Wednesday 19 December 2012

China in Ten Words

Yu Hua, 2011 [Allan H Barr, 2011]
(December 2012)

I’ve recently touched on the effects of Japan’s rapid industrialization and Westernization since the end of the sakoku period. My exact words, in case you've forgotten, were, “in barely five generations it’s gone from being essentially medieval to one of the most economically and technologically advanced nations in the world, and frankly it’s not surprising that social change hasn’t kept up with that hectic pace.” China’s in much the same boat now, but instead of five generations, it’s only been five decades. It’s been a fairly bumpy ride.
Part commentary, part memoir, this is a meditation on some aspects of where China is now and how it got there. A lot of the memoir part focuses on Hua’s youth during the Cultural Revolution, which is terrifying. The commentary focuses on how those experiences formed him and the country into the positions they now hold. Which is also terrifying.

The whole book is very anecdotal, and as such the memoir sections are stronger. The contemporary commentary does appear to lack a certain journalistic rigour. Lots of stuff presented as, ‘Here’s a story I heard about how society is going to the dogs. Young people today, eh?’ It’s consummately written and all too believable, but if I’d read a Western writer offering a story about a single teenage girl getting an abortion as evidence of the degeneration of society I’d be a little sceptical as to the wider picture. I see no reason to suspend that scepticism here, much as I may have been primed to do so.

That said, the chapter on ‘Reading’ is worth the cover price alone. Wonderful, life affirming stuff, that one. And the rest is pretty good too.


  1. Lu Xun. Read the short story 'Benediction'. Sadly, it describes more of humanity than just the setting in China.

    1. I might just do that. Was completely unaware of him before reading this book, but it appears he is/was something of a big deal. Thanks for the starting recontamination.

    2. And then read your Du Fu (or 'Tu Fu'). My small knowledge of Chinese literature now exhausted.

      I haven't been able to find Ezra Pound's evocative, if inaccurate, translation online, but:

      "Though a state is crushed
      Its hills and streams remain;
      Now inside the walls of Changan
      Grasses rise high among unpruned trees;
      Seeing flowers come, a flood
      Of sadness overwhelms me; cut off
      As I am, songs of birds stir
      My heart; third month and still
      Beacon fires flare as they did
      Last year; to get news
      From home would be worth a full
      Thousand pieces of gold;
      Trying to knot up my hair
      I find it grey, too thin
      For my pin to hold it together. "