Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

Pulling Yu Hua's Teeth

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

As a bit of a contrast to the last post about Yu Hua's Brothers and how it's reviewed, here's a translation of the eponymous headline review from Pulling Yu Hua's Teeth, a collection of hatchet-jobs on Brothers that was published in China in 2006. It's neither the worst nor the best example of Yu Hua-related criticism, but it was one of the more prominent.

Pulling Yu Hua's Teeth

by Cang Lang

Two recent events have shaken up China's literary world. The first occurred when a certain famous literary critic [白烨 Bai Ye] criticized 'Post-80s' writers, offending 'race-car driver' Han Han and his friends and drawing such heavy fire that he was forced to close his blog. The second was the publication of the second volume of Brothers by the renowned writer Yu Hua, and its prodigious sales around the country.

The spring weather may be chilly this year, but things are already lively in China's book circles – all those literary folks had hibernated long enough. The only real shame was that the two so-called 'events' were so lacking in literary value – particularly the former, in which the 'race-car driver' came off as particularly vulgar and shameless, and entirely lacking in cultivation. But it was hardly worth getting upset about; some of our famous critics really do have issues, and it was only a matter of time before Han Han was rude about it: the old man should have seen it coming. But when it came to Brothers, by the famous writer Yu Hua, the world of literary criticism responded with a coordinated attack that was gratifying to see. Even diehard apologists like Xie Youshun, Zhang Yiwu and Chen Xiaoming finally listened to their consciences and began to actually criticize. Assaulted from all sides, Yu Hua made a show of turning up his nose in contempt, but he's also a 'writer' of some refinement and he wasn't going to lose his cool. He showed far better quality than Han Han, which was a bit of an eye-opener.

Brothers was bound to be a best-seller. Though the first half was insipid in the extreme, it's conclusion, in which Song Pingfan comes to a tragic end during the Cultural Revolution, is written in a sentimental, tear-jerker style. It's generally expected that writers will be discreet and circumspect in describing or recounting events from the Cultural Revolution, but the publishing house deleted nothing from these chapters, perhaps because Yu Hua is now too famous as an author, and those chapters became the book's selling point. The second half is a sprawling mess, full of descriptions of sex, like something you'd buy off the sidewalk, and it's only to be expected that it would be popular with the reading public. According to an article in the Huaxia Times, Yu Hua's son Yu Guo, who is 13 this year, has read Brothers several times, and there's one question I can't get out of my mind: Dear Mr. Yu Hua, aren't you worried that the moment your son has finished reading your book he'll rush to the public toilets to spy on women's rears [Brothers begins with a scene of peeping in a public toilet]?

To be honest, although To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant had plenty of problems, they were excellent novels — that's why, in my book Chess with the Devil — A Criticism of Five Authors, I was willing to let Yu Hua off the hook. But who would have guessed the old fellow would refuse to admit that his well had gone dry: he couldn't bear the loneliness, and decided to perpetuate one more fraud upon China's reading public. Two years ago I was already deeply skeptical of the way Yu Hua was presenting himself: at that time he had been interviewed by the Tianjin Television Station and was asked what his personal motto was. This great writer said, perfectly straight-faced, "it's autumn, and I'm walking the streets of Beijing". At the time I thought to myself, "that counts as a motto?" But let's think about it, this is a common, "unqualified" dentist from the backwater of Xijiang, Haiyan, with only a high-school education. Now his day in the sun has come, his name resounds throughout the land, he's wearing an imported suit with the tag still on it, a mobile phone in his hand, he's walking the streets of Beijing in the autumn time… What satisfaction and pride he must feel! As the saying goes, it takes more than a wallet stuffed with cash to turn a poor man into a rich man, and the noble of spirit only reach that state after thrice casting their skin. Yu Hua achieved fame overnight; what exactly are his motivations for writing? Where does he get his ideas? What nourishment can he provide his readers? Is it really enough to just produce hearsay, nonsense, gibberish, and overheated language? A person with no true faith has nothing to give to society but a kind of sneering indifference. You'll never find an ounce of compassion or pity in his works.

Space here is limited, so I'll pull only four teeth from this unqualified dentist, who is suffering from heartburn. If I get the chance in the future, I'll pump his stomach as well.

First up is the "yellow" tooth ["yellow" is shorthand for pornographic, similar to "blue" in English]. Yu Hua may claim that he's describing "spiritual fervor, the suppression of natural impulses, the subversion of ethics, want and desire", but in both parts of Brothers, some hidden purpose has transformed this aesthetic plan into a base exhibition hall, a trump used to solicit readers' interest. From Li Guangtou's glimpse of Lin Hong's buttocks and the release of his youthful "sexual desire" on the bench, Yu Hua forges tirelessly on to write of Li Guangtou and Song Gang peeping on their parents having sex, then Li Guangtou's promiscuity and the virgin beauty contests of the second part… The whole story is rife with repulsive, low-class writing, which I'm afraid would ruin my readers' appetites if I reproduced it here. Yu Hua really is a master of the yellow — this must be the first tooth pulled.

The second is the false tooth. Yu Hua writes that after fourteen-year-old Li Guangtou sees the buttocks of Lin Hong, the beauty of Liu Village, in the public toilets, the curiosity of the entire village is aroused and nearly everyone comes to enquire of the details. This would have been absolutely impossible in those harsh times, completely unheard-of, yet Yu Hua goes about describing it with relish. His description of the early maturity of the eight-year-old Li Guangtou is exaggerated to the point of crassness, and the heroic image of Song Fanping cornering his prey is exaggerated as well. What's more, Li Guangtou's rise to fame and fortune, his so-called "success", are painted in curiously lurid colors — has anyone ever seen the gateway of a county government become a trash dump? How exactly is it that Li Guangtou becomes a billionaire? Also, hasn't his supporter Tao Qing been county chief for quite a long time? Could he have held that position from the 1980s until 2006? It's simply unbelievable. The book is full of fatal flaws of this kind.

The third tooth is the "carious tooth". From the beginning of the book, as Li Guangtou spies on Lin Hong's buttocks, to his real father's death by drowning after also spying on women in the public toilet, to the ferocity of Li Guangtou's sexual desire and his early maturity, to his virgin beauty contest, his promiscuity, his vasectomy, the peddling of hymens, the obscenity of the cigarette-smoking factory head, to Song Gang selling virility pills and breast-enhancement cream, to the blacksmith Tong visiting prostitutes, all the tales of the cripples, idiots, mutes and blind people at the social welfare workshop — all this is disguised as an ironic exposé of reality, but in fact it is only an enticement of the grossest kind. The book simply panders to the tastes of the lower type of reader for spectacle and voyeurism; it is not only disorderly and unsystematic but also thoroughly coarse, revealing Yu Hua's disrespect for modern Chinese women, and his cold contempt for the disabled.

The fourth tooth is the "black tooth". The entire book revolves around the success and rocketing fame of Li Guangtou. To a certain extent this is a reflection and exposure of modern society, but to allow everything to disintegrate and collapse makes a mockery of all the characters equally, whether they be businesspeople or artists. The characters most worthy of admiration are Li Lan, Song Gang, and Song Gang's father, but these three are all subjected to excessively cruel fates. In the afterword, Yu Hua quotes the words of Jesus, telling people that they must pass through the narrow door, not the wide door – only the narrow door leads to eternal life. But there doesn't seem to be a single ray of light in the book, only boundless darkness and cold. Good people are not rewarded, the kind do not die a good death, scoundrels take the upper hand, love proves false, only money is praised, but there is nothing behind money but lasciviousness and ugliness. Is Li Guangtou rewarded with eternal life for his brotherly love? Is the ascension of Song Gang's ashes into space simply a materialistic farce, or spiritual penance? Perhaps we can forgive the intimacy between Li Guangtou and Lin Hong, the beautiful personification of the spirit, but why does Yu Hua turn her into a prostitute? Where is the immortality of her soul? Obviously Yu Hua's so-called Jesus-worship is simply a crowd-pleasing trick, he's not worthy of writing the name "Jesus". Art itself may be a lie, not truth, but it should bring us closer to truth. Literature reveals the emotions of people, but at the same time should improve the emotions of people. Without the support of absolute faith, mankind can never attain eternity, and a writer can only sink into a world of filth, chaos, stench and blackness, without the slightest scrap of dignity.

Ibsen said: "To live is to battle the demons in the heart as well as the brain. To write is to preside at judgement day over one's self." Now I find myself driven to speak out once again, and as I embark on another bitter and pointless journey through this 500,000 character trash-heap, my greatest reward is that, after two months of insomnia, I've had two nights of sound sleep. My eleven-year-old daughter asks me once again, what is Brothers about? And once again I must answer, red faced, This is street-side literature, Papa can't tell you what it's about. But one experience has proved very interesting: a dull book is like sleeping pills, it will make you irresistibly sleepy — so long as you're not interested in "below-the-belt scenery", that is.

Brother Yu Hua, thank you!


# 1.   

Art itself may be a lie, not truth, but it should bring us closer to truth. Literature reveals the emotions of people, but at the same time should improve the emotions of people.

Who sez? Most 'classics' I can think of are more concerned with telling a story than making the reader feel better. Besides, nothing makes you feel better than reading about someone worse off than you!

Without the support of absolute faith, mankind can never attain eternity, and a writer can only sink into a world of filth, chaos, stench and blackness, without the slightest scrap of dignity.

Sounds like my kind of writer. :)

Nick, March 29, 2009, 3:06a.m.

# 2.   

It's really just a generation gap, even if they are the same age. Some people want to let literature and thought be what it is and others want it to be exactly like Romance of the Three Kingdoms forever.

hsknotes, March 29, 2009, 3:58a.m.

# 3.   

"below-the-belt scenery"

Well done, Eric!

And by the way, it does seem that the general quality of Chinese writing skyrockets when one author seeks to sully another's reputation!

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

 Bruce , March 29, 2009, 4:01a.m.

# 4.   

Thanks, though the original was "裤带以下的风景", so I didn't have much work to do.

I originally translated this just to make fun of it, but I'm realizing it really does represent some earnest (if unfashionable, from our point of view) perspectives on what literature is. Prissiness and ad-hominem attacks aside, the idea that fiction must be elevating, in a direct and unsophisticated sense, is still very much current. It's a shame there's so little public back-and-forth on these questions.

 Eric Abrahamsen, March 29, 2009, 4:20a.m.

# 5.   

I would like to know the original name of the article "pulling yu hua's teeth".

Tommaso, April 18, 2012, 10:20a.m.

# 6.   

Tommaso: I believe it was 给余华拔牙

 Eric Abrahamsen, April 18, 2012, 6:28p.m.

# 7.   

Thank you Eric.

Tommaso, April 18, 2012, 6:42p.m.


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