an impressive amount of original research based on a vast number of primary sources from archives in and outside China. The author clearly left no stone in Feng Rui’s life unturned and writes with passion about the protagonist. Advertised as “part political biography, part economic history, and part murder mystery”, Hill’s study, however, presents more of a posthumous exoneration than mystery solving by uncovering the various political interests and motives behind Feng Rui’s execution. While the author should be applauded for using a creative approach to framing her topic, anchoring the book so strongly in the circumstances of the protagonist’s death makes the organization of multiple strands of arguments difficult and at times puts the reader in danger of losing focus. In this context it would have been interesting to see a more comprehensive discussion of Feng Rui’s role as broker in the conclusion, especially in comparison with the fate other bureaucratic or entrepreneurial brokers who had to navigate the complicated political and economic landscape of the 1930s. Smokeless Sugar demonstrates the vital role of the central and provincial governments in the creation of China’s economic and administrative institutions and their interaction at the domestic and international level. As Feng Rui’s case shows, brokers negotiating conflicts of interest between center and region were agents and victims at the same time.

Elisabeth Köll is Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School. She is the author of From Cotton Mill to Business Empire: The Emergence of Regional Enterprises in Modern China (Vol. 229, Harvard East Asian Monographs Series. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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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