China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

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From one of China’s most acclaimed writers, his first work of nonfiction to appear in English: a unique, intimate look at the Chinese experience over the last several decades, told through personal stories and astute analysis that sharply illuminate the country’s meteoric economic and social transformation.

Framed by ten phrases common in the Chinese vernacular—“people,” “leader,” “reading,” “writing,” “Lu Xun” (one of the most influential Chinese writers of the twentieth century), “disparity,” “revolution,” “grassroots,” “copycat,” and “bamboozle”—China in Ten Words reveals as never before the world’s most populous yet oft-misunderstood nation. In “Disparity,” for example, Yu Hua illustrates the mind-boggling economic gaps that separate citizens of the country. In “Copycat,” he depicts the escalating trend of piracy and imitation as a creative new form of revolutionary action. And in “Bamboozle,” he describes the increasingly brazen practices of trickery, fraud, and chicanery that are, he suggests, becoming a way of life at every level of society.

Characterized by Yu Hua’s trademark wit, insight, and courage, China in Ten Words is a refreshingly candid vision of the “Chinese miracle” and all its consequences, from the singularly invaluable perspective of a writer living in China today.

Read an excerpt from China in Ten Words.

Praise for China in Ten Words:

“Lexical innovations, evasions and revisions give China in Ten Words its form. Each essay is devoted to a particular word—its origins, its devaluation or appreciation in meaning—starting with ‘people’ (as in ‘serve the’) and ending with ‘bamboozle,’ an arc that, for Yu Hua, seems to pretty much sum up the past half-century of Chinese history. . . . This is a tale told by a raconteur, not an academic. . . . The most powerful and vivid sections reach back to Yu Hua’s childhood during the Cultural Revolution. . . . It is a cautionary tale about the risks of subterfuge, of trying to sneak something past one’s father—or, perhaps, one’s ever vigilant government.” –The New York Times Book Review

“If Yu Hua never wrote anything else, he would rate entry into the pantheon of greats for “Reading,” an essay in his new collection China in Ten Words. Nothing I’ve ever read captures both the power and subversive nature of youthful reading as well. . . . Yu, whose novels include Brothers and To Live, has picked 10 words to serve as launching pads for his explorations of the ‘social complexities and staggering contrasts of contemporary China.’ . . . . For American readers curious about the upheavals of China, this may be the right moment to discover Yu Hua.” –Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“An outstanding set of essays on the general topic of why modern China is the way it is, each essay centered on a Chinese word or phrase. . . . Very much worth reading.” –James Fallows, The Atlantic

“It’s rare to find a work of fiction that can be hysterically funny at some points, while deeply moving and disturbing at others. It’s even more unusual to find such qualities in a work of non-fiction. But China in Ten Words is just such an extraordinary work. . . . China in Ten Words convey[s] 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.’ As expected, Barr captures the loose, colloquial, and occasionally anarchic flavor of the author’s prose. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . . Courageous.” –Los Angeles Review of Books blog, The China Beat

“Yu is one of contemporary China’s most celebrated but controversial writers. With much wit and elegance, he reminisces here in separate pieces (only one has been previously published) about his country’s experiences over the past several decades, using personal stories as well as a piercing, critical examination of China’s political, economic, and social transformation from what was essentially a Third World state into a superpower. . . . His commentary is wide and varied, touching on everything from the country’s severe economic and social disparity since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to his own rise from uneducated, small-town ‘teeth puller’ to one of the most highly regarded writers of his time. Verdict: A marvelous book for those interested in contemporary China, by one of China’s foremost intellectuals.” –Library Journal

“In these moving and elegantly crafted essays organized around 10 common terms from the Chinese vernacular, internationally acclaimed novelist Yu (To Live) looks back on his childhood during the Cultural Revolution and examines how China has changed in the decades since. Yu’s first work of nonfiction translated into English, the book offers rare insight into the cause and effect of China’s ‘economic miracle,’ focusing close attention on the citizens of the world’s most populous country. With an intimate tone and witty prose, Yu looks at the ‘effects that seem so glorious and search for their causes, whatever discomfort that may entail,’ training his incisive eye on the quotidian as well as the grand. Chapters such as ‘People,’ ‘Leader,’ ‘Disparity,’ Grassroots,’ and ‘Revolution’ weave memoir and commentary with a clear-eyed economic, sociological, and political appraisal, taking on poverty and oppression on the small and large scale. ‘Writing,’ ‘Lu Xun,’ ‘copy cat,’ and ‘bamboozle’ examine Chinese cultural realities, past and present, extrapolating truths about growing up, family, friendship, sexuality, literature, and mortality. Yu’s book describes his particular experience, but hints at something much more expansive. As he writes in ‘Reading,’ ‘If literature truly possesses a mysterious power, I think perhaps it is precisely this: that one can read a book by a writer of a different…culture and there encounter a sensation that is one’s very own.’” —Publishers Weekly

“In this era of the China Boom when Communist Party officials are so inclined t
o erase the travails of their country’s past from public consciousness, Yu Hua’s insistence on “remembering” comes as an almost shocking intrusion into a willful state of amnesia. His earthy, even ribald, meditations in China in Ten Words, on growing up in small-town China during Mao’s Cultural revolution remind us of just how twisted China’s progress into the present has been and how precariously balanced its success story actually still is.” —Orville Schell, Director of the Center on US-China Relations, The Asia Society

“At times humorous, at times heartbreaking, and at times fierce, these ten moving and informative essays form a small kaleidoscopic view of contemporary China. The meticulous translation has rendered them all the more hip, penetrating, and engaging. Written with a novelist’s eye and narrative flair, China in Ten Words will make the reader rethink “the China miracle.” —Ha Jin, National Book Award-winning author of Waiting

“A series of essays that combine memoir and trenchant social critique. . . . Sharply observed tales about everyday life. The translatipn preserves both his simple, direct style and subtle sense of humor. . . . Engaging. . . . Yu Hua’s essays say much about the continuing enigma that is China.” –Kirkus Reviews