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Novelist Yu Hua’s history of 10 words in China is a revealing and deeply personal portrait of a complex country


hina’s history over the last 50 years often

appears fractured and disjointed beyond repair. Few if any continuities are apparent between the barefoot doctors and big character posters of the Cultural Revolution, and the gleaming sky- scrapers and profusion of knock-off products today. Most of the time, Chinese simply gloss over their thorny past, preferring to focus on the material wealth of the present. Tis willful forget-

ting of China’s recent past has given birth to several dissimilar off- spring. It has resulted in the idea that China has no unifying value system, beyond getting rich. It has also given

China in Ten Words Yu Hua

Pantheon, 240 pages US$25.95

rise to pockets of revolutionary nostalgia – such as former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai’s cam- paign to revive Cultural Revolution songs – that jar with modern reality. Yet certain qualities must have endured

between centrally planned Communism and capitalism with Chinese characteristics, for the simple reason that some Chinese people have lived through, and sometimes thrived, through both. Yu Hua, the celebrated author of novels including “To Live” and “Brothers,” is one such person. In “China in Ten Words,” his first non-fiction work, Yu draws heavily on personal experiences to knit together China’s ruptured history. Part memoir and part linguistic history, the

book centers around 10 iconic terms in modern China: people, leader, reading, writing, Lu Xun, revolution, disparity, grassroots, copycat and bam- boozle. “Tis tiny lexicon gives me ten pairs of eyes with which to scan the contemporary Chinese scene from different vantage points,” Yu writes. Te book maps how the meanings of these words

20 China Economic Review • November 2012

have developed through past decades, in the pro- cess revealing forgotten contours of China’s recent history.

Green shoots

As a novelist, Yu has a natural advantage in cap- turing the specific. Te book is organized like a series of musical movements, each with soloists and small groups playing renditions on a theme. In China, this tactic would seem likely to result in cacophony, but Yu’s narrative device of the 10 words keeps the storyline simple and focused. Te 10 words are more than just commonly

used terms; many are central to Chinese identity. “People,” or renmin, for example, arguably has a broader significance in Chinese than in English. Te same word used in “People’s Republic of

China,” “People’s Square,” and renminbi (“the peo- ple’s money”), renmin used to be a weighty phrase. But since China’s reform and opening, “the people” has fractured into many different identities: neti- zens, stock traders, fund holders, migrant laborers and so on, Yu writes. “‘Te people’ has become nothing more than a shell company, utilized by different eras to position different products in the marketplace.” Te discussion of renmin, which leads the book,

revolves around the pro-democracy rallies in Bei- jing in the spring of 1989, where Yu's experiences taught him “the real meaning of ‘the people.’” To the author, the meaning of “the people” is not the state-down organization that has occupied its name, but the mass of individuals that sometimes stands in opposition to it. Tis theme echoes throughout the book. Te

more modern terms, including “grassroots,” “copy- cat” and “bamboozle,” similarly emphasize the ingenuity and chaos of democratic forces that have sprouted up through the cracks in a repressive political environment. In Yu’s eyes, China’s “copycat” (shanzhai) cre-

ations, like Blockberry phones, Nibe shoes and fake degree programs, represent the grassroots challenging the elite, the popular challenging the official and the weak challenging the strong. He paints the “grassroots” element – the disad- vantaged multitude that are not always welcome in the societal establishment – as one of China’s greatest strengths. For example, much of China’s current wealth

has been created by grassroots entrepreneurs exploiting opportunities that no one else would be willing to. Examples abound of Chinese who have grown rich on empires of trash recycling and but- ton manufacturing. “China’s economic miracle of the past thirty years, it’s fair to say, is an agglomera- tion of countless individual miracles created at the grassroots level,” Yu writes. Here again, Yu traces a fascinating and often

overlooked connection with China’s revolution- ary past. Te Cultural Revolution also cultivated a

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