Acclaimed Chinese novelist Yu Hua (Brothers, 2010, etc.) offers a series of essays that combine memoir and trenchant social critique.
Born in 1960, Yu Hua is of a generation that has been witness to China’s astounding and perplexing economic and social transformations. While each essay is loosely themed around a common Chinese word—e.g., “People,” “Leader,” “Reading,” “Writing”—the book reflects on the author’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s and expresses his feelings on how China has and has not changed since then. As a boy during that time, Yu Hua was mostly bored, as there was little to do and little outside of Mao Zedong to read. Still, his stories of the cruelties and inanities of the time make clear his conclusion that the Cultural Revolution made for “a life made up of equal parts stifled instincts, dreary freedom, and hollow verbiage.” For no particular reason he could discern, the Chinese government decided in 1978 that Yu Hua should be a dentist. And so he was, until his literary career took off in the ’80s, just as the market economy in China took flight. His curmudgeonly conclusion is that China has entered into “an era of impulsive self-indulgence” and “moral bankruptcy and confusion of right and wrong.” For Yu Hua, revolution in China never disappeared “but simply donned a different costume.” The mad dash toward change remains. The author is hardly pedantic here, however, as he makes his points in sharply observed tales about everyday life. The translation preserves both his simple, direct style and subtle sense of humor.
More engaging than profound, Yu Hua’s essays say much about the continuing enigma that is China.