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ADAPTATION: Yu Hua, center, speaks at a press event for the film adaption of his book "To Live"

The book presents the ability to survive through uncertainty as a defining strength of the Chinese people

grassroots element by inducing people in the social underbelly to “throw caution to the winds, and in a revolution where ‘to rebel was justified’ they gained opportu- nities to soar.” While China today is drastically dif-

ferent, Yu argues it is as much engaged in a mass revolutionary movement today as it was decades ago. Te arrival of capital- ism has spawned incidents reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward, for example provincial governments eagerly consum- ing their resources in a quest to report ever-higher GDP figures. Development also contains echoes of the revolution- ary upheavals of the Cultural Revolution that tore apart communities by inverting existing social structures, elevating some members of China’s grassroots contin- gent and ruining others. Many early beneficiaries of the Cul-

tural Revolution were cut down just as fast as they had risen by shifting power and the vagaries of its enforcement. “In that era, destiny did not rest in one’s own hands; everyone found himself swept along in the current, and nobody knew whether fortune or fiasco lay ahead.” Tis trend continues today, with many wealthy

Chinese doing their best to avoid appear- ing on “rich lists” for fear of becoming targets of government inquisitions. Te book presents the ability to sur-

vive through this uncertainty as a defin- ing strength of the Chinese people. Yu quotes Mencius in saying that “adversity has a way of enhancing our existence, while ease and comfort tend to hasten our demise.”

Body politic

Te book is more loosely organized and impressionistic than most nonfiction works about China, and it has few sta- tistics designed to stun foreign business partners. But for readers seeking more color and context about China’s recent history, “China in Ten Words” is a worth- while read. Yu’s account is deeply and self-con-

sciously personal. Many of the 10 sec- tions revolve around fascinating stories from Yu’s childhood in the Cultural Rev- olution, a bloody period that foreigners remain intensely curious about and many Chinese would rather not discuss. Several of Yu’s novels address vio-

lence, and this book is no different. In one section, for example, Yu describes the experience of watching public executions as a child and later a vivid nightmare of his own execution he had in the last days of 1989. He also intimates the psychological

pain of coming of age during the Cultural Revolution. Te familiar guilt and mis- conceptions of childhood occur in a land- scape that is status quo to the author as a

boy but utterly bizarre to a foreign reader. For example, he recounts the anxiety he felt over not knowing what to report as his own revisionist actions during self- criticism sessions and his childlike pride in the big character posters he authored. During that period of inverted values, bullying and mischief masqueraded as revolution, and Yu was sometimes heart- ily commended for criticizing his teach- ers.

As a doctor, he often employs meta-

phors of illness and the body. Yu sees pain and empathy as defining characteristics of the Chinese experience. “Nothing in the world, perhaps, is so likely to forge a connection between people as pain, because the connection that comes from that source comes from deep in the heart. So when in this book I write of China’s pain, I am registering my own pain too, because China’s pain is mine.” Yu clearly believes in the power of

personal stories to convey truth. In this book, they do: “China in Ten Words” instills the reader with a deeper and more emotional understanding of China’s recent history. Te book’s value is that it resurrects this troubled past and knits it together with the present, in the process shedding light on China today. “If literature truly possesses a mysteri-

ous power, I think perhaps it is precisely this,” he writes, “that one can read a book by a writer of a different time, a different country, a different race, a different lan- guage, and a different culture and there encounter a sensation that is one’s very own.”

China Economic Review • November 2012 21


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