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The Long March continues: A Chinese soldier stands guard at the Tiananmen gate

When Yu Hua was a schoolboy in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, green with youth and red with Maoist zeal, he and his vigilante classmates ambushed a young peasant who was illicitly selling food coupons in the town market. They pushed him to the ground, and when he fought back they hit him over the head with bricks. His right hand was clenched tight, so they smashed it until his bloody fingers opened. Inside was a wad of coupons which they triumphantly confiscated. The peasant had saved them up to pay for his wedding.

For an acclaimed novelist now in his fifties, that is quite a hinterland. A comparably shameful school memory for a British novelist of the same vintage might involve breaking the biscuit jar during a midnight raid. Yu Hua tells the story in China in Ten Words. In contemporary China, he writes, painful memories of the Mao years are not only commonplace but essential to confront if the nation is to make sense of the contradictions and discord "concealed amid the complacency generated by our rapid economic advances" over the last 40 years.

The ten words — including "revolution", "disparity", "leader" and "grassroots" — which frame each chapter are footholds for Yu to discuss today's China and where it has come from. He does so through true stories and social commentary, the words often triggering childhood memories like Proust's madeleine. His core subject matter, as in his last novel, Brothers, is China's transition from the Mao era to Deng Xiaoping's brave new world and beyond, where the peasant selling food coupons would "with a flick of the wrist" be transformed from capitalist roadster to role model.

Yu didn't need ten words when two — Cultural Revolution — would have suited his purpose. In a society where history can be swept under the rug, Yu connects the 1970s to the economic miracle that followed, which he views as another mass movement, and the inequality and moral disintegration which came out of Pandora's box along with it. The last two chapters dissect contemporary trends — "copycat" for fake goods and fake people; and "bamboozle" for a culture of knowing trickery — to reiterate how the nation has swung from one extreme to the other, from "a China ruled by politics" to "a China where money is king".

The book is short, and Yu's pared down, peasant-poet style, captured nicely in Allan Barr's translation, carries the reader along effortlessly. One irritating tic — a common and contagious malady among books about China — is his proclivity for quoting Chinese proverbs at every turn, invariably beginning, "In China there's a saying." As Confucius might have said, just because there are 10,000, it doesn't mean you have to try and include them all.

Fresher is the boldness with which Yu addresses sensitive topics. While it is permissible to discuss the Cultural Revolution critically in China — it is officially referred to as a period of "chaos" — the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which open the first chapter ("people"), are verboten. Yu knew when he wrote the book that it would not be published in mainland China, where he lives, and outspoken sections may play to the foreign crowd, ever-hungry for a Chinese dissident. But even if it has no home audience, in a country where authors must self-censor to survive, China in Ten Words is a clarion call, and a reminder that China still struggles with an unresolved history and crippling internal conflicts in the century it is supposed to dominate.

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