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.