China in Ten Words Book Review

August 11, 2012

Ten words. It is difficult to imagine condensing China in only ten words, however Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words uses a combination of his own personal experiences and historical background to describe each of the ten listed words in order to create an insightful commentary on the China in the past, present, and future. The personal style of Yu Hua’s writing allows the reader a very personal glimpse into his childhood and adulthood in China during an era of change. This is even more surprising when you consider his origins as a dentist. That transition between a dentist to a writer was so much of a leap that it could be compared to the changes during the cultural revolution.

The change during the Cultural Revolution was a great underlying theme throughout the whole book and one that was continually called upon in many stories. The accusation and hunting for counterrevolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution was memorable. Some of Yu Hua’s childhood memories of counterrevolutionaries were of his grade school classmates. The girl who folded Mao’s portrait and the boy who said, “the sun went down.” These were grade school children but because of the era and Mao’s importance, these children were punished. The punishment seemed to be blown out of proportional considering the simple mistake. This combined way of thinking could only be conceivable in an authoritarian country like China. From a young age the older generation teach the young about having pride in the Communist party and to oust anyone who tries to go against that teaching. The pattern continued in the same fashion with Yu Hua himself. He saw his classmates and neighbors punished for their mistakes and gained a sense of what was correct and wrong. When Yu Hua was at an older age he tried to do good for the party by turning over speculators and profiteers trying to sell leftover oil coupons for cash. He was not alone in his vigilante acts but he was joined by some of his high school classmates at the time. The people Yu Hua and his classmates were detaining were the previous older generation who had once taught the principles of upholding the party.

“…we were performing a public service. Although we certainly had victories to our credit, our detainees tended to be peasants well past their prime, and the oil coupons we seized from them seldom amounted to very much. What’s more, the peasants never dared resist, for they themselves were convinced they were doing something wrong, and so their only reaction was to weep helplessly as we snatched away their coupons” (Hua 2011, 149).

The reaction of the older peasant told how deeply engrained the philosophy of the party was taught even in the generation before Yu Hua. The peasant knew that selling the oil coupons was considered speculating and profiteering but he took the risk. These types of actions were considered counterrevolutionary actions because they were against the rules set by the party, and the party and those acting on the behalf of the party put any counterrevolutionary actions down.

The peasant felt a necessity to sell his oil coupons because of the disparity he felt in China. This is not a unique case in China and Yu Hua uses a whole chapter to highlight the fact. Amongst the disparity, people took every opportunity to gain more status, climb the social ladder, and dig themselves out of the pit of disparity. “Urban unemployed and landless peasants, for their own survival, set out stalls in the city or ply their wares along the street” (Hua 2011, 151). Individuals took to the streets to sell their goods knowing that the local government could fine them if caught. These street venders were on the lower end of the people who took risks in order to gain some financial reward. The riskiest story Yu Hua wrote about was of the purchaser of the prime advertising spot on CCTV. The purchaser went to the CCTV auction with no money to his name, but he placed a bid for millions of Chinese yuan. After he won he risked going back to his local government and asking for the money on the grounds that if they did not pay, then the province would be known for the biggest con-man in Chinese history. This calculated risk landed him with a fortune he could only dream about previously. Others with ambition and an enterprising spirit took a less risky approach in order to gain their fortune. One person who portrayed such an example was dubbed the garbage king. He bought from local smaller recyclers and resold those to manufacturers at higher prices. During his interview he explained his success coming from doing “the things nobody else was willing to do” (Hua 2011, 167). The grassroots ambition was evident in the garbage king during his pursuit for wealth.

The pursuit for wealth comes in varying methods. Some people would be okay with scrapping for whatever money selling goods on the street would bring. Some takes risks that may or may not pay off at the end. Others use their ambition to become a king in a niche market. The ethics of the way people make their fortune clashed with my own. The risks taken by the advertiser however was not the ideal way to make money in my views. I believe in the saying that the greater the risk the greater the reward. The risk in the specific case with the advertiser may have been small to the Chinese man, but from the view of someone not familiar with China, the risk was too high. That being said, I disagree with a lack of risk taken by the small peddlers on the streets. The lack of risk tells about the contentment of the person and may tell a reader about a lack of ambition and goals. I agree with what the Garbage king accomplished because he provided a service that benefited others and him through the process. The way individuals obtained wealth tells about the country of China as a whole. The grassroots spirit made Chinese people take any and every opportunity given to them.

The wealth of China in the recent years is a result of the history in China tracing back to the pivotal Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution left many Chinese in disparity and left with only the choice to do something illegal. Legality and risk did not stop some people from doing taking chances in hopes of benefiting. Although I only reviewed a few of the ten words written about in China in Ten Words, I found each word to have a personal style because of Yu Hua’s own stories and of other Chinese people. The author created a simple narrative that created the experience of living in China during eras of great change. China in Ten Words was an overview of China, but Yu Hua’s other books may promise to have more detailed descriptions of different topics on China.




Oracle Bones Book Review

August 13, 2012

Carved with the sharp tip of a solid object. The material made of the shell of a turtle or the skull of a cow. The oracle bones were used to divine wisdom and predictions from the ancient ancestors’ spirits to the kings of China. In the same way, the relationship between a teacher and students hopes to divine guidance for the student’s pursuits. Once the divination is completed, both the teacher and the student are faced with choices and with those choices challenges arise. Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones serves as a effective personal writing piece for both himself and his former students as they encountered the challenges of living in China.

Oracle Bones can be seen as a personal memoir for Peter Hessler during his stay in China. The sequence of the book is chronological which serves as an effective writing style to create a narration of his stay. He progressed from being an English teacher to a clipper to a fully paid freelance writer for major US publications. The memoir did not stop at detailing the progress of Peter Hessler’s career, but it also included a vivid episode of sheer emotion. When I write about Peter Hessler’s vividly emotional episode, the memorable scene of Peter Hessler waking up in the middle of the night to a thief with his belongings may immediately come to mind. Next he runs after the thief until he catches up and starts to beat the man. With each punch he yelled, “Motherfucker!” until the thief broke free and fled. The emotions of the event made him write that he “recalled [,] the overwhelming rage, whose memory left [him] unsettled” (Hessler, 65). This eventful scene allows for a glimpse into another side of Peter Hessler that results in the reader to learn more of the author’s character and thinking during that period.

While Peter Hessler describes his own American challenges from living in China, Peter Hessler’s past students serves to describes the native Chinese challenges from living in China. The most common problem was escaping from the rampant disparity. The school Hessler students were in a poorer area of China, so the students had many incentives to move to away from their hometown when they got the chance. The students who were able to move away were often the student who also did better in Hessler’s classes. Emily was one of Hessler’s students who moved to the city of Shenzhen to work as a secretary in a jewelry factory.  At the factory she negotiated higher wages for herself and the other workers, but she had a common problem among people who moved to larger more developed cities. When migrant workers moved to these larger cities, they sometimes felt isolated and alone. This is not a surprising result considering the culture of China in regards to other individual’s problem. Hessler wrote about this Chinese attitude towards other people’s problems when public opinion did not sympathized with the Falun Gong incident.

“Regardless of what kind of problem an individual had, it was his problem, and only he could do something about it. Without the sense of a rational system, people rarely felt connected to the troubles of others. The crackdown on Falun Gong should have been disturbing to most Chinese – the group had done nothing worse than make a series of minor political miscalculations that had added up. But few average people expressed sympathy for the believers, because they couldn’t imagine how that issue could be connected to their own relationship with the law. In part, this was cultural – the Chinese had never stressed strong community bonds; the family and other more immediate groups were the ones that mattered most. But the lack of a rational legal climate also encouraged people to focus strictly on their own problems” (Hessler, 129)

Because of this attitude towards individuals’ problems being their own and only they could do something about it, individuals in the city may feel alone in their problems. With so many people in the city feeling this type of isolation, it is no wonder that the radio show At Night You’re Not Lonely fascinated Emily and one million others. Emily and the others in her dormitory stayed awake until the late hours of the evening listening to the radio show. The radio host’s, Hu Xiaomei, ability to listen to caller’s problems allowed both the caller and listeners know there are others in the city with problems similar to their own and that there was a sympatric ear. Emily benefited from hearing the advice from the Hu Xiaomei to a caller concerned about moving in with her boyfriend. Emily told Hessler in a letter, “Most traditional people say that you shouldn’t do this. But if the person seems mature enough, and if she’s considered the issues, then Hu Xiaomei says it’s fine to live together.” Emily took this piece of advice and many others to heart, quoting Hu Xiaomei’s advice towards common problems. Emily implemented the living with a boyfriend advice to her own life. She fell in love with a Sichuanese man name Zhu Yunfeng and she broke the traditional morality by moving into an apartment with him. She seem to have some internal quarrel with living because she still stayed at her dormitory during the week and did not tell her mother directly neither. Her actions shows some shame in what she was doing but that shame did not stop her from doing it nonetheless. She surpassed a point where other’s opinion would dictate her choices. This internal confrontation displayed itself in the real world in her on confrontation her boss. Emily skipped the dormitory curfew and her boss took notice of this the next morning. She did not back down from her boss asking if she had missed curfew but instead told him directly that she had only came back that morning. This change in character could be traced back to the Hu Xiaomei’s advice she listened to late at night on the radio.

Another set of Hessler’s students as well as Emily classmates, Willy and Nancy, had their own challenges in Yueqing city. They described in a letter to Hessler about the challenges of moving to a new place. This place had a strong sense of a single culture and people, so when migrants from Jiangxi and Sichuan moved to Yueqing, native people Yueqing city looked down on them and created stories about them. The stories the people from Jiangxi and Sichuan appeared in stories were used to scare children at night. Adults told children, “If you keep crying, the people from Jiangxi or Sichuan will come and steal you” (Hessler, 210). For once Willy and Nancy knew how it felt to be a foreigner like Hessler was when he taught them English in class. They irony was that Willy and Nancy felt like foreigners in their own country China.

As Willy, Nancy, and Emily’s challenges have shown, challenges in living China were not limited to foreigners like Hessler. Oracle Bones serves as the piece of writing to bring the reader closer to understanding the average Chinese person as well as a foreigner’s journey of living and working in China.