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China in Ten Words Hardcover – November 8, 2011

4.6 out of 5 stars 89 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“How many tomes do you suppose it might take to describe the almost indescribable complexities of modern China—its staggering growth pains and infinite ironies? Yu Hua does it with ten words. . . . A rich, sympathetic, yet unsparing portrait of a nation in near-constant transition. . . . The author manages to make palpable the follies of the nouveau riches, the grotesque plight of the rural poor, the corrupt and tragicomic missteps of the ignorant charlatans who make up the passing parade of local politicians, as well as the blazing brutality of what took place on the Square that night when the army rolled over student demonstrators in their tanks…Miraculously, he does all this without seeming to oversimplify. Clearly, Yu Hua was the man for the job. . . . He knows, in other words, whereof he speaks.  But mostly he was qualified to undertake such a project because of his gift for compassion. . . . Pitched at a level of heartbreak that may be almost unbearable for Western sensibilities, the final two chapters, "Copycats" and "Bamboozle," are nevertheless essential reading for anyone who hopes to get a sense of both the ingenuity and breathtaking chicanery that together drive so much of life in modern China.” —Barnes and Noble Review

“A discursively simple series of essays explaining his country’s recent history through 10 central terms. . . . Caustic and difficult to forget, China in Ten Words is a people’s-eye view of a world in which the people have little place.” —Pico Iyer, Time (Asia)
“One of China’s most prominent writers. . . . In his sublime essay collection, Hua explores his often spartan childhood during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s and the rampant corruption of modern China.” —Newark Star-Ledger

 “China in Ten Words is a series of 10 essays that follow particular themes Yu Hua deems to be integral to understanding his country’s experience. Using words such as “leader,” “revolution,” “disparity,” and “copycat,” he manages to chart some of his country’s amazing transformations. . . . His style, far from being academic, is engaging and sardonic. He writes as though he’s having an intense conversation with the reader. I highly recommend this book for anyone hoping to gain some perspective on this complicated country.” —Valerie Senyk, The Record

“There’s no shortage of books promising to explain the most populous nation in the world to Western readers, fat, solemn tomes crammed with names, numbers, events and predictions. China in Ten Words by Yu Hua, on the other hand, is a slim volume, and a lot of it concerns Yu’s childhood in a backwater town during the Cultural Revolution. You’ll find a few statistics scattered over these pages, but far more of those peculiar modern yarns that reside in the netherland between gossip and news report. Nothing tells you more about a people than the stories they like to swap: the old peasant patriarch who could not countenance the price of a BMW 760Li until the dealer explained that it took two cows to supply the leather for each of its seats, the female Mao impersonator who spends hours perfecting her makeup and learning to walk in elevator shoes. . . . Yu has a fiction writer’s nose for the perfect detail, the everyday stuff that conveys more understanding than a thousand Op-Eds. . . . Perhaps the most bewitching aspect of this book is how funny it is, especially in the first few (and most autobiographical) chapters. . . . Yu has an exquisite, cosmopolitan sense of irony; in Allen H. Barr’s sensitive translation, he comes across as an Asian fusion of David Sedaris and Charles Kuralt. . . . Yu’s revelation—that the Chinese often find their own society bewildering, self-contradictory and ridiculous—ought to be unsettling, but instead it’s reassuring. We know these people; like us, they’re improvising into the future, with only the faintest idea of what they’re doing, and with a propensity for scrambling the signposts even before they’ve figured out the way.” —Laura Miller, Salon

“Lexical innovations, evasions and revisions give China in Ten Words its form. Each essay is devoted to a particular word—its origins, its devaluation or appreciation in meaning—starting with ‘people’ (as in ‘serve the’) and ending with ‘bamboozle,’ an arc that, for Yu Hua, seems to pretty much sum up the past half-century of Chinese history. . . . This is a tale told by a raconteur, not an academic. . . . The most powerful and vivid sections reach back to Yu Hua’s childhood during the Cultural Revolution. . . . It is a cautionary tale about the risks of subterfuge, of trying to sneak something past one’s father—or, perhaps, one’s ever vigilant government.” —The New York Times Book Review
“If Yu Hua never wrote anything else, he would rate entry into the pantheon of greats for "Reading," an essay in his new collection China in Ten Words. Nothing I've ever read captures both the power and subversive nature of youthful reading as well. . . . Yu, whose novels include Brothers and To Live, has picked 10 words to serve as launching pads for his explorations of the ‘social complexities and staggering contrasts of contemporary China.’ . . . . For American readers curious about the upheavals of China, this may be the right moment to discover Yu Hua.” —Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“An outstanding set of essays on the general topic of why modern China is the way it is, each essay centered on a Chinese word or phrase. . . . Very much worth reading.” —James Fallows, The Atlantic
“It’s rare to find a work of fiction that can be hysterically funny at some points, while deeply moving and disturbing at others. It’s even more unusual to find such qualities in a work of non-fiction. But China in Ten Words is just such an extraordinary work. . . . China in Ten Words convey[s] a great deal of information and insight in just over 200 pages, with ten chapters that focus on a wonderfully diverse set of terms, from ‘Reading’ to ‘Revolution,’ and ‘Leader’ to ‘Bamboozle.’ As expected, Barr captures the loose, colloquial, and occasionally anarchic flavor of the author’s prose. . . . In Yu Hua’s book, each of the terms he singles out for attention—revolution, writing, disparity, grassroots, copycat—function more as a counterpart to Proust’s famous Madeleine than as an object of dispassionate linguistic analysis. They serve above all as spurs to memory—opportunities to tell illuminating stories about the past. . . . Moving deftly between the humorous and the disturbing, as he does throughout the volume, Yu Hua pokes fun at himself for being so swept up in the personality cult mania of the time, recalling how he suspected the fates of giving him a raw deal by forcing him to be born into a ‘Yu’ rather than a ‘Mao’ family. . . . Courageous.” —Los Angeles Review of Books blog, The China Beat
“Yu is one of contemporary China’s most celebrated but controversial writers. With much wit and elegance, he reminisces here in separate pieces (only one has been previously published) about his country’s experiences over the past several decades, using personal stories as well as a piercing, critical examination of China’s political, economic, and social transformation from what was essentially a Third World state into a superpower. . . . His commentary is wide and varied, touching on everything from the country’s severe economic and social disparity since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to his own rise from uneducated, small-town ‘teeth puller’ to one of the most highly regarded writers of his time. Verdict: A marvelous book for those interested in contemporary China, by one of China’s foremost intellectuals.” —Library Journal
“Moving and elegantly crafted . . . Offers rare insight into the cause and effect of China’s ‘economic miracle,’ focusing close attention on the citizens of the world’s most populous country. With an intimate tone and witty prose, Yu looks at the ‘effects that seem so glorious and searches for their causes, whatever discomfort that may entail,’ training his incisive eye on the quotidian as well as the grand . . . His book describes his particular experience, but hints at something much more expansive.” —Publishers Weekly
“In this era of the China Boom, when Communist Party officials are so inclined to erase the travails of their country’s past from public consciousness, Yu Hua’s insistence on remembering comes as an almost shocking intrusion into a willful state of amnesia. His earthy, even ribald, meditations on growing up in small-town China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution remind us of just how twisted China’s progress into the present has been and how precariously balanced its success story actually still is.”  —Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.–China Relations, Asia Society
“At times humorous, at times heartbreaking, and at times fierce, these ten moving and informative essays form a small kaleidoscopic view of contemporary China. The meticulous translation has rendered them all the more hip, penetrating, and engaging. Written with a novelist’s eye and narrative flair, China in Ten Words will make the reader rethink the ‘China miracle.’” —Ha Jin, National Book Award–winning author of Waiting

“A series of essays that combine memoir and trenchant social critique. . . . Sharply observed tales about everyday life. The translatipn preserves both his simple, direct style and subtle sense of humor. . . . Engaging. . . . Yu Hua’s essays say much about the continuing enigma that is China.” —Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

Yu Hua is the author of four novels, six collections of stories, and three collections of essays. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. In 2002, he became the first Chinese writer to win the James Joyce Award. His novel Brothers was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and awarded France’s Prix Courrier International. To Live was awarded Italy’s Premio Grinzane Cavour, and To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant were ranked among the ten most influential books in China in the 1990’s by Wen Hui Bao, the largest newspaper in Shanghai. Yu Hua lives in Beijing.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; Tra edition (November 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780307379351
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307379351
  • ASIN: 0307379353
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #801,065 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Taylor McNeil on February 11, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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.
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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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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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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.
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