China in 10 Words – from the best books 0f 2011

It will be a very long time before Chinese writers cease to mine the seemingly inexhaustible vein of material that comes from the ten years of chaos and upheaval of  the Cultural Revolution.

Indeed, Yu Hua, the author of the seventh book to appear on this list, China in Ten Words himself has come up with his own graphic way of taking note of this. If all the stories of fortunes reversed and lives thrust into chaos “were laid out one after another, they would stretch as endlessly as a highway and be as hard to tally as the forest.”

For people who follow China  seriously, this produces something of an occupational hazard. After a while, so much that is written about this turbulent period (1966-’76) begins to  sound familiar, and even when the stories are extraordinary, as they so often are, the effect becomes somewhat repetitive — even monotonous. This is made worse when people write about the period – and there are many of them – more or less to to pander.

Yu Hua, who hails from Hangzhou, a metropolis that few Americans have ever heard of and  yet is bigger than almost any city in the United States, has none of these issues. As the previous author, most famously, of Brothers, and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, he has long earned his stripes as a highly original writer, and one who revels in taking on big social and historical themes.

At 225 pages, China in Ten Words is so brief that one couldn’t be blamed for suspected it as one of those tossed off efforts that famous writers sometimes lend themselves to, whether out of boredom, or contract requirements, or the need for funds, or simply because they can, which means for the heck of it. To the contrary, the result is one of the most intriguing recent contributions on the subject of the Cultural Revolution that this reader has come across.

No, Yu Hua has not come up with some astounding new material, or even a genuinely new perspective on the period. All in all, his stories of growing up in that era of generalized violence, and of yet of striking innocence in terms of some things, such as social and sexual mores, sound rather familiar. The breakthrough instead, if it is not too grand a claim to call it that, comes in the form of the extended parallels he draws between that era in China and our own. And here, I believe, Yu Hu, ever the astute social critic, has stumbled upon something really quite interesting.

The Cultural Revolution was an era of extraordinary concentration of power in the person of Mao Zedong. The Party remains powerful, of course, but by the measures of the past, authority has become highly diffuse. Both result in great violence, both in great injustices, even if their nature and description vary dramatically.

Here and there, Yu Hua takes great pleasure in skewering a body of opinion that exists in China (and which is nursed by the state) which is smug and self satisfied. “Our economic miracle — or should we say, the economic gain in which we so revel — relies to a significant extent on the absolute authority of local governments, for an administrative order on a piece of paper is all that’s required to implement drastic change.”

He is speaking, of course, of the administrative hocus pokus that has propelled real estate speculation and made huge fortunes out of thin air, while cheating ordinary people, the nameless masses, out of their land and their homes or their livelihoods, fueling combustible anger in places like Wukan and many other places.

He is mostly impressed by the great waste that accompanied the economic boom, likening it to useless backyard steel furnaces of the Great Leap Forward that boosted statistics but left the countryside polluted and denuded of trees.

“When I left South Africa at the end of a visit during the 2010 World Cup, the duty-free shop at Johannesburgs airport was selling vuvuzelas — Chinese-made plastic horns — for the equivalent of 100 yuan each, but on my return home I learned that the export price was only 2.6 yuan apiece,” he writes. “One company in Zhejiang manufactured 20 million vuvuzelas but ended up making a profit of only about 100,000 yuan. This examples gives a sense of China’s lopsided development: year after year chemical plants will dump industrial waste into our rivers, and although a single plant might succeed in generating a thirty-million-yuan boost to China’s GDP, to clean up the rivers it has ruined will cost ten times that amount. An authority I respect has put it this way: China’s model of development is to spend 100 yuan to gain 10 yuan in increased GDP.”

There is an extended meditation here about the seemingly almost arbitrary reversals of fates that the two eras, the Cultural Revolution and now, have brought about in the lives of Chinese people. Back then, as Yu Hua notes, Wang Hongwen, a simply security guard, rose at age 38 to officially become the country’s third leading politician, after Mao and Zhou En Lai. Today, it is seemingly ordinary people from the grassroots who dominate the lists of richest people. They are people who “think and dare to act,” and who “will adopt any method,” legal or not, to get ahead.

In the popular idiom of the revolutionary 1960s China, this was called “flipping pancakes,” he tells us. “Everyone was just a pancake, sizzling on the griddle, flipped from side to side by the hand of fate.”

For Yu Hua, the forms of the past may have changed but the essence of so many things has remained the same. We have gone from an era of radical redistribution of political power to an era of radical redistribution of economic power, but the arbitrary nature of fate and the injustices that it inevitably deals have remained constant.

“What is revolution,” Yu Hua asks? “The answer 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.”

Or indeed today’s.

Here’s a profile from the New York Times magazine of the author, written by the formidable Pankaj Mishra:

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