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Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
By: 
Yu Hua
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A-China-in-Ten-WordsYu Hua is the author of Brothers ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2009), To Live (1993), and two other novels, as well as several collections of short stories and essays. Yu, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, is the first Chinese author to have received the James Joyce Award.

The Topic: One of the interesting features of the Chinese writing system is that because there is no alphabet, a set of characters can signify the same word or phrase in two different spoken languages (hence, the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese). But that does not mean the meaning of words cannot change over time, a tension that Yu Hua explores in China in Ten Words. Each of the personal essays in this collection explores how the meaning of a word or a phrase has changed during his lifetime. Some words evoke Chinese concepts familiar to Western readers: "people" (once connoting "People's Republic," now meaning "various interest groups"), "revolution," "disparity," and "leader" (a word once reserved for Mao Zedong, but now vanished). Meanwhile, unexpected terms like "copycat" and "bamboozle" capture the contradictions of a China in transition.
Pantheon. 225 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307379351

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4.5 of 5 Stars"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. ... For American readers curious about the upheavals of China, this may be the right moment to discover Yu Hua." Jim Higgins

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars"[Yu] combines history, sociopolitical analysis, economic observations, with his own personal experiences to illustrate for readers the contrast between the deprivation that defined the Cultural Revolution of his youth and the extravagance of contemporary China. ... Unblinking, Yu muses at the ‘you-can't-make-this-stuff-up' reality that is today's China." Terry Hong

Salon.com 4 of 5 Stars"Yu has a fiction writer's nose for the perfect detail, the everyday stuff that conveys more understanding than a thousand Op-Eds. ... Yu's revelation--that the Chinese often find their own society bewildering, self-contradictory and ridiculous--ought to be unsettling, but instead it's reassuring." Laura Miller

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars"If you think you know China, you will be challenged to think again. If you don't know China, you will be introduced to a country that is unlike anything you have heard from travelers or read about in the news." Melanie Kirkpatrick

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars"China in Ten Words depicts a morally compromised nation, plagued by escalating unemployment, class polarization and endemic corruption and waste. ... [I]ts unflattering details are not far removed from the gold-plated toilets and artificial hymens of his previous book, the satirical novel Brothers." Ligaya Mishan

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars"To this Western reader, the Chinas evoked in Ten Words are terrifyingly alien. ... But Yu's childhood narratives bring to these violent times and distant places an arresting familiarity." Alex Nalbach

Critical Summary

The American reading public has no shortage of options in books on contemporary China. Critics felt that Yu Hua's work stands out from the crowd not only because of his populist, tongue-in-cheek style but also because of his motifs of continuity and change. Reviewers felt that summing up a half-century of Chinese history through language (each word is allotted a chapter) is a particularly good device for describing contemporary China, a country beset by disturbing moral contradictions. Although a couple of critics felt that Yu's different Chinas are disorienting, especially to readers unfamiliar with the broad strokes of Chinese history, most noted how many of the childhood experiences Yu shares in his essays feel familiar even on the other side of the world.