China In Ten Words
How do you best define a country? Chinese author Yu Hua summarizes his homeland in 10 words.
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In “writing,” he shares some of his own literary history, from his early career as a small-town dentist to his aspirations toward “a loafer’s life in the cultural center” as a writer; he laughs off the critical praise he eventually receives for his “plain narrative language” as little more than the result of his untrained, limited vocabulary.Skip to next paragraph
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Yu confesses to his youthful disrespect toward China’s most influential 20th-century prose writer, Lu Xun, who was revered then reduced to a mere “catchphrase.” As a mature, acclaimed author himself, Yu is finally able to recognize and reclaim Lu Xun’s literary potency.
Continuing on through the second half of his 10 words, Yu’s sharp gaze proves unrelenting. He traces the evolving violence of “revolution” (word #6) over a span of 30 years, and examines the resulting “disparity” (word #7) between those who absconded with ill-gotten luxuries and those who remain trapped in “desolate ruins.” He captures the ruthless determination of “grassroots” (word #8) citizens, “who have nothing to lose, since they began with nothing at all,” who don’t allow concerns about morality or legality to obstruct their unwavering path toward financial gains.
When such ends seem to justify any means – methods employed can be described by words such as “copycat” (#9) and “bamboozle” (#10) – then “Harvard Communications” can use President Obama to sell their “Blockberry Whirlwind 9500,” and the penthouse allegedly leased by Bill Gates during the Beijing Olympics will “convert an obscure housing development into an apartment complex famous all over the country.”
Chapter by chapter, word by word, Yu drolly pulls off the proverbial white gloves, exposing one finger at a time until the guilty hands are stripped bare. Unblinking, Yu muses at the “you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up” reality that is today’s China: “Here, where everything is tinged with the mysterious logic of absurdist fiction, Kafka or Borges might feel quite at home.” As a consummate author, Yu contemplates “writ[ing] such a story myself. Bamboozletown might be its title.”