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on February 11, 2012
China is a paradox: hard-charging capitalist country and communist stronghold. There's a Wild West mentality now, with every man, woman, and child for him or herself, and at the same time still tied closely to the one-party state, a political system that brooks no dissent. Yu Hua, a best-selling novelist in China, dissects his country through the prism of his own life in China in Ten Words, and sees the contradictions as having more in common with the country's past than the average outside observer would see. It's obviously an uncomfortable truth: his book cannot be published in China, even though he lives in Beijing and continues to be popular as a novelist.

Hua centers his argument around ten themes, his ten words. They range from, at the beginning of the book, "people" and "leader" to the two final words, "copycat" and "bamboozle." "People" is a signal word in modern China: after all, it's officially the People's Republic of China. But "the people," when Yu Hua was growing up (he was born in 1960, during the disastrous Great Leap Forward) had a very different meaning than it does now. He dwells on what he considers the major turning point for China: the role of the Chinese people in the Tiananmen Square in 1989, and how, once that movement for political freedom was crushed, economic freedom was the only freedom available.

What Hua shows again and again, often through personal anecdotes from his childhood and news accounts of contemporary times, are the startling parallels between the Maoist past and the capitalist present. Many of his stories revolve around the Cultural Revolution, which started when he was six, and only petered out in his later teenage years. It was a time of denigration of past values ("to rebel is justified," Mao told them repeatedly): teachers were scorned; tradition was viewed with deep suspicion; everyone, even family members, were suspect. We've read many accounts of communities turning on themselves during this period, of scores being settled brutally.

What's revealing is how the same themes repeat now, as the profit motive makes people treat their fellow Chinese without compunction (think of the horrific working conditions for the former peasants making our iPhones). Corruption is endemic; cynicism is the rule. And just as in the Cultural Revolution, those who rise quickly to the top of the heap are often quickly swept away, and lose everything.

"Why, when discussing China today, do I always return to the Cultural Revolution? That's because these two eras are so interrelated: even though the state of society now is very different from then, some psychological elements remain strikingly similar. After participating in one mass movement during the Cultural Revolution, for example, we are now engaged in another: economic development," he writes.

That's made very clear in the final chapters. It's open season now for copycats: nothing is sacred, from the products people buy to quotes in the newspaper--often completely made up, shamelessly. Even Mao: the Great Helmsman inspires an impersonation contest held on national TV: the winner is a woman. Hua wonders, upon seeing one of his pirated books for sale on the sidewalk near his home, when someone else will start publishing as Hua.

It's all part of the big bamboozle, or huyou. Hua details one corrupt practice after another, often citing very recent examples that he's heard of or read about. It's not just businessmen on the make; the bamboozle permeates society. And, Hua says, all this bamboozling leads to no good end: we are heir to our actions. His is a warning to China, but the fact that his book won't be read there--at least, not officially--is not a good sign that the country will come to terms with the structural weakness in its foundation.

China in Ten Words is a very personal book, and eminently readable. As a novelist, Hua knows how to tell stories, and it is those stories that pack much more of a punch than a merely political or historical tome might have. Hua tells us how he got started as a writer: being part of the writers' union seemed a lot cushier than his job as a 21-year-old high-school educated dentist, yanking teeth eight hours a day in a small, nowheresville town.

With persistence and determination he makes the leap to the better life, and at the same time, he's telling us about how China has changed: it used to be you were told where you'd work, and that would be that. In other words, some of the changes China has undergone are certainly positive (millions no longer in dire poverty, for starters). The question is, can the country resolve its inherent contradictions without the upheaval it's historically put itself through? Hua doesn't have the answer, but he's not optimistic.
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on December 11, 2011
Great writing, great story-telling, and insightful commentary on contemporary cultural events of China through the use of ten essays on the meaning of ten words. The author uses his own life history and his brilliant skills to bring the meaning of these words to life, in the context of his life and the lives of Chinese citizens. He uses his sharp mind and warm heart to analyze political policy and human interaction. I learned so much about the life of the author, but also gained a much deeper understanding of the rapidly changing Chinese culture and political landscape. I recommend this book to anyone interested in China's history or culture, or to anyone interested in how the meaning of one word can change radically when used in a different cultural context, or to anyone interested in reading a fascinating life story. A marvelous read on so many fronts.
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on November 10, 2011
Yu Hua tries to depict China's modern history and current situation in ten words. Some words are well written, but some are just about Yu Hua's own life experience, I think. Nice read but not good as his "To Live: A Novel".

Most of the book are related to Cultural Revolution, which is indeed a big thing in China's history and to some degree cultivated today's China society and economics. Yu Hua has a sense of humor even when writing tragic things, but many times after I laughed I had a deeply depressed feeling - hell, I'm living in this strange country.

Needless to say, it has no chance of being published in China. Ridiculously, anything telling some dark side truth of China can't be published in China, which is like Orwell's societies in his two famous books.
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VINE VOICEon August 14, 2012
There is a great deal of insight packed into this short, powerful book. Author Hua Yu chooses 10 words that he believes capture the essence of China and its culture today. The first word is "people," which affords Hua an entry to discussing the myriad ways that the Cultural Revolution has shaped contemporary China, since it indelibly shaped the views and character of the Chinese people who survived it, including those who rule the nation now. A child during the Cultural Revolution, Hua saw many things that most kids should never see, and that probably went a long way toward making him the insightful writer he is today.

The second word is "leader," which of course features a discussion of Mao and all of the initiatives that go along with him -- the so-called Long March, the Great Leap Forward, etc. What is notable is that Hua retains a reverence for Mao, even in the face of history's revelations about Mao's eccentric (some would say insane) decisions and personal choices. Upon reflection, however, it seems to me that someone whose childhood was formed in the fires of China in the 60s, with its idolatry of Mao and pervasive propaganda machine, can perhaps do nothing else, lest the mind explode at the futility of all that has passed.

The other eight words -- reading, writing, Lu Xun, revolution, disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle -- carry equally compelling associations, but I was particularly struck by Hua's comments on "copycat." He asserts that the entire Chinese culture is, essentially, fake. Fake news, fake freedoms, fake constitution, fake DVDs, etc. This idea of falsity is covered over by language, with 'copycat' being the favored term used by the Chinese in an attempt to legitimize their Orwellian state. Rather than being say, a pirated Gucci handbag, the Chinese will call it a 'copycat.' This takes the sting out of the illegal acts that go into trademark theft and make a 'copycat Gucci' a sort of alternative brand, which then carries a whiff of authenticity, or if not that, at least of truth in advertising.

This rings true for me, especially when I recall the young men who stalk tourists on Hong Kong's Nathan Road muttering under their breath, "copy watch, copy watch." Thus, they claim not to be selling fake Piagets, but merely 'honest' copies. True, Hong Kong is not China proper, but I suspect that this attitude of copycatting has migrated from the mainland down to Britain's former colony, which becomes less like Britain and more like China with every passing day.

One thing that hasn't changed in Hong Kong, and is in fact now shared with the China mainland, is a nearly singular focus on profit-making activities. Consider these lines in the 'Leader' section of the book: "Many Chinese have begun to pine for the era of Mao Zedong... Although life in the Mao era was impoverished and restrictive, there was no widespread, cruel competition to survive, just empty class struggle [which] mostly took the form of sloganeering. China today is a completely different story. So intense is the competition and so unbearable the pressure that, for many Chinese, survival is like war itself."

That sure doesn't sound like the "Red China" many of us picture when we think about the PRC. Hua's book charts a metaphorical course from that Marxist dystopia to the "world's workshop" of today. It is a trip worth taking.
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on May 11, 2012
Equal parts autobiography and social commentary, Yu Hua's _China in Ten Words_ makes explicit much of the underlying commentary in Yu Hua's corpus of fictional works. In treating China's past as he experienced, its tumultuous present and uncertain future, Yu Hua lays bare many of the experiences from his own life and draws on that insightful eye that fueled novels like _To Live_, _The Chronicle of a Blood Merchant_, and _Brothers_.

One of the most interesting things about the book is how Yu Hua is able to trace common threads from China's extremist communist past into the present climate of breakneck paced development and economic growth. While this is quite apparent in the words Yu Hua picks that have only emerged within the last few decades, it is even more so in the terms that have changed dramatically in the move from Cultural Revolution China to the present.

This is a great book for any China fan. Yu Hua's commentary on modern China, as always, brings to life, in vivid ways, the different social ills facing contemporary society and the myriad ways people adapt to face their new environment. Additionally, for fans of Yu Hua himself, this book provides priceless background information to his fictional work. It was be a little much for those new to China, but it is well worth it.
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VINE VOICEon December 10, 2011
One of China's most gifted novelists, Yu Hua, in "China in Ten Words," (aided with translation by Allan Barr) provides an insightful look into the ordinary life in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Each chapter centers on one word - leader, copycat, reading, disparity, et al - that Hua has chosen to critique Chinese society including that of its ruling party. Yu highlights the corruption that penetrates every aspect of Chinese society, one in which today money is king.

I highly recommend "China in Ten Words" to anyone interested in China or doing business in China to better understand what is brewing below the surface and behind the boastful headlines we read. Contemporary Chinese society is complex and suffers from amorality and immorality that is bound to wound this proud country and its emergence into the modern world from repression. Yu packs a lot, including humor, into these quick reading 225 pages.
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on September 12, 2014
Fantastic book! I have now read 3 "popular" style books written about China, this is by far the best one. (The others were Dreaming in Chinese by Fallows- pretty good from a linguistics angle and Lost on Planet China by Troost - not horrible, but there's a lot better out there i'm sure). The author of this book, Yu Hua, is a prominent Chinese author who lives in Beijing/Hangzhou. He has written a number of very successful Chinese novels. This one, is ten essays on various parts of China. It is banned in China. It's a chinese person being honest about the Chinese government and history. This is a gold mine.

Reading and Copycat were probably my two favorite essays. In the first, he talks about growing up in the cultural revolution and scrounging around for books to read. He almost never gets past Mao's little red book and Lu Xun's various writings. He does find some books that have been extremely battered, often only partially surviving to feed his literary desires.

In copycat he talks about the chinese mentality behind making copycat products. A couple of times he has had fictitious interviews of him published and he will confront a reporter on it and the reporter simply says "it's copycat" and in the chinese culture, that justifies it.

There are many good things for him to say about China as well. This book was well written, engaging and so helpful for someone living in China to understand it a bit more. I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone looking for a thoughtful, accessible, historical and contemporary read on modern China.
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on September 21, 2015
Read this for our book club. Really wish I could give 3.5 stars. Ended up liking and enjoying the book in the end more than I thought I would in the beginning. I did not realize this was really almost a memoir of sorts. Ended rather too abruptly for me.

I am currently living in China and must say, this explains a lot about the culture. It makes me rather sad, because I was hoping the things I was seeing, hearing, and experiencing were anomalies and just my Western mindset over generalizing or jumping to conclusions. After reading this book it seems that, no, what I think I am seeing is right in line with what is being described (lack of moral compass, inability to really trust in anything that is said, people using you only for what they can get from you).

It is amazing he is living in China still, but is brave enough to be so honest on his thoughts and experiences. Excellent translation.
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on February 10, 2015
This was one fo the top 5 best books I read last year and the best book I have ever read by a Chinese author. I currently live in China and this book opened a world which I formerly did not have access to. People do not talk about the Cultural Revolution here in China, especially not to foreigners. My Chinese friends are too young to remember it, and my in-laws were far away enough from Beijing that they didn't experience too much of anything. When I have been told of these events by Chinese people that I am close to, it was always in hushed tones and whitewashed for my ears. This book opened China to me. China in Ten Words took me on a splendid narrative journey through time and gave me a deeper, more meaningful view of the place in which I live. I could have lived in China all of my life and never discovered one tenth of the amazing information covered in this book. The Cultural Revolution is given a new individual perspective by Yu Hua; any and all interested even a little bit in China should read this book immediately.
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on October 3, 2013
The stories and anecdotes told in the book from the author's own experience and observations are very much reflective of the existing situation in China. As an ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, I am well aware of what's happening on the mainland, something we hold the most fear of seeing it infiltrate slowly into the supposedly protected territory of Hong Kong under "One Country Two Systems". Unfortunately much seems to be happening against our will.

I do wish to also read the original Chinese version, but on this English version, one thing I am most impressed with is the excellent translation work. It was done by Allan H. Bar, who teaches Chinese in California, according to the book. His command of Chinese must be excellent, matched perfectly by his expert level of English writing. Being engaged in some translation work myself, I know how difficult it is to carry the meaning from one language to another and still produce a natural flow. Allan makes it very smooth reading without any sense of clumsiness, well done!
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