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Cultural Lexicon: Book review of "China in Ten Words" by Yu Hua

Melanie Kirkpatrick

Yu Hua is one of China’s most acclaimed novelists, hugely popular in his own country and the recipient of several international literary prizes. He brings a novelist’s sensibility to China in Ten Words, his first work of nonfiction to be published in English. This short book is part personal memoir about the Cultural Revolution and part meditation on ordinary life in China today. It is also a wake-up call about widespread social discontent that has the potential to explode in an ugly way.

The book’s 10 chapters present images of ordinary life in China over the past four decadesfrom the violent, repressive years of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when the author grew up, to the upheavals and dislocations of the current economic miracle. Along the way, Mr. Yu ranges widely into politics, economics, history, culture and society. His aim, he writes, is to “clear a path through the social complexities and staggering contrasts of contemporary China.”

And he succeeds marvelously. China in Ten Words captures the heart of the Chinese people in an intimate, profound and often disturbing way. If you think you know China, you will be challenged to think again. If you don’t know China, you will be introduced to a country that is unlike anything you have heard from travelers or read about in the news.

The book’s narrative structure is unusual. Each chapter is an essay organized around a single word. It’s not spoiling any surprises to list the 10 words that the author has chosen in order to describe his homeland: people, leader, reading writing, revolution, disparity, grassroots, copycat, bamboozle and Lu Xun(an influential early 20th-century writer). None is likely to appear on the list of banned words and phrases that China’s censors enforce when they monitor Internet use. But in Mr. Yu’s treatment, each word can be subversive, serving as a springboard for devastating critiques of Chinese society and, especially, China’s government.

Take the word “people,” which, post-1949, has been ubiquitous in China: Think “People’s Republic” or “People’s Daily” or “the people are the masters,” as Chinese schoolchildren are taught to say. In Mr. Yu’s telling, the word becomes an opportunity to discuss the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989, when Chinese soldiers fired on unarmed democracy demonstrators. He movingly describes the dashed hopes of Chinese patriots who longed for something more from their government.

In his view, the Beijing residents who marched in support of the student demonstrators were less interested in democratic freedoms than in eradicating the corruption they witnessed among government officials, who got rich at the expense of the rest of the Chinese citizenry. For him, Tiananmen Square marks the dividing line between “a China ruled by politics” and “a China where money is king.”

Mr. Yu argues that corruption infects every aspect of modern Chinese society, including the legal system. Historically, Chinese peasants with grievances could go to the capital and petition the emperor for redress. Today, Mr. Yu writes, millions—yes, millions—of desperate citizens flock to Beijing each year hoping to find an honest official who will dispense justice where the law has failed them at home. What will happen when they discover that their leaders at the national level are just as corrupt as those at the local level?

The violence and deprivations of the Cultural Revolution are by now well known, but Mr. Yu’s reminiscences add color and texture to what the world has learned in recent years about that lost decade. The youthful Yu Hua is something of a wise guy and a schemer, pitting himself against bureaucratic inanities. It is sometimes impossible to know whether to laugh or cry.

In “Reading,” Mr. Yu describes his boyhood eagerness to find something to read other than “grindingly dull accounts of class struggle.” Works of literature were routinely destroyed in book-burning bonfires tended by Red Guards. But fragments survived and circulated in secret, passed from reader to reader. One day, Mr. Yu and a classmate get hold of a pirated translation of a classic French novel and decide to hand-copy it so that they can savor the pleasure of reading it over and over again. What ensues is a hilarious description of the boys’ frenzied efforts to finish the transcription overnightonly to discover in the morning, in an O. Henry-like twist, that they can’t decipher each other’s handwriting.

As awful as the Cultural Revolution was, in Mr. Yu’s telling its horrors sometimes pale next to those of the present day. The chapter on “bamboozle” describes how trickery, fraud and deceit have become a way of life in modern China. “There is a breakdown of social morality and a confusion in the value system of China today,” he states. He writes, for example, about householders around the country who are evicted from their homes on the orders of unscrupulous, all-powerful local officials.

Mr. Yu’s portrait of contemporary Chinese society is deeply pessimistic. The competition is so intense that, for most people, he says, survival is “like war.” He has few hopeful words to offer, other than to quote the ancient philosopher Mencius, who taught that human progress is built on man’s desire to correct his mistakes. Meanwhile, he writes, “China’s pain is mine.”

Mr. Yu, who lives in Beijing, made the decision not to publish “China in Ten Words” in his own country. Instead, it came out earlier this year in the other ChinaTaiwanand, now, in the U.S. It will be interesting to see how he is received when, after his American book tour, he goes home again.

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