Book Review: China in Ten Words, and A Review in Several More

(This book review was written by Hannah Silver, current master of Urban and Regional Planning student at Portland State University. )

“China’s pain is mine,” states Yu Hua as an introduction to his 2011 account of his country’s
incredible and complicated half­century metamorphosis, China in Ten Words. Though limited
to a finite lexicon, China in Ten Words conveys perfectly the impressive and often chaotic
history of the Communist Party of China and its resilient people with a calm and resolute
voice. Using simple descriptions of personal experiences and recountals of famous (and
infamous) events occurring in the author’s lifetime, these stories weave together to illustrate
overarching themes of China’s development. Each chapter focuses upon one of ten decisive
words, seamlessly building upon the prior while leading the reader on a journey through
China’s successes and strife.

In the chapter “People,” Yu Hua begins with a story that conveys the power of the masses. A
country that holds more than 1/6th of the entire world’s population certainly houses masses.
With his poetic, simplistic prose, Yu Hua somehow lets the reader feel China’s heartbeat
through the pages and from across the globe, establishing a kinship to a people that one may
or may not have had any experience with or affinity to otherwise.

Upon this foundation, the chapter “Leader” explores the celebrity of the revered Chairman
Mao, expressing the people’s’ desperation for something and someone to believe in. Even
now, “gripped by the zeitgeist, people of diverse backgrounds and disparate opinions find a
common channel for their discontent” by venerating the deceased Mao. For an outsider, this
chapter is essential for establishing an understanding of the people’s investment in their faith
in one leader and party.

“Reading” takes a look at both the economic market and dissemination of information through his incredible history of access to literature. Contrasting his childhood, when novels were contraband, to the day that vouchers became available to only fifty citizens in his village to purchase books, to the overwhelming access to pirated copies of even his own writing at kiosks along the sidewalk, Yu Hua exhibits just one of China’s rapid changes.

In “Writing,” Yu Hua recounts his incredible discipline in training himself to be a writer after
years of pulling teeth for a living. While describing the background of why his earlier writing is undeniably bloody, Yu Hua unveils a China full of violence at the peak of both militancy and his own childhood. Watching executions of “counterrevolutionaries” on the beach with other children is a memory not easily shaken. Though a significant portion of China’s current
population has no recollection of country so violent, the author’s generation is irrevocably
shaped by such experiences.

In Mao’s world without literature, but one prose author existed, who is the subject of Yu Hua’s next chapter: “Lu Xun.” Such constraint meant that a famished reader such as young Yu Hua could barely appreciate Lu Xun’s writing. Only far later, with many more options at his
fingertips, could the author come to realize the goodness of Lu Xun’s writing. Scarcity breeds
desire, and in this case, desire for anything else. China’s incredible scarcity of everything
during the Communist Party’s early years has certainly led to an incredible proliferation of
options in its more comfortable times. Even when applied to something like the built
environment, one can see China’s desperation for anything but the old: rather than preserving historic places, China seeks new, exciting high­rises and unique architecture­­anything but what the one old choice used to be.

“Revolution” gives an astute overview of the Great Leap Forward and compares it to China’s
current unbelievable boom of development. Yu Hua likens the violence of his childhood to the current forced eviction and razing of homes in the name of official business and urbanization. He also recounts some of the most tragic vignettes of the Cultural Revolution: witnessing his classmate’s father become the target of attack and humiliation for an indefensible reason and seeing him just moments before he took his own life rather than allow for his family to live on with his shame. That, and many other appalling tales of violence and woe, paint the picture of a China revered yet awkward in its newfound power.

The chapter “Disparity” tackles the subject of China’s unfettered rise to the top, which has left
many of its own people in the dust. Yu Hua looks into the costs of China’s growth, which are
unfortunately shouldered by either the least empowered or the unrepresented, namely, the
environment. He says:

  • Just look at China today: the urban high­rises shooting up like forests under a gray
    and murky sky; the thick mesh of expressways, far outnumbering our rivers; the
    dazzling array of merchandise in shopping centers and supermarkets; the endless
    lines of traffic and pedestrians in the streets; the constant glitter of advertisements and
    neon signs; the nightclubs and massage parlors, beauty salons and foot­washing
    joints, lining every blocks; not to mention the luxury restaurants three or four floors
    high, each floor the size of an auditorium, rimmed on all sides by sumptuous private
    rooms, two or three thousand people all wining and dining, shiny­faced with
    But just thirty years ago, before we took that leap, we saw no high­rises, apart from
    one or two in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai; we had no concept of expressways
    or advertisements; we had very few stores, and very little to buy in the stores we did
    have. We seemed to have nothing then, though we did have a blue sky.

With a country to set on growth and catching up to the rest of the developed world, casualties are inevitable. The chapter “Grassroots” follows up on the “disadvantaged classes that operate at some remove from the mainstream and the orthodox.” The people who rise to the top from these disadvantaged circumstances do so through completely unconventional means, becoming rich through novel schemes, and often reaching a tipping point whereupon they lose everything. In China, the “Rich List is popularly known as the Pigs­for­Slaughter List,” as few can remain in their prime for long. Competition it too powerful. But at the core, the grassroots do give the author hope: they have the opportunity to press for a redistribution of both political and economic power, even if their attempts are currently fraught with challenges.

Yu Hua’s next chapter, “Copycat,” vividly describes China’s culture of forfeited and hijacked
off­brand copies of everything from cellphones to celebrities. This “borrowing” extends even to China’s approach to development, namely the building of cities that replicate Manhattan or London. Can China develop its own self with so much interference from outside sources?

“Bamboozle,” the book’s culminating chapter, follows the thread of the preceding segment.
China has become far too successful at its trickery, allowing for people to con the
government, and the government to con the people. Yu Hua expresses his concern that when
one attempts to bamboozle another, one often ends up deceiving themselves, often to bad
results. He notes that it is often “a case of reaping what one sows.” The reader is left
wondering whether China has sowed the right seeds in order to grow an ideal product: a
future China that is capable of finding a balance between development, social equity, and
respect for the environment.

Yu Hua makes the point that “when society undergoes a drastic shift, an extremely repressed
era soon becomes a very lax one [. . . and] it’s like being on a swing: the higher you soar on
one side, the higher you rise on the other.” This theme is evident throughout each chapter,
and it begs the question: if China is simply on one side of the swing, is it doomed to fall into its other extreme if it cannot progress in a conscientious and moderate manner? Is such
dramatic development sustainable? Can the environment withstand much more pollution? Is
China’s plan to succeed really a plan to fail?

Yu Hua uses ten words to shape his multivarious anecdotes into concrete illustrations of
particular aspects of China’s improbably rapid shift from one mode of existence to another.
Ultimately, the reader sees that the essential message is that, like Yu Hua’s anecdotes, China
cannot be taken simply at face­value. It is too powerful and unpredictable. It is almost
impossible to anticipate what the next five, ten, or fifty years will look like for China. All we can know is its past, and hope that that people in power have learned from it.

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