Is it really possible to identify ten — and only ten — words that describe China today? In a country so vast and diverse, probably not; but that didn’t stop Chinese author Yu Hua from taking a crack at it in his book “China in Ten Words.”
He uses these ten words as a backdrop to tell the story of his life growing up during the Cultural Revolution, and his subsequent journey from being a village dentist (all he did was pull teeth all day long) to a being a writer.
To whet your appetite, here are each of the ten words, with an accompanying quote:
1. PEOPLE — “In the forty-odd years from the start of the Cultural Revolution to the present, the expression ‘the people’ has been denuded of meaning by Chinese realities. To use a current buzzword, ‘the people’ has become nothing more than a shell company, utilized by different eras to position different products in the marketplace.”
2. LEADER — “If we were to hold a contest to choose a word that has lost the most value the fastest during the past thirty years, the winner would surely have be be “leader.”
3. READING — “If literature truly possesses a mysterious power, I think perhaps it is precisely this: that one can read a book by a writer of a different time, a different country, a different race, a different language, and a different culture, and there encounter a sensation that is one’s very own.”
4. WRITING — “Sometimes life and writing can actually be very simple: a dream can trigger memory’s recall, and everything changes.”
5. LU XUN ( Chinese writer) — “The fate of Lu Xun in China — going from being an author to being a catchphrase and then back again — reflects the fate of China itself, and in Lu Xun we can trace the zigzags of history and detect the imprints of our social upheavals.”
6. REVOLUTION — “In our economic miracle since 1978, revolution never disappeared but simply donned a different costume.”
7. DISPARITY — “China’s high speed economic growth seems to have changed everything in the blink of an eye, rather like a long jump that let us leap from an era of material shortages into an era of extravagance and waste, from an era when instincts were repressed into an era of impulsive self-indulgence. A quick jump seems to be all it took to cross a span of thirty years.”
8. GRASSROOTS — “China’s economic miracle of the past thirty years, it’s fair to say, is an agglomeration of countless individual miracles created at the grassroots level.”
9. COPYCAT — “The copycat phenomenon is like this too, revealing society’s progress but also its regression.”
10. BAMBOOZLE — “When bamboozling gains such wide acceptance, it goes to show that we live in a frivolous society, one that doesn’t set much store by matters of principle. My concern is that when bamboozling becomes a way of life, then everyone from the individual to the population at large can become its victim. For a bamboozler is quite likely to end up bamboozling himself 0r — in Chinese parlance — to pick up a big stone only to drop it on his own foot.”
I highly recommend this book.