11/02/2011 03:53 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2012

China in Ten Words : A Book to Watch for

One of China's most prolific, interesting, and hard to pigeon-hole authors, Yu Hua, is on a book tour in the U.S., promoting his latest work (the English language edition comes out next week), a collection of essays titled China in Ten Words. Best known for his novels, such as To Live (which was made into a Zhang Yimou film), Yu Hua is also a gifted writer of non-fiction. After reading an advance copy of the book, I wrote a post for the blog of the new Los Angeles Review of Books. The full post (with links) can be seen here. But here are some excerpts that gives a feel for the book's special qualities:

China in Ten Words, I'm happy to report, lives up to expectations. It manages to convey a great deal of information and insight in just over 200 pages, with ten chapters that focus on a wonderfully diverse set of terms, from "Reading" to "Revolution," and "Leader" to "Bamboozle."...

In Yu Hua's book, each of the terms he singles out for attention -- revolution, writing, disparity, grassroots, copycat -- function more as a counterpart to Proust's famous Madeleine than as an object of dispassionate linguistic analysis. They serve above all as spurs to memory -- opportunities to tell illuminating stories about the past.

In many cases, especially early in the book, the terms resurrect incidents that took place in Yu Hua's provincial hometown during the Cultural Revolution decade -- the period of his childhood and adolescence (he was born in 1960). Take, for example, the chapter he devotes to the word "Leader." When Yu Hua was young, this term was reserved exclusively for references to one individual: Mao Zedong. Moving deftly between the humorous and the disturbing, as he does throughout the volume, Yu Hua pokes fun at himself for being so swept up in the personality cult mania of the time, recalling how he suspected the fates of giving him a raw deal by forcing him to be born into a "Yu" rather than a "Mao" family.

In contrast and by way of self-critique, Yu Hua also offers the tale of a local official who discovers that sharing the Great Helmsman's surname can be a curse rather than a blessing. Since the official headed a local committee, some people jokingly called out to him as "Chairman Mao" when he passed them on the street. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the poor man was castigated for putting on airs, pretending to be a "local" Chairman Mao. His defense was that he had never asked people to call him that nor had he called himself by that term. In that supercharged political environment, though, this did him no good, as his accusers pointed out that when passersby had called him "Chairman Mao," the local official had answered without correcting them for misspeaking....

[But] Yu Hua is not content to direct attention only to the problems that plagued China during the Cultural Revolution era, which served as an endpoint in To Live but in China in Ten Words is sometimes presented, more daringly, as a period with ills that have a direct connection to others sicknesses that have spread in the supposedly glorious current era. (Yu Hua also moves between the Cultural Revolution and later periods in his most recent novel, Brothers.)

It's true that the Cultural Revolution is a time that China's leaders would prefer people not look at too closely, since they fear that a full investigation of this complex cluster of events would prove embarrassing to people who now hold high positions. Nevertheless, the official line on the Cultural Revolution is that it was a time of "chaos" that was bad for the country. As a result, both that period and the era of the Great Leap Forward -- the misguided utopian campaign-run-amuck of the late 1950s that triggered a famine of truly horrendous magnitude -- need to be distinguished sharply from the Reform era that began in the late 1970s, which has seen China's economy boom and stature in the global order rise.

In light of this, what is most troubling to China's leaders is when writers draw analogies or links between the suffering caused by Maoist enthusiasms and the problems of the present-day period rooted in official corruption and in development-at-all-cost drives. This is just what Yu Hua does in the most courageous sections of China in Ten Words. And it is his treatment of events and phenomena of the post-Mao era that explain why China in Ten Words could not be published on the mainland, even though that is where Yu Hua continues to live and work, operating in the hard-to-describe gray zone of an author who is not a dissident but sometimes writes things that deal with taboo subjects and hence can only appear in foreign editions...

No one disputes the idea that the Communist Party remained committed to "revolutionary" action even after taking power in 1949, Yu Hua writes in his chapter on revolution. "At that point, of course," he continues, "revolution no longer meant armed struggle so much as a series of political movements, each hot on the heels of the one before, reaching ultimate extremes during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution." What is less readily appreciated, he points out, is what happened next, after "China reintroduced itself to the world in the guise of a freewheeling, market-driven economy." At that point "revolution appeared to have vanished," but this was an illusion. In fact, in:

our economic miracle since 1978, revolution never disappeared but simply donned a different costume. To put it another way, within China's success story one can see both revolutionary movements reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward and revolutionary violence that recalls the Cultural Revolution.

"Just consider," Yu Hua writes, "how urbanization has been pursued, with huge swathes of old housing razed in no time at all and replaced in short order by high rise buildings." The term "blood-stained GDP" is becoming a popular one in Chinese online debates, coined to described the high human toll of the government's rush to make the country look as "modern" as possible as quickly as possible. Yu Hua doesn't employ this newly minted phrase, but he uses ones that are just as highly charged. He writes, for example, of a "developmental model saturated with revolutionary violence of the Cultural Revolution type," in which many ordinary individuals are once again suffering in the name of abstractions.