China in Ten WordsBook - 2011
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.
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Every one of these books must have passed through the hands of a thousand people or more before they reached me, and so they were in a terrible state of disrepair, with easily a dozen or more pages missing from the beginning and the same number missing at the end. So I knew neither the books’ titles nor their authors, neither how the stories began nor how they ended. To not know how a story began was not such a hardship, but to not know how it ended was a painful deprivation. Every time I read one of these headless, tailless novels I was like an ant on a hot wok, running around everywhere in search of someone who could tell me the ending. But everybody was in the same boat ... and could brief me on developments in that portion of the book, they still did not know the final denouement.
I feel that for a reader to truly encounter an author sometimes depends on finding the right moment.
Money is an unseemly topic that may well be deplored by gentlemen of lofty principle. But I tend to think that people’s views differ not only between one day and the next but also before and after meals. When people admit that money is necessary to feed oneself but still insist on its vulgarity, then one can safely predict that they still have some undigested fish or meat in their systems. They’d sing a different tune, I’m sure, if you made them go hungry for a day.
Peking and Tsinghua. Its nom de plume was Liang Xiao, a play on words for “Two Schools.”
In those days there was no relief from the searing heat of summer, and often I would wake from an afternoon nap to find the entire outline of my body imprinted in sweat on my straw bed mat; sometimes I perspired so heavily it bleached my skin white.
A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence.
Our economic miracle—or should we say, the economic gain in which we so revel—relies to a significant extent on the absolute authority of local governments, for an administrative order on a piece of paper is all that’s required to implement drastic change.
Even after so many years, while people still reflect on the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, that same type of development keeps rearing its head in our economic life. One sees signs of it in the frenzy to construct airports, harbors, highways, and other such large-scale public works.
“The weak fear the strong,” the Chinese saying goes, “the strong fear the violent, and the violent fear the reckless.”
China moved from Mao Zedong’s monochrome era of politics-in-command to Deng Xiaoping’s polychrome era of economics above all. “Better a socialist weed than a capitalist seedling,” we used to say in the Cultural Revolution. Today we can’t tell the difference between what is capitalist and what is socialist—weeds and seedlings come from one and the same plant.
“A cat that catches the mouse is a good cat, no matter whether it’s black or white.”
Those were the days of the rationing system, when men were restricted to coupons for just twenty-seven pounds of grain per month and women to twenty-five, along with coupons for half a pound of meat and two ounces of oil per person.
In revolution the social ties that bind one person to another are formed and broken unpredictably, and today’s brother-in-arms may become tomorrow’s class enemy.
Unequal lives give rise to unequal dreams. About ten years ago China Central Television interviewed Chinese youngsters on Children’s Day, asking them what gift they would most like to receive. A boy in Beijing wanted a Boeing jet of his own, while a girl in the northwest said bashfully, “I want a pair of sneakers.” Though much the same age, these two children were worlds apart in their dreams, and the girl is probably no more likely to get a pair of sneakers than the boy is to get his own plane.
China today is a land of huge disparities. It’s like walking down a street where on this side are gaudy pleasure palaces and on that side desolate ruins, or like sitting in a strange theater where a comedy is being performed on one side of the stage and a tragedy on the other.
“Chairman Mao teaches us” and “Mr. Lu Xun says” were the standard political tags punctuating speeches and articles throughout the land.
China “grassroots” has come to be used in a broad sense to denote disadvantaged classes that operate at some remove from the mainstream and the orthodox.
The profit on a single button may be minuscule, but so long as people go on wearing clothes, there’ll be a demand for his buttons everywhere in the world. The same goes for paper napkins, socks, and cigarette lighters: however humble such products may be, the minute they claim a significant market share, they are perfectly capable of becoming an empire of wealth.
Blood selling, which seems such a humble and demeaning profession, turns out to be just the kind of story on which Forbes magazine would love to do a feature: a quintessential rags-to-riches story.
In China there’s a saying, “People fear getting famous just as pigs fear getting fat,” reflecting the observation that fame invites a fall just as a fattened pig invites the butcher. On the other hand, as Rupert Hoogewerf (aka Hu Run), the creator of the Rich List, has noted, “Pigs that deserve to die will die, whether or not they make it onto the rich list.”
As I look back over China’s sixty years under communism, I sense that Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Deng’s open-door reforms have given China’s grassroots two huge opportunities: the first to press for a redistribution of political power and the second to press for a redistribution of economic power.
Finally the dealer pointed at the driver’s seat. “It took two cows to make this,” he said. “The leather is cut only from the finest part of the hide.”
The word here rendered as “copycat”* originally denoted a mountain hamlet protected by a stockade or other fortifications; later it acquired an extended meaning as a hinterland area, home to the poor. It was also a name once given to the lairs of outlaws and bandits, and the word has continued to have connotations of freedom from official control.
In China’s overheated political campaigns, revolution was just a short step away from counterrevolution. In popular idiom it was a matter of “flipping pancakes”: everyone was just a pancake sizzling on the griddle, flipped from side to side by the hand of fate. Yesterday’s revolutionary became today’s counterrevolutionary, just as today’s counterrevolutionary would become tomorrow’s revolutionary.
After the tainted-milk scandal was exposed, it became clear that it was not just the Sanlu Group in Shijiazhuang whose infant formulas had astronomical levels of melamine; many other producers’ infant formula exceeded the limits to varying degrees. China’s entire milk industry suffered a major blow. Nobody would buy domestically produced milk powder, and many people stopped drinking milk.
Copycat cell phones began by imitating the functions and designs of such brands as Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson; to muddy the waters further, they gave themselves names like Nokir, Samsing, and Suny Ericcsun. By plagiarizing existing brands and thereby skimping on research and development costs, they sold for a fraction of the price of established products; given their technical capabilities and trendy appearance, they soon cornered the low end of the consumer market.
As the copycat concept has gained acceptance, plagiarism, piracy, burlesque, parody, slander, and other actions originally seen as vulgar or illegal have been given a reason to exist; and in social psychology and public opinion they have gradually acquired respectability.
The ubiquity and sharpness of social contradictions have provoked a confusion in people’s value systems and worldview, thus giving birth to the copycat effect, when all kinds of social emotions accumulate over time and find only limited channels of release, transmuted constantly into seemingly farcical acts of rebellion that have certain anti-authoritarian, anti-mainstream, and anti-monopoly elements. The force and scale of copycatting demonstrate that the whole nation has taken to it as a form of performance art.
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