Duckworth, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
China in Ten Words, By Yu Hua
Tuesday 19 June 2012
To tell the stories of China's gargantuan transformation in just ten words might seem a little quixotic. How could one capture the consequences of the fastest industrial revolution ever witnessed, in the world's most populous state? In these short, kaleidoscopic essays, novelist Yu Hua has done it, each word the prompt for personal memoir, contemporary reportage and sharp political commentary.
All writers love words, but few can have hungered for them like Yu. As he grew up during the Cultural Revolution, almost all books were banned. In "Reading", he describes a world in which the only texts to hand were the The Little Red Book and Mao's Selected Works. Both proved indigestible and flavourless. Undaunted, he subsisted on the intriguing tales buried in their footnotes.
Later, he graduated to illicitly circulating copies of Western classical novels. When he and his friend acquired, for only a day, a complete copy of a Dumas novel, they stayed up all night copying by hand. Just 30 years later, at a book fair in Beijing, he watched great piles of surplus books being flogged off by weight.
It is that great swing "from an era of material shortages to an era of extravagance and waste", that he explores in "Disparities". In his youth, disparities were minuscule and ideological – deviations from Mao's line that could make or break a life. Now they refer to the massive material inequalities that have emerged.
The complexity and fragility of the new order are best captured by "Copycat" and "Bamboozle". "Copycat" began as a hamlet surrounded by a stockade, became a hinterland of bandits, before mutating into imitation, beyond the law. The word now carries connotations of counterfeit, mischief and caricature. Originally, "bamboozle" meant to bob and sway, but acquired the sense of misleading, a con-trick or a rip-off. The word elides rank deceit with chicanery and pranks, and serves to "throw a cloak of respectability over deception and manufactured rumour".
In these pages, China appears to be a place where words can take on so many shades of meaning that they serve to obfuscate. We are lucky that Yu Hua hungered for them for so long; that he uses them with care, and to illuminate.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 2 Doctors remove 80 teeth from boy's jaw
- 3 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 4 Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations
- 5 Sir Winston Churchill’s family begged him not to convert to Islam, letter reveals
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
Downton Abbey series 5: George Clooney to try and kiss Dowager Countess in charity Christmas special
Game of Thrones is most-pirated TV show of 2014
Exodus: Gods and Kings banned in the UAE for 'religious mistakes'
Doctor Who and the BBC 'promoting a gay agenda', viewers complain
Millions of Britons struggling to feed themselves and facing malnourishment
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Nigel Farage: Ukip leader named 'Briton of the year' by The Times
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk