Book Review: A Spirited Journey Through Contemporary China

Reading the Chinese novelist Yu Hua’s nonfiction book “China in Ten Words” is like being in a scene from the movie “Fight Club.” The pace is so frenetic and edgy that you spend much of your time flinching and ducking to avoid being splattered with blood or human tissue.

And yet Yu Hua’s spirited and at times unbelievably harrowing journey through contemporary China is also intensely personal and lyrical. Key words — such as “people,” “revolution” and “disparity” — provide the starting point from which he weaves his narrative, folding in stories, urban myths and legends, merging newspaper reports with seemingly random observations.

For those of us who want to know more about the “real China” behind the amazing GDP growth figures, Yu Hua provides an important and highly idiosyncratic vantage point. With Yu Hua, we’re in the presence of a former self-confessed counterfeit-dentist-turned-writer, a man who explains away his brusque Hemingway-like style by conceding his limited education and vocabulary — all thanks to the disruptions of the Cultural Revolution.

Born in 1960 in the lovely lakeside city of Hangzhou, Yu Hua, his elder brother and mother later moved to live with their surgeon father in the bleaker and more remote coastal town of Haiyan. It was there that the family was to experience the full onslaught of the Cultural Revolution — a defining and formative period for him as a young man and indeed, to his mind, for the Chinese people as a whole.

Yu Hua returns again and again to the Cultural Revolution, describing different events from those years. His is a chronicle of men and women humiliated and beaten, of lives destroyed and families torn apart as so-called rightists, landlords and counter-revolutionaries were exposed, sentenced and punished.

It’s clear that he sees the current economic boom and its obsession with money and success as being linked to the raw emotionalism of those cataclysmic years, with Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward — before Yu Hua’s birth — another period of public madness.

As he says: “In our economic miracle since 1978 revolution never disappeared but simply donned a different costume,” adding later and more ominously that China’s “developmental model [is] saturated with revolutionary violence of the Cultural Revolution type.”

The constant betrayals, as well as the brutality, the beatings and especially the summary executions that he witnessed firsthand as a young boy would haunt him for decades. They infused his work with a near-suffocating darkness and malevolence, so much so that he himself was forced to step back from the memories and write on other subjects in order to preserve his own sanity. “China in Ten Words,” then, is as much about his genesis as novelist as it is about his homeland.

But since Yu Hua is also an extremely accomplished storyteller, the gloom is leavened by humor, love and beauty. There’s a particularly haunting scene when he describes how he spent many a hot afternoon as a young boy sleeping on the cool concrete slabs in the local mortuary, unaware of the ghoulishness of being surrounded by so much death.

In many ways, Yu Hua represents a generation that China’s rulers would rather forget, young men and women whose lives were damaged, if not destroyed, by the churlishness of the elite and the hysteria of the masses.

He and his fellow authors are an indictment of China’s unreconciled past, their prophetic warnings borne out by events in Wukan and countless other small communities where lands have been seized by corrupt local officials and the rights of individuals spurned.

While radical political change may not come to the People’s Republic in the short term, works like Yu Hua’s are important because they keep historical debates alive. They maintain a constant link with the past. For example, as others forget Tiananmen Square, with Yu Hua the events are very much alive.

This thought fills me with pathos as I read “China in Ten Words” here in Jakarta. Like China, Indonesia is also a huge, economically booming country with a dark and traumatic past. Like China, too, its elites often try to control or whitewash history. We search for works that honestly and objectively cover the bloodier moments of Indonesian history — the 1965 killings, the 1998 riots or even more recent tragedies like Mesuji and Papua — and find very few indeed.

How would Indonesia’s legions of writers describe their country in 10 words? Can they be as truthful and compelling as Yu Hua?

(Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.)