China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

China in Ten Words offers an astonishing look under the shiny veneer of modern China. Yu Hua’s life experiences make for fascinating, if sometimes gruesome, sad, absurd, or horrifying stories. The essays don’t pull punches.

Yu Hua isn’t technically a Chinese dissident, since in China he enjoys fame as a respected novelist, yet this book was not, could not have been published on the mainland because he talks about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, still a taboo (censored) subject in the PRC.

I’m so glad I read China in Ten Words, because it seems that almost all the other nonfiction books I’ve read about China were written by outsiders. An exception (the exception?) is a book I read in 2013 called Life and Death in Shanghai, a powerful memoir by a woman named Nien Cheng who lived through the Cultural Revolution. She was older and much more privileged than Yu Hua, whose upbringing was rural and far less comfortable, but she suffered more as a result of her special status.

Yu Hua’s book is organized around ten words, but the essays aren’t about the words themselves. The words just serve as concise labels.

More on the ten essays below.

The essays in China in Ten Words

1. People (rénmín 人民)
Yu Hua says “the people” was an empty political phrase to him until the night he saw and felt and heard them, the people themselves.

2. Leader (lǐngxiù 领袖)
The personality cult of Chairman Mao was powerful, but the effect of Mao’s death on Yu Hua was unusual.

3. Reading (yuèdú 阅读)
Books were at times difficult or impossible to obtain, so Yu Hua had to go to great lengths to get his hands on reading material. Oh, the things we take for granted now!

4. Writing (xiězuò 写作)
How did Yu Hua manage to get himself a job as a writer, despite having been assigned a job pulling teeth?

5. Lu Xun (Lǔ Xùn 鲁迅)
Yu Hua describes a transformation in his view of the officially sanctioned Chinese author Lu Xun.

6. Revolution (gémìng 革命)
As has been famously pointed out, revolution is not a dinner party.

7. Disparity (chājù 差距)
In China as elsewhere, life is relentlessly unfair.

8. Grassroots (cǎogēn 草根)
In English, the word ‘grassroots’ only has an abstract sense when used as an adjective, but the Chinese neologism ‘caogen’ is used to refer to individuals who have managed to create success from thin air, sometimes overnight. Unfortunately, that success can turn back into thin air just as fast.

9. Copycat (shānzhài 山寨)
The literal meaning of the word is something like “mountain stronghold”, but the neologism ‘shanzhai’ is used to designate knock-off, fake, and imitation products, whether they are physical goods or cultural products such as live entertainment shows or newspaper articles. I find the term problematic, since it encompasses pirated brand-name goods and misuses of others’ intellectual property or identities as well as legitimate parodies and genuinely new creative works.

10. Bamboozle (hūyou 忽悠)
This neologism means something like ‘defraud’, but the Chinese attitude towards huyou seems more suited to relatively harmless behaviors such as bluff, bluster, and bullshit. To Yu Hua, admiration for fakes, fakers, scams, and scammers indicates a nationwide moral problem, “a breakdown of social morality and a confusion in the value system in China today” (221).

When and Why I Read China in Ten Words

I just read an expat’s book of essays on the language and culture of China (Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows). Only fair to read a native’s next.

Genre: non-fiction (China, biography)
Date started / date finished:  25-Mar-17 to 30-Mar-17
Length: 225 pages
ISBN: 9780307739797 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2011
Amazon link: China in Ten Words