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.