The Bonfire of China’s Vanities

Pankaj Mishra – The New yYork Times

Copyright The New York Times
One cold afternoon last fall I met Yu Hua at the state-run Friendship Hotel in Beijing. Cheerfully, he described to me the incipient international fame of his most recent novel, “Brothers,” one of China’s biggest-selling literary works. He had just returned from Hong Kong, where the novel was short-listed for the Man Asian Prize; he was leaving soon for Paris to receive an award for the book, which had just been translated into French. With the breezy insouciance that unbroken success creates, Yu then began to recount a somewhat irreverent memory of Mao Zedong’s death.
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Photograph by Gueorgui Pinkhassov/magnumphotos.com
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Photograph by Gueorgui Pinkhassov/magnumphotos.com
Though nearly 50, Yu, who wears his hair short and spiky, looks relatively young. He speaks in emphatic bursts, his face often flushing red, and he is quick to laugh. It was, in fact, his boisterous laugh that almost got him into trouble on the morning of the solemn announcement of Mao’s death. Responding to orders that blared out from loudspeakers, he assembled with hundreds of other students in the main hall of his small-town high school. “Funereal music was played, and then we had to hear the long list of titles that preceded Mao’s name, ‘Chairman,’ ‘Beloved Leader,’ ‘Great helmsman . . . ,’ ” Yu recalled. “Everyone loved Chairman Mao, of course, so when his name was finally announced, everyone burst into tears. I started crying, too, but one person crying is a sad sight; more than a thousand people crying together, the sound echoing, turns into a funny spectacle, so I began to laugh. My body shook with my effort to control my laughter while I bent over the chair in front of me. The class leader later told me, admiringly, ‘Yu Hua, you were crying so fervently!’ ”
He paused, and then jumped 13 years to a memory of another momentous — and more traumatic — event in China’s modern history. In the spring of 1989, when tens of thousands of protesters filled Tiananmen Square, Yu was living in Beijing, partaking of the cultural excitement and political hopefulness of post-Mao China. Already a major figure in the city’s artistic avant garde, Yu biked every day to Tiananmen Square to express solidarity with the student protesters.
As Yu described the widespread civilian support for the students, a note of passion entered his voice, and the menu he had elegantly snagged off a passing waiter lay open and unread in his lap. “The word ‘people’ was much used in the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “It is a very loaded term in China, it is used a lot, but until the mass protests in 1989 I did not realize what the word meant.”
His voice grew louder as he recalled the bloody suppression and aftermath of the protests. I became nervous. Yu, a short, thickset man with bulging eyes, could easily pass unnoticed in a crowd of Chinese peasants and workers, but he does not exactly strive for self-effacement. We were sitting in the corner of the hotel lobby, partly concealed by a large pillar and surrounded by a thick fog of cigarette smoke. Yu, a restless chain smoker, insists on ignoring China’s new ban on smoking in public places.
The hotel was full that day of young executives from nearby I.T. offices , any one of whom might have recognized Yu, who is frequently mentioned as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Though official repression of the memory of Tiananmen has ensured that few young Chinese know much about the struggles for democracy waged in the 1980s, cybersavvy youth of the kind we were surrounded by are still likely to take a sternly nationalistic line with a Chinese writer or intellectual criticizing the events of June 1989 to a foreigner. Indeed, as Yu spoke, a trendily dressed young woman looked up from the glowing screen of her laptop to squint at him.
Yu seemed totally oblivious to potential eavesdroppers. His face was red as he came to end of his memory of 1989. Turning to me, he said: “Sorry to take off like that. But this was a big turning point for all of us. After June 1989 people in China lost interest in politics. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping made his famous ‘Southern Tour,’ calling for faster market reforms, and the economy started to take off. The ideals of nation and socialism began to look empty. People became focused on making money.
“I, too, began to enjoy the fruits of capitalism,” he added, and laughed.
YYu was only partly joking. For someone who started out in China’s brief moment of counterculture in the 1980s as a writer of bleak, experimental and defiantly unsalable stories, Yu has gone on to receive an ample share of the fruits of capitalism. Published in two parts in 2005 and 2006, “Brothers,” which traces the fortunes of two stepbrothers from the Cultural Revolution to China’s no-less-frenzied Consumer Revolution, has sold more than a million copies in China, not counting the probably higher sales of innumerable pirated editions.
The novel, which will be published in an English translation later this month, may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction. Certainly, foreign readers will find in its sprawling, rambunctious narrative some of China’s most frenetic transformations and garish contradictions. “Brothers” strikes its characteristic tone with the very first scene, as Li Guang, a business tycoon, sits on his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of space travel even as he mourns the loss of all earthly relations. Li made his money from various entrepreneurial ventures, including hosting a beauty pageant for virgins and selling scrap metal and knockoff designer suits. A quick flashback to his small-town childhood shows him ogling the bottoms of women defecating in a public toilet. Similarly grotesque images proliferate over the next 600 pages as Yu describes, first, the extended trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Li and his stepbrother Song Gang witness Red Guards torturing Song Gang’s father to death, and then the moral wasteland of capitalist China, in which Song Gang is forced to surgically enlarge one of his breasts in order to sell breast-enlargement gels.
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