f o r e i g n p a r t s j on at h a n m i r s k y
Copycats & Bamboozles hina in Ten Words
By Yu Hua (Translated by Allan H Barr) (Duckworth Overlook 225pp £16.99)
Yu Hua, an author new to me, has written a great deal, sells well in China, and has a sizeable international reputation. This is his first non-fiction work translated – and very nimbly, too, by Allan H Barr – into English. Straightaway, Yu says, ‘when in this book I write of China’s pain, I am registering my pain too, because China’s pain is mine’. It astounds me that he has not already joined Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo and a growing number of other outspoken intellectuals behind bars.
Readers new to China will find this a gripping introduction to the country, one which clashes on every page with the refrain that China is the new superpower before which all must bend the knee. The essays are based on ten words, such as ‘People’, ‘Leader’, ‘Writing’, ‘Revolution’, and ‘Bamboozle’. Each one is aimed at some aspect of Chinese corruption and disillusion. There is a constant allegation that the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are mirrored in China today. If true, this is terrifying in a way that champions of China will hate. And it is a daring claim: in 1982 the Communist Party proclaimed that the Cultural Revolution was the ‘greatest catastrophe’ to afflict China since the founding of the new state in 1949, and even laid the blame at the feet of Mao Zedong.
I can imagine the narrowed eyes of the censor when, in ‘People’, he reads about the protests in Tiananmen Square from April to June 1989. Even today, merely to mention online this ‘counterrevolutionary incident’, as it is officially dismissed, can prompt a knock on the door. Yu’s description is exactly as I remember the event:
Beijing in the spring of 1989 was anarchist heaven. The police suddenly disappeared from the streets, and students and locals took on police duties in their place. It was a Beijing we are unlikely to see again.
A common purpose and shared aspirations put a police-free city in perfect order … Beijing then was a city where, you could say, ‘all men are brothers’. By October, when Yu returned to the capital, the previous passions had been ‘replaced by a passion for getting rich’. The people – workers, scholars, peasants, soldiers and so on – had given way to ‘netizens, stock traders, fund holders, celebrity fans, laid-off workers, migrant laborers’. And how quickly the regime manipulated education so that young people, Yu notes, recall Tiananmen only as ‘a lot of people in the streets’.
His memories of Mao during the Cultural Revolution, in ‘Leader’, include not being able to say, ‘the sun went down’, because that would insult Mao, who had to be hailed as ‘the bright red sun in our hearts’. Only ‘it’s getting dark’ would do. There has been a new ‘miracle’, Yu says: it is economic, and just as under Mao there were consequences, today there is ‘environmental degradation, moral collapse, the polarization of rich and poor, pervasive corruption … so intense is the competition and so unbearable the pressure that, for many Chinese, survival is like war itself.’
The chapter ‘Revolution’ includes Yu’s memories of the steel-making frenzies intended to demonstrate that the makers were real revolutionaries, whether or not the steel was needed or indeed any good. Today,
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 … impractical, extravagant, and duplicate initiatives are common, and they are pursued as vigorously as a revolutionary campaign … Behind all the glorious statistics in China today, crises tend to lurk. My two favourite chapters, ‘Copycat’ and ‘Bamboozle’, underline the fact that anything in China can be knocked off. Any product, be it electronics, instant noodles, milk, medicines, cell phones or clothes, can be replicated, faked and labelled as real.
a p r i l 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 11