China in Ten Words
by Yu Hua (translated by Allan Barr)
In 2009 Yu Hua wrote a piece in The New York Times to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
Yu used the politically loaded word renmin ('the people') as a prism through which to view the uprising. Party leaders continually pay lip service to a collective communist ideal of 'the people'. Yet here, renmin was used to ponder a very different kind of people-power.
The piece became the starting point for a larger collection of essays. China in Ten Words is Yu's first non-fiction book to be published in English (a Mandarin version is available in Taiwan). Quite simply, it is a triumph.
The book's 10 chapters revolve around 10 words - ranging from 'leader' to writer 'Lu Xun' to 'grass roots' - which dig superbly into the graft and grit of a complex, constantly changing, kingdom.
As a child of the Cultural Revolution, Yu - alongside an established canon of Chinese writers, including Bi Feiyu and Su Tong - writes with pathos and intelligence about the era that defined his generation.
Over the past 20 years, his acclaimed novels have included Brothers, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant and To Live (adapted into the banned Zhang Yimou film of the same name).
China in Ten Words combines memoir and exposition to create an altogether different book. Above all, Yu exposes the collective madness of the 1960s and '70s growing up in a small town in Zhejiang province where both his parents worked as doctors. Irrational fear ruled the day.
Characters from Yu's small town come to life in hilarious and tragic scenes.
Dogmatic devotion is exposed by one local hero who refuses to wash his right hand - described as 'black and grimy as a bear's paw' - after he shakes Mao Zedong's.
Yu also turns to the present day to pose the question about whether the breakneck speed at which China is developing will also lead to disaster. Chapters such as 'Disparity' use shocking statistics and anecdotes to highlight the growing chasm between rich and poor.
China in Ten Words is at its best, however, in the most personal moments. 'Reading' in particular offers delicious personal vignettes about the power of curiosity and the hunger to learn in a time when most books were banned.
One moment sums up the heights to which China in Ten Words aspires. Yu grew up in the hospital where his parents worked. One stiflingly hot day he sought relief from the heat by resting on a slab in an empty morgue. Years later the author happened upon Heinrich Heine's poem with the line 'Death ... is the cooling night'.
The moment leads Yu to ponder the mysterious power of literature, 'that one can read a writer of a different time, a different country ... a different language ... and there encounter a sensation that is one's very own'.
China in Ten Words may be a book firmly rooted in China. But Yu succeeds in delving beyond the time and place to a moving power of his own.