Yu Hua on China in Ten Words

The renowned author talks about his first non-fiction work released in English

Yu Hua started his career not writing immortal words of literature (Brothers, To Live, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant), but peering down people’s throats. For eight hours a day, he toiled in a small town hospital using a pair of forceps to extract bad teeth. It was the early 1980s and he had no choice but to accept the state job assigned to him.

In his new book, China in Ten Words, Yu recalls his fear of being trapped in a life of tedium. ‘During my lunch break,I would stand by a window overlooking the street and watch the bustle below with a terrifying thought running through my head: I couldn’t spend my whole life doing this, could I?’ he writes.

‘I chose to become a writer because I can work when I want to work. I enjoy the freedom,’ Yu, now 51, tells us. ‘My parents weren’t happy when I began to write because during the Cultural Revolution most writers did not have easy lives.’

Determined to escape his fate, Yu wrote manuscript after manuscript, sending his stories to the newly reopened literary magazines that blossomed in the ’80s. His goal was to win a position as a writer in his local Cultural Centre.

Finally, he was called in by one such magazine, Beijing Literature, to make revisions on his first published short story. Returning home, he was a hero. Yu had been the only person in the history of his district to be called to the capital to write. His career switch was approved, local officials stamped his papers, and his life as a writer began.

Such humble beginnings are a world away from the position that Yu holds today as one of a handful of Chinese authors, alongside the likes of Bi Feiyu and Su Tong, who command critical acclaim both at home and abroad. We meet when he has just finished a tour of the US for his new collection of essays and first non-fiction work to be published in English, China in Ten Words. (Yu chose not to publish it on the Mainland; it is only available in Mandarin in Taiwan.)

The book is a soulful meditation on China’s rapid change from the late 1960s to the all-consuming world power we know today. In an undercurrent running throughout the book, Yu strives to compare the two. The crazed years of the ’60s and ’70s, he suggests, are not too far from today’s frenetic and frenzied economic expansion that may yet spell disaster.

To illustrate the point, each chapter is hinged on a single word. In ‘Disparity’, he provides a hard-hitting look at the growing economic chasm between rich and poor; in ‘Reading’, Yu describes what it was like being ravenous for the written word in an era without literature.

‘I grew up in a period without books. Nearly all literature was burned,’ remembers Yu, sitting in the Beijing Friendship Hotel. In one memorable and bittersweet moment, he writes about finding an illicit copy of Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias. Unwilling to give the book up, he and a friend spent the night hand-copying each word into a notebook until their wrists cramped in pain.

‘People wanted to read in the past because there were no books. Now they don’t know what to read because there are too many,’ he says.

Books are indeed everywhere: internet writers make it big on literary websites; net stars like Han Han make millions and hawkers selling pirated books are on every street corner. The power of literature in China has ballooned, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the impact of Yu Hua’s To Live, widely considered alongside Chronicle of a Blood Merchant as two of the most influential books in China over the last decade. The novel tells the story of an ordinary man’s life through war, famine, the Cultural Revolution and beyond, over an epic 40-year period.

‘When people get caught in difficulties, go through hardships, they read To Live,’ says Yu. ‘One reader told me he lived because of this book. He came to Beijing to sell merchandise on the street but got driven off by city management officers. He carried this book with him. It was the emotional support that encouraged him to keep living.’

The novel was adapted into a film by Zhang Yimou in 1994 and – with the movie banned on the Mainland – Yu was catapulted into the limelight. On the weekend we meet, Zhang is in town for the premiere of his new film, The Flowers of War. Yu will not be meeting him, though, of whom he says, ‘Our Chinese movie censorship killed him.’

Yu may now be in his fifties but he claims to have the soul of a ‘100-year old man’. Like his characters, he has lived through eras of poverty and wealth. China in Ten Words is his record of the PRC’s coming of age – for better or for worse.

‘During the late 1960s the individual did not have his own stage. Today, every Chinese person has his own stage. It doesn’t matter if you are performing in a good or a bad way – the point is that you can perform. It has become a right.’

Additional reporting and translation by Catherine Zheng.
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