Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

China in Ten Words: Yu Hua Pulls Out the Big Guns

By Canaan Morse, published

Never forget class struggle! The Proletarian just came back from two events at the Bookworm: a conversation with crime novelist Mai Jia (yours truly translating) and Yu Hua's second introduction of his most recent book, China in Ten Words (十个词汇里的中国, supposedly masterfully translated by Alan Barr), featuring Eric as interpreter. The Mai Jia event was passably interesting, but Yu Hua damn near brought the political house down, and so while it may contain elements of mainstream sensationalism, we're going to talk about him.

Tonight's dialogue began where Ten Words begins - with Tian'anmen Square. Correction: it began with the Cultural Revolution, when Yu quoted Wen Jiabao's reminder that: "The tragedy of the Cultural Revolution could re-enact itself at any time in contemporary China," a statement he then generalized to include the Tian'anmen incident. What did he learn from 1989? He learned that revolution relies just as much on timing as it does pure human emotion. Egypt was his example. He recalled how he'd arrived in Cairo on the very first day of the revolution there, and how, seeing only a few thousand people in Tahrir Square, he figured Mubarak wasn't in any danger; yet only days after he returned to Beijing, the upset was complete. Twenty years ago, Beijing put almost a million people in Tian'anmen Square, yet because the causes of protest never reached the industrial and agricultural base (workers and peasants, to be blunt), the movement couldn't survive.

He outlined his opposition to Title 73 of China's new criminal punishment statute (passed just this morning), which allows for unwarranted arrest and detention of those suspected of "crimes against national security," terrorism and et cetera. He suggested that, should this power be abused, it will eventually be named a crime against humanity.

He suggested China learn democracy from Taiwan; he called it proof that Chinese people could make democracy work. This he followed up (or prefaced, I forget) with the statement that China only had two options for political development: slow democratic transition or revolution.

I watched his black eyes constantly scan the crowd as his overwhelmingly Western audience got more and more excited. I wondered if he were playing to the crowd - the execution of ideological orgasms in people always raises that doubt in me. I'm afraid to say, having not yet read any of Yu Hua's literature, I had no way to tell. I hope someone widely familiar with his work will add his or her own informed opinion directly to this post (comment text is, honestly, too small; if you don't have an account but would like to respond, send your response to me and I'll post it word-for-word in here). At least, I felt very strongly that Yu Hua had obviously lifted his writing "from the singular to the plural concern," as Tennessee Williams once encouraged (and later followed with, "I try very hard to do that.").

This is the first time in my limited few years here that I've witnessed such an inflammatory performance here in Beijing. It was inspiring; I'd go so far as to call it ballsy. You wish you'd been at this event.

Addendum: Because Alice wanted quotes: Near the end of the lecture, Yu Hua told a story about a young college student who had attempted to resist the tanks and armored vehicles that invaded the Square on the morning of the 4th and was killed when bullets ricocheted off the ground and tore through his femoral arteries. His father, a colonel in the PLA, came immediately to Beijing to view his son's body. He was asked timidly by an accompanying major if his son had been a "spectator" or a "rioter," a question which would mean everything for the father's career. The father repeatedly responded, "A rioter. A rioter." He figured that to call his son a spectator would be to humiliate him, and though he were called a "rioter" now, sooner or later people would think of him as a hero. "Twenty years later," Yu Hua concluded, "I expect he is still waiting."


# 1.   

I was at the Yan Lianke event last year and that tore the house down too. I've read Brothers in Chinese (not its translation) and was gripped to the end. I can imagine Yu Hua would have a way of getting the audience riled up - wish you could have put up quotes from the event!

 Alice, March 14, 2012, 11:26p.m.

# 2.   

Great work, thank you Canaan!

 Alice, March 15, 2012, 2:48a.m.

# 3.   

A couple of quotes from the event:

'It's not a matter of how many people you've got but whether the opportunity exists.' Yu Hua on protest and revolution, when comparing the relatively sparse group of protesters in Egypt to the numbers that would appear in China.

'Literature is part of the globalisation of the spirit.' Yu Hua (BTW We've tweeted this, along with another quote... follow the Asia Literary Review, along with Paper Republic.)

Kelly Falconer, March 15, 2012, 3:16a.m.


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