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Ten pairs of eyes
China in ten words. For a nation of over a billion people, with a history of over four millennia, it seems ten words just wouldn’t suffice to say all that needs to be said. With all the talk of ‘China’s rise’ and all the volumes written recently, you could even argue ten words is another ten too many given the noise. But in the hands of one of China’s most distinguished contemporary writers, ten words carefully chosen and dissected for meaning, may reveal more about the nation than a hundred hackneyed commentaries ever could.
Taking the words People, Leader, Reading, Writing, Lu Xun, Revolution, Disparity, Grassroots, Copycat and Bamboozle as his starting point, Yu Hua’s aim, as he defines it, is to “compress the endless chatter of China today” into ten simple words from which some kind of understanding of what modern China has become can be reached.
Not simply ten empty words, but “ten pairs of eyes” with which to view the contemporary Chinese landscape, China in Ten Words takes aim at the larger questions posed by the country’s rapid development from the everyday context in which their effects are felt. Through a mixture of personal anecdotes and retold stories, observation and opinion, Yu Hua seeks to get beneath the glossy surface of this so-called ‘new’ China to reveal some of the less apparent strands that make up this tapestry of contrasts.
Having grown up racing to watch executions during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the China Yu Hua presents is, on the surface, a country almost unrecognisable from that in which he spent his youth. Whereas in the past there was Mao, now there are Mao look-a-like contests. Where once there were big character posters and revolutionary fervour, today there are billboards and consumerism. In the space of thirty years, Yu Hua tells us, China has changed from “a China ruled by politics”, into “a China where money is king.”
The new Great Leap
He cites the turning point as the 1989 Tiananmen uprisings in which he participated. Back then, he says, it was as if the political passions of a generation which had been building since the Cultural Revolution, had been expended (some may say crushed) in one fell swoop. It marked a watershed, after which the economic boom began and the simple passion for getting rich became the idea around which the country could unite. But though many aspects of China have undoubtedly changed, Yu Hua does see certain parallels between now and then which he seeks to draw out.
In one of the most intriguing chapters, ‘Revolution’, for instance, he argues that although the idea of social revolution has lost importance in China after Mao’s death, with the start of the economic revolution that followed, the word “simply donned a different costume.” The Great Leap Forward may have been a disastrous attempt to industrialise the nation which lead to the starvation of millions, but is the last decade of rampant, maybe even reckless, development any different?
In this “frenzy” of construction, as Yu Hua calls it, airports and highways, ports and industrial zones have appeared across the nation almost overnight, often begun by ambitious local governments without prior central government approval. Such vanity projects are regularly left to operate far below capacity, with one highway in Hebei Province said to be so devoid of traffic that the running joke is that the Chinese Grand Prix should be relocated from Shanghai in order to put the road to some use.
In education too, the boom has been felt. Though the Ministry of Education succeeded in expanding enrolments in higher education to over 5 million new students each year by 2006, five times as many as when the initiative was launched in the late 1990s, for Yu Hua, the whole thing is too reminiscent of the success-by-statistics mindset of the Great Leap Forward for comfort.
The ministry may have been so pleased with its success that it was moved to declare China having achieved in less than ten years a transformation other countries had taken fifty years to realise, but the fact that the country’s universities are now 200 billion yuan in debt, tuition fees have risen many times the average yearly salary, and the job market is so saturated that over a million graduates are now failing to find work, should maybe of more pressing concern than the simple one-upmanship the ministry seems so proud of.
As Yu Hua writes, “behind all the glorious statistics…crises tend to lurk.” Such has been the pace of reform in China, the underlying balance of the economy and society as a whole, it is argued, has been unable to keep pace. In one of the most startling statistics in the book, China may have become the second largest economy in the world in the blink of an eye, but in terms of per capita income, it is still only around one hundredth in the world.
Such disparity is arguably China’s most pressing domestic issue as the 21st century advances. As Yu Hua writes, China’s is a society which has lost its equilibrium. One in which the state is rich but the people are poor. Whereas previously we had been dazzled by the figures and the rising of cities, we are realising now that conflicts and problems “have sprouted everywhere” as complacency has taken hold.
A literary work of non-fiction
It was exactly such complacency, as we saw in The Search for Modern China, that brought down China’s final two dynasties the Ming and Qing – the rot sets in, and by the time the symptoms appear on the surface, the body is already too far gone to survive. Nobody is predicting any such drama again too soon, but the problems are there, in all manner of forms, and they will take some significant effort to keep them in check.
China in Ten Words, then, is no statistic-packed treatise. There’s no argument as such in the manner of conventional Western discourse. It’s more a set of ideas to be explored – a touching on the possibilities that each word suggests. In many ways the book can be seen as a literary work of non-fiction – it meanders, it roams, it takes flight where it fancies, yet each of its essays remains tied, however loosely, to the word from which it took its leave.
It may not be a book bursting with optimism. Indeed, Yu Hua states at the outset that he is writing both of China’s pain and his own pain when he writes about the state of the nation, yet China in Ten Words remains a thoroughly engaging read. At turns funny and shocking, informative and intriguing, it offers a unique perspective on China’s transformation from within – an impression, rather than an analysis, of the China that confronts the world today.
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