China and its Discontents

Review of “China in Ten Words,” by Yu Hua

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I just finished reading Yu Hua’s latest novel/memoir, “China in Ten Words.” What a book. It’s one of the best China books I’ve ever read, and it’s banned in China (which is one of the reasons why it’s so good). The book, with all of Yu’s polemics and invective, is an astonishingly effective evisceration of any legitimacy to which the CCP still desperately clings. If I were to make an analogy, Yu Hua’s latest book vs. his previous novels is like Tian Zhuangzhuang’s movie “Blue Kite,” vs. Zhang Yimou’s adaptation of another Yu Hua novel, “To Live.”

The premise of the book is self-explanatory: Yu Hua surveys modern China by looking through the lenses of ten words, from “People” and “Leader” to “Revolution,” “Grassroots,” and “Bamboozle.” But the method by which he does this is creative and emotionally resonant. Each word is mainly a jumping off point for Yu’s childhood memories of the Cultural Revolution. The beginning of the book in Chapter 1 (“People”), with his memories of the Tiananmen Massacre,  are the least distressing, most innocent parts of the book. Surprised? I was too. By the time we get to “Revolution,” present-day forced evictees are throwing Molotov cocktails at the demolition crews and burning themselves to death, and childhood Yu is admiring his older brother for making the teacher cry while other teachers backstab each other and engage in class warfare-style schadenfreude. In “Disparity,” young Yu and his buddies mob and beat a villager to crack down on the illegal sale of food-rationing coupons; the villager had been saving the coupons for his wedding. Yu explains: “We got a kick out of bullying those weaker than ourselves, believing too that we were performing a public service.” (149) Space-Time and the normal associations between youth and innocence have been overturned. Yu’s reminisces bring us into the thick of what seems like some tragic nightmare that belongs to some other reality, that “Romantic and absurd comedy/cruel and all too realistic tragedy.” (116-117)

Yu’s message gradually unfolds as we progress from word to word: that modern China and the CCP are still best explained by the Cultural Revolution; that China is still stuck in a middle-school mentality of bullying, senseless brutality, and anarchy. Furthermore, this backwards political system has birthed a deformed, inane popular culture where “copycats” and “bamboozlers” are celebrated. The implication is that China’s corrupt political system keeps the country stuck in a post-modern moral and spiritual confusion that the West can at least confront with a common moral vocabulary, strong critically-minded education system, and history of democratic governance; the average Chinese citizen has none of these resources.

This message is brightened by a few brief moments of light, mainly the parts where Yu describes how reading and writing lifted his psychology out of the mind-numbing senselessness of the Cultural Revolution. Another anecdote about how the town morgue was his only refuge as a child is oddly calming. But he mainly focuses on just smashing the CCP’s legitimacy to smithereens, especially with this perfect description of modern China:

“What is revolution? The answers I have heard take many forms. Revolution fills life with unknowables, and one’s fate can take an entirely different course overnight; some people soar high in the blink of an eye, and others just as quickly stumble into the deepest pit. In revolution the social ties that bind one person to another are formed and broken unpredictably, and today’s brother-in-arms may become tomorrow’s class enemy.” (137)

If it’s any consolation, Yu ends by saying, “A bamboozler is quite likely to end up bamboozling himself or–in Chinese parlance–to pick up a big stone only to drop it on his own foot.” (221) I think if he were to make it any clearer that he hoped the CCP would bamboozle itself, this book would not only be banned but Yu Hua would find himself “disappeared.”

Written by Will

May 8th, 2012 at 2:08 pm