Books · China

“China in Ten Words” review

I’ve been preoccupied with travel for much of the past month and a half, so most of my reading has been travel guide books and travelers’ blogs, but I did manage to finish one book- Yu Hua’s “China in Ten Words.” Yu Hua wrote the acclaimed novel Brothers a few years ago, which I also read and reviewed here, and “China in Ten Words” is a nonfiction collection of his take on life in China, with each chapter being based on a word such as “revolution,” “writing,” “copycat,” “people” etc. There’s a lot of grim real-life stories, especially during the Cultural Revolution, with a bit of humor spread throughout. It’d be easy to think that a lot about life in China during Yu Hua’s childhood and the present are farcical, but often this farce had real blood and tears behind it. Yu Hua doesn’t hold back on the tragic events, such as him witnessing public executions as a child, or giving accounts like a poor family in which the parents committed suicide after being unable to afford to buy their hungry child a banana. “Disparity” is a particularly poignant chapter, dealing with one of the most significant problems in China today. Yu Hua tells us that while GDP has grown by almost a hundredfold from 1978 to 2009, inequality hasn’t decreased but has grown as well. On the other hand, surprisingly he has an optimistic take on Communism in China- that the Cultural Revolution and subsequent economic reforms have benefited the grassroots by redistributing political and economic power [to them]. The final chapter is “Bamboozle” or “忽悠 huyou” which mainland society seems to be full of. Bamboozling or trickery has become so common, that it’s acquired a kind of admirable or respectable status, Yu Hua says, but in the end, everyone becomes a victim. Yu Hua ends the chapter, and book, with a hilarious story of how his childhood attempt to bamboozle his father ended in him being tied to an operating table for surgery. These stories cover both the present and the past, including Yu Hua’s childhood during the Cultural Revolution. In many cases, Yu Hua tries to tie the past to the present, though not always too clearly, whether to explain something or just to illustrate how much times have changed. Whatever the situation, these 10 stories help convey the complexity and tragedy prevalent in Chinese society today.

Meanwhile, The Telegraph features “literary tours” of China, as well as East Africa by authors. I’ve read my fair share of books set in both of these places, with MG Vassanji’s “The In-Between World of Vikram Lall” (set in mid-20th century Kenya) one of my favorite novels. Needless to say, I’ve enjoyed many China books, whether fiction or nonfiction. These two literary tours are interesting to check out, though in the China one, I take exception to the description of old-time Shanghai as one of the “greatest cities in the British Empire” and Nanjing as a “university town”.

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