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Realism's Return

YU HUA, BORN in 1960, the son of a surgeon and a nurse, and a witness to chilling cruelties during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, worked as a dentist for about five years after he graduated from high school in 1977. In the mid-1980s, “bored with pulling teeth,” he began writing stories. The first of his works to draw much attention was the short story On the Long Road at Eighteen, a surrealist account of a young man as he discovers that the world makes no sense. He leaves home on foot, not quite sure where he is headed but wanting to get somewhere. He tries to hitchhike but cars just whiz by, ignoring him. He finds a stopped truck and offers the driver a cigarette—that should work!but the driver takes the cigarette and then says “Fuck off.” The young man decides to climb into the truck’s cab anyway, ready to explain that, “you did take my cigarette!”—and is surprised when the driver accepts his entry without comment. The truck is carrying apples, and as it rumbles down the road the driver invites the young man to take one, if he likes. (But how can one do this, from the cab of a moving truck?) After a while the truck breaks down. The driver climbs out, tries to fix it, fails, and then, absurdly, occupies himself with aerobics in the middle of the road. A swarm of strangers arrives on bicycles, with carrying poles and baskets, and begin taking apples from the truck. The young man shouts “Robbers!” The crowd turns on him, kicking him in the kidneys and face—while the truck driver sits at a distance and guffaws. More people arrive on bicycles and tractors, and strip the truck to a skeleton.

As Yu Hua and a few other young writers in the late 1980s and early ’90s (Han Shaogong, Can Xue, Bei Cun, and others) continued to write in this vein, Chinese critics puzzled over the question of origins. This was miles from Mao-era socialist realism, and very different, too, from the “scar” fiction that appeared after Mao. Were Yu Hua and the others mimicking foreign writers such as Kafka and Borges, or were there roots of this sort of writing in things like traditional Chinese ghost stories? Cynics claimed that the goal of the new writers was just to make literary splashes in pursuit of fame. Meanwhile Western academics, preoccupied with their own “theory,” labeled the writing “postmodernist deconstruction,” “cutting-edge intervention,” “defamiliarized alterity,” and other things that bore almost no relation to actual life in China.

With the publication of China in Ten Words, the puzzle over Yu Hua’s surrealism comes largely undone. Here, in ten very realist chapters, which he calls fiction but in fact is memoir, self-analysis, and cultural analysis of China, Yu shows how childhood trauma has shaped his worldview and how the excesses of late Maoism are still very much at work in the undergirding of Chinese life today. It no longer seems plausible to guess that his early inspirations came from foreign writers, or sprang from mere self-promotion. Surrealism then, as realism now, was just his way of writing what shock feels like.

Yu Hua’s transition from surrealism to realism has been gradual, and has been paralleled by a mounting readiness to challenge China’s ruling authority. His novel To Live (the title in Chinese suggests “coping”) is the saga of one man’s buffeting by history from the 1940s through the ’60s. His Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995) is about a factory worker who struggles through the disasters of late Maoism by selling his own blood. Brothers (2005), his most panoramic work, follows two step-brothers from the Mao era into the new century. It has the tremendous virtue of showing how the post-Mao “reform era” in China—from the late ’70s until now—is not the radical departure from Mao that many take it to be. Mao is still present in two ways: first, there are continuities, most notably in the authoritarian structure of Communist Party rule; and second, although there have been major rebounds from Mao, the rebounds themselves are structured by what they rebound from—and again Mao’s ghost persists.

In Brothers, for example, the hyper-asceticism of the Mao era gives rise to a conception of what it means to be “bourgeois”: bad people are the ones who eat and drink to excess, lie, cheat, sleep around, and try to get rich. With “reform,” Deng Xiaoping signals that to get rich is glorious and the tables are turned—but the model endures. Now the ones who eat, drink, lie, and so on are the heroes. Yu Hua carries his sarcasm on this point a bit too far, I think, in Brothers. One needn’t be a prude in order to feel put off at extended narration about a market in artificial hymens for surgical attachment to women who seek to win beauty contests that are restricted to virgins. Giddy raillery of this kind actually has a diversionary affect. It prevents a square look at the problem of a society that has lost its moral rudder, which is the underlying problem for Yu Hua.

In Ten Words, Yu largely outgrows this flaw. His sarcasm subsides, and we read plain statements such as (referring to the Great Leap Forward of the late ’50s) that “fakery, exaggeration, and bombast were the order of the day.” On the problem of “rebound,” Yu writes that “it’s like being on a swing; the higher you soar on one side, the higher you rise on another.” Despite the swings, though, “there are striking similarities between things that happened then and things that are happening now.” The fakery of the Mao era survives in contemporary patterns of “bamboozle,” on which Yu provides a full chapter. But his new directness comes at a price. Brothers could be published in China, but Ten Words is banned.

To my eye, the most poignant of Yu’s observations on the Mao legacy are those that describe the death of empathy. He writes that “two scenes [from the Cultural Revolution] linger before my eyes, one that sums up for me the beauty of human character and another that epitomizes its ugliness.” The beautiful scene is of a father, under horrendous political pressure, who is saying good-bye to his young son without revealing to the son that he is about to commit suicide. I then brace myself for Yu’s “most ugly” scene. What will it be? Gouged eyes? Fried human livers? Cultural Revolution history, as well as Yu’s own writings, leave much to choose from.

But Yu surprises me with this story: when he was in second grade, he and his friends would show up early for school and play on a playground until school began. A cluster of teachers watched over them. The teachers always chatted jovially, occasionally cackling over some amusing story, and obviously had good rapport. One day, when Yu was the first child to arrive at school, one of the teachers beckoned to him “conspiratorially” and told him, “with obvious relish,” that another of the teachers had been found to be the daughter of a landlord. Fresh news! Delicious! Time to pile on! Now the camaraderie meant nothing. Young Yu was shocked to see “how this teacher was savoring the other’s downfall.” Yu recalls that later, as teenagers, he and his friends themselves adopted Mao’s spirit and “got a kick out of bullying those weaker than ourselves.” In a chapter on the growing gap between rich and poor in China today, Yu writes that “poverty and hunger are not as shocking as willful indifference to them.”

To see China today as an outgrowth of the Mao era is to see China more deeply than most people in the West do, and much more accurately than the regime in Beijing would prefer. Western partisans of “globalization” often do not see beyond the gleaming surfaces of China’s showcase cities and assume that the Mao era is “history”; and Western champions of democracy tend to attribute China’s rising “rights awareness” to the intrinsic allure of Western ideas, when in fact it has much more to do with accumulated revulsion at harsh rule at home. The Chinese government, for its part, prefers simply to erase memory of the Mao era, and does this however it can.

The question that Yu Hua leaves unanswered is how long it will take for China finally to recover from Mao. He is wise to avoid this question, because it is a difficult one.  

Perry Link teaches at the University of California at Riverside and is editor of No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems of Liu Xiaobo.