The China Primer

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Has China really changed so much since it moved from "Mao Zedong's monochrome era" to Deng Xiaoping's "polychrome era of economics above all"? Answering his own question in China in Ten Words, author Yu Hua suggests that one kind of madness has simply been replaced with another. New airports and highways are announced in wild numbers today, just as during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) crazily inflated harvest figures led to more than 8 million people dying of hunger in Sichuan province alone. The feast-or-famine cycles, the brutality, the grand talk of giving poor citizens better lives have, he says, "simply donned a different costume."

Yu is a seasoned novelist, with such dissident explosions as To Live (1992) and Brothers (2005) under his belt. His latest work is a discursively simple series of essays explaining his country's recent history through 10 central terms — from people and leader to copycat and bamboozle. Yu uses them to cut back and forth between China today and the China he grew up in. The violence is a constant. As a boy, the author and his friends mugged strangers for their oil coupons. Today, as he describes in the chapter "Revolution," shareholders "punch and kick, spit and curse, smash chairs and break cups" in order to grab control of companies.

What has changed, according to Yu, is the intensity of moral degradation. The heart of his outrage comes from his sense that "since 1990, corruption has grown with the same astounding speed as the economy as a whole." In 2004, he notes, 10 million people went to Beijing seeking redress for injustices in their home districts, only to be harried by police and forced to sleep rough. As he puts it, with typical directness: "The strong prey on the weak, people enrich themselves through brute force and deception, and the meek and humble suffer while the bold and unscrupulous flourish."

Such charges are not new, of course. Neither are rending descriptions of life in the 1970s, which can be found in novels like The Vagrants, by Yu's younger, U.S.-based contemporary Yiyun Li. But while her book is a catalog of horrors, Yu's ability to find absurdity in sorrow can make the sorrow even harder to bear. Citizens of the second largest economy in the world rank 100th, he points out, in per capita income. China may soon become the planet's largest consumer of luxury goods, but many parents do not have enough to pay for a doctor's visit, or banana, for their children. Newspapers brag (falsely) that Bill Gates is going to lease a luxury apartment in Beijing — and yet this paradise is a place where impoverished peasants must pay bribes for the privilege of selling their own blood to vendors supplying local hospitals.

Content to let reality indict itself, Yu describes sex-industry entrepreneurs running their brothels on Communist Party principles (complete with "self-criticism sessions"). He writes of a township in southwest China that changes its housing laws to favor newlyweds — prompting almost 95% of its households to go through fake divorces and then false new marriages. Though the details sound casual, they pack an almost allegorical force: the first person to buy a 100 million-yuan ($16 million) apartment in one city, Yu notes, was one of the aforementioned blood dealers — a "blood chief," who was said to have "commanded the loyalty of a hundred thousand" lesser vendors.

It's not easy to distill the history of 1.3 billion people across half a century into stories even a fifth-grader could understand. But Yu has made a game attempt. In the chapter "People," he describes how briefly, in 1989, the "people" really did assert their freedom as communist propaganda had promised. But now, " 'the people' has become a shell company." Caustic and difficult to forget, China in Ten Words is a people's-eye view of a world in which the people have little place.