China in Ten Words
Publication Date: November 8, 2011
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From one of China’s most acclaimed writers, his first work of nonfiction to appear in English: a unique, intimate look at the Chinese experience over the last several decades, told through personal stories and astute analysis that sharply illuminate the country’s meteoric economic and social transformation.
Framed by ten phrases common in the Chinese vernacular—“people,” “leader,” “reading,” “writing,” “Lu Xun” (one of the most influential Chinese writers of the twentieth century), “disparity,” “revolution,” “grassroots,” “copycat,” and “bamboozle”—China in Ten Words reveals as never before the world’s most populous yet oft-misunderstood nation. In “Disparity,” for example, Yu Hua illustrates the mind-boggling economic gaps that separate citizens of the country. In “Copycat,” he depicts the escalating trend of piracy and imitation as a creative new form of revolutionary action. And in “Bamboozle,” he describes the increasingly brazen practices of trickery, fraud, and chicanery that are, he suggests, becoming a way of life at every level of society.
Characterized by Yu Hua’s trademark wit, insight, and courage, China in Ten Words is a refreshingly candid vision of the “Chinese miracle” and all its consequences, from the singularly invaluable perspective of a writer living in China today.
Yu Hua is the author of four novels, six collections of stories, and three collections of essays. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. In 2002, he became the first Chinese writer to win the James Joyce Award. His novel Brothers was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and awarded France’s Prix Courrier International. To Live was awarded Italy’s Premio Grinzane Cavour, and To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant were ranked among the ten most influential books in China in the 1990’s by Wen Hui Bao, the largest newspaper in Shanghai. Yu Hua lives in Beijing.
“How many tomes do you suppose it might take to describe the almost indescribable complexities of modern China—its staggering growth pains and infinite ironies? Yu Hua does it with ten words. . . . A rich, sympathetic, yet unsparing portrait of a nation in near-constant transition. . . . The author manages to make palpable the follies of the nouveau riches, the grotesque plight of the rural poor, the corrupt and tragicomic missteps of the ignorant charlatans who make up the passing parade of local politicians, as well as the blazing brutality of what took place on the Square that night when the army rolled over student demonstrators in their tanks…Miraculously, he does all this without seeming to oversimplify. Clearly, Yu Hua was the man for the job. . . . He knows, in other words, whereof he speaks. But mostly he was qualified to undertake such a project because of his gift for compassion. . . . Pitched at a level of heartbreak that may be almost unbearable for Western sensibilities, the final two chapters, "Copycats" and "Bamboozle," are nevertheless essential reading for anyone who hopes to get a sense of both the ingenuity and breathtaking chicanery that together drive so much of life in modern China.” —Barnes and Noble Review
“A discursively simple series of essays explaining his country’s recent history through 10 central terms. . . . Caustic and difficult to forget, China in Ten Words is a people’s-eye view of a world in which the people have little place.” —Pico Iyer, Time (Asia)
“One of China’s most prominent writers. . . . In his sublime essay collection, Hua explores his often spartan childhood during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s and the rampant corruption of modern China.” —Newark Star-Ledger
“China in Ten Words is a series of 10 essays that follow particular themes Yu Hua deems to be integral to understanding his country’s experience. Using words such as “leader,” “revolution,” “disparity,” and “copycat,” he manages to chart some of his country’s amazing transformations. . . . His style, far from being academic, is engaging and sardonic. He writes as though he’s having an intense conversation with the reader. I highly recommend this book for anyone hoping to gain some perspective on this complicated country.” —Valerie Senyk, The Record
“There’s no shortage of books promising to explain the most populous nation in the world to Western readers, fat, solemn tomes crammed with names, numbers, events and predictions. China in Ten Words by Yu Hua, on the other hand, is a slim volume, and a lot of it concerns Yu’s childhood in a backwater town during the Cultural Revolution. You’ll find a few statistics scattered over these pages, but far more of those peculiar modern yarns that reside in the netherland between gossip and news report. Nothing tells you more about a people than the stories they like to swap: the old peasant patriarch who could not countenance the price of a BMW 760Li until the dealer explained that it took two cows to supply the leather for each of its seats, the female Mao impersonator who spends hours perfecting her makeup and learning to walk in elevator shoes. . . . Yu has a fiction writer’s nose for the perfect detail, the everyday stuff that conveys more understanding than a thousand Op-Eds. . . . Perhaps the most bewitching aspect of this book is how funny it is, especially in the first few (and most autobiographical) chapters. . . . Yu has an exquisite, cosmopolitan sense of irony; in Allen H. Barr’s sensitive translation, he comes across as an Asian fusion of David Sedaris and Charles Kuralt. . . . Yu’s revelation—that the Chinese often find their own society bewildering, self-contradictory and ridiculous—ought to be unsettling, but instead it’s reassuring. We know these people; like us, they’re improvising into the future, with only the faintest idea of what they’re doing, and with a propensity for scrambling the signposts even before they’ve figured out the way.” —Laura Miller, Salon
“Lexical innovations, evasions and revisions give China in Ten Words its form. Each essay is devoted to a particular word—its origins, its devaluation or appreciation in meaning—starting with ‘people’ (as in ‘serve the’) and ending with ‘bamboozle,’ an arc that, for Yu Hua, seems to pretty much sum up the past half-century of Chinese history. . . . This is a tale told by a raconteur, not an academic. . . . The most powerful and vivid sections reach back to Yu Hua’s childhood during the Cultural Revolution. . . . It is a cautionary tale about the risks of subterfuge, of trying to sneak something past one’s father—or, perhaps, one’s ever vigilant government.” —The New York Times Book Review
“If Yu Hua never wrote anything else, he would rate entry into the pantheon of greats for "Reading," an essay in his new collection China in Ten Words. Nothing I've ever read captures both the power and subversive nature of youthful reading as well. . . . Yu, whose novels include Brothers and To Live, has picked 10 words to serve as launching pads for his explorations of the ‘social complexities and staggering contrasts of contemporary China.’ . . . . For American readers curious about the upheavals of China, this may be the right moment to discover Yu Hua.” —Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“An outstanding set of essays on the general topic of why modern China is the way it is, each essay centered on a Chinese word or phrase. . . . Very much worth reading.” —James Fallows, The Atlantic
“It’s rare to find a work of fiction that can be hysterically funny at some points, while deeply moving and disturbing at others. It’s even more unusual to find such qualities in a work of non-fiction. But China in Ten Words is just such an extraordinary work. . . . China in Ten Words convey[s] a great deal of information and insight in just over 200 pages, with ten chapters that focus on a wonderfully diverse set of terms, from ‘Reading’ to ‘Revolution,’ and ‘Leader’ to ‘Bamboozle.’ As expected, Barr captures the loose, colloquial, and occasionally anarchic flavor of the author’s prose. . . . In Yu Hua’s book, each of the terms he singles out for attention—revolution, writing, disparity, grassroots, copycat—function more as a counterpart to Proust’s famous Madeleine than as an object of dispassionate linguistic analysis. They serve above all as spurs to memory—opportunities to tell illuminating stories about the past. . . . Moving deftly between the humorous and the disturbing, as he does throughout the volume, Yu Hua pokes fun at himself for being so swept up in the personality cult mania of the time, recalling how he suspected the fates of giving him a raw deal by forcing him to be born into a ‘Yu’ rather than a ‘Mao’ family. . . . Courageous.” —Los Angeles Review of Books blog, The China Beat
“Yu is one of contemporary China’s most celebrated but controversial writers. With much wit and elegance, he reminisces here in separate pieces (only one has been previously published) about his country’s experiences over the past several decades, using personal stories as well as a piercing, critical examination of China’s political, economic, and social transformation from what was essentially a Third World state into a superpower. . . . His commentary is wide and varied, touching on everything from the country’s severe economic and social disparity since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to his own rise from uneducated, small-town ‘teeth puller’ to one of the most highly regarded writers of his time. Verdict: A marvelous book for those interested in contemporary China, by one of China’s foremost intellectuals.” —Library Journal
“Moving and elegantly crafted . . . Offers rare insight into the cause and effect of China’s ‘economic miracle,’ focusing close attention on the citizens of the world’s most populous country. With an intimate tone and witty prose, Yu looks at the ‘effects that seem so glorious and searches for their causes, whatever discomfort that may entail,’ training his incisive eye on the quotidian as well as the grand . . . His book describes his particular experience, but hints at something much more expansive.” —Publishers Weekly
“In this era of the China Boom, when Communist Party officials are so inclined to erase the travails of their country’s past from public consciousness, Yu Hua’s insistence on remembering comes as an almost shocking intrusion into a willful state of amnesia. His earthy, even ribald, meditations on growing up in small-town China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution remind us of just how twisted China’s progress into the present has been and how precariously balanced its success story actually still is.” —Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.–China Relations, Asia Society
“At times humorous, at times heartbreaking, and at times fierce, these ten moving and informative essays form a small kaleidoscopic view of contemporary China. The meticulous translation has rendered them all the more hip, penetrating, and engaging. Written with a novelist’s eye and narrative flair, China in Ten Words will make the reader rethink the ‘China miracle.’” —Ha Jin, National Book Award–winning author of Waiting
“A series of essays that combine memoir and trenchant social critique. . . . Sharply observed tales about everyday life. The translatipn preserves both his simple, direct style and subtle sense of humor. . . . Engaging. . . . Yu Hua’s essays say much about the continuing enigma that is China.” —Kirkus Reviews