Though nearly 50, Yu, who wears his hair short and spiky, looks relatively young. He speaks in emphatic bursts, his face often flushing red, and he is quick to laugh. It was, in fact, his boisterous laugh that almost got him into trouble on the morning of the solemn announcement of Mao’s death. Responding to orders that blared out from loudspeakers, he assembled with hundreds of other students in the main hall of his small-town high school. “Funereal music was played, and then we had to hear the long list of titles that preceded Mao’s name, ‘Chairman,’ ‘Beloved Leader,’ ‘Great helmsman . . . ,’” Yu recalled. “Everyone loved Chairman Mao, of course, so when his name was finally announced, everyone burst into tears. I started crying, too, but one person crying is a sad sight; more than a thousand people crying together, the sound echoing, turns into a funny spectacle, so I began to laugh. My body shook with my effort to control my laughter while I bent over the chair in front of me. The class leader later told me, admiringly, ‘Yu Hua, you were crying so fervently!’”
Brothers strikes its characteristic tone with the very first scene, as Li Guang, a business tycoon, sits on his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of space travel even as he mourns the loss of all earthly relations. Li made his money from various entrepreneurial ventures, including hosting a beauty pageant for virgins and selling scrap metal and knockoff designer suits. A quick flashback to his small-town childhood shows him ogling the bottoms of women defecating in a public toilet. Similarly grotesque images proliferate over the next 600 pages as Yu describes, first, the extended trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Li and his stepbrother Song Gang witness Red Guards torturing Song Gang’s father to death, and then the moral wasteland of capitalist China, in which Song Gang is forced to surgically enlarge one of his breasts in order to sell breast-enlargement gels.
Later in the taxi home, sitting next to the driver, Yu spoke of a threat to artistic expression in China newer than state control. “I am really worried about the new nationalism,” he said. “Anything slightly critical of China appears in foreign media, and the nationalists are swarming online, attacking it. I tell these angry youth that The New York Times doesn’t criticize China as much as it criticizes America. Basically they are ignorant. They think the American media is always praising American presidents. The problem is that the younger generation hasn’t lived through poverty, collectivism; it is lacking in restraint, its references are very few, the experience is so limited...
These young nationalists have no sense of ambivalence, no idea of life’s ambiguities. But when times are hard, their attitude will change, become more mature, and because capitalism in this form cannot go on in China, it has to end, those hard times will come soon.”
Saturday, March 14, 2009
China's excesses, past and present, through Yu Hua's eyes
Pankaj Mishra gives us an engrossing and elaborate portrait of the Chinese writer, Yu Hua, author of Brothers, a provocative, best-selling novel about the excesses of China’s Cultural Revolution – by any yardstick, a surreal moment in 20th century history – and the unfettered capitalist boom of the last two decades. Excerpts: