China In Ten Words

China is a very different country than America, more than even Europe, because so few Chinese write in English. Many European sites use English, making it easy as an American to see the raw opinions of the European every man. This isn’t the case for sites in China. Some of this divide is bridged by sites like China Smack which translates the stories and user comments of popular Chinese internet stories into English but I haven’t come across full length books in the same vein. China In Ten Words by Yu Hua (余华) and translated by Allen H. Barr is one such book and very eye opening. The author writes the book not for the Sinophiles of the US and Europe but for other Chinese readers which gives a unique perspective.

Yu Hua grew up during the Cultural Revolution period of China and most of what he writes draws heavily on this time. While non Chinese authors talk about the Cultural Revolution from a birds eye view, this author’s personal stories told in a matter of fact voice make the period more real (and even more mad), it’s very surreal at times. The world was turned upside down, in school children were practically in charge of the teachers. One story which sticks in my mind is about Yu Hua’s older brother and a teacher. His brother interrupted a class and the teacher reprimanded him, something which has happened a million times around the world. Yu Hua’s brother though went up to the teacher and punched her in the head, in the name of revolution. This and other stories make the slogal “To rebel is justified” much more real and insane. It’s amazing to think this happened fifty years ago. These stories remind me of Lord of the Flies, not a modern nation.

This leads to what I believe is the theme of this book. Yu Hua shows the madness of the China of his youth and then shows that modern China is just as crazy, in different ways. One page will be a story of his being a member of a gang of children beating up and turning in people illegally selling their food rations, the next will be a story of modern property developers hiring thugs to abduct people unwilling to sell their homes so that the homes can be quickly destroyed. One oddity I couldn’t get past though was how he accepts the insane “revolutions” of the Mao era seemingly more easily than the crony captialism and corruption of modern China. To me corruption is a problem that everyone acknowledges at least, it seems as though the terror of the Mao era isn’t really considered criminal.

This is a compelling book, by a Chinese person for Chinese people about China. It talks frankly about sensitive subjects and I learned a lot about how one Chinese person views these infamous periods of Chinese history. The original Chinese book is titled “十個詞彙裡的中國”, I hope some day to be able to read it and other books by Chinese authors, but until then this translation helps me understand how the Chinese people view China, something not easily gained elsewhere.

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