Standing at the Edge of a Cliff: China in Two Books

“On my first day of work I made a point of showing up two hours late, only to discover I was the first to arrive. I knew then this was just the place for me. That is my most beautiful memory of socialism.”

— Yu Hua, China In Ten Words

In the author photo of China In Ten Words Yu Hua stands smoking a cigarette, wearing a strange black and white shirt and a too-large work coat. His free hand is dangling at his side, not relaxed in a pocket like a typical promotional photo, his face is blank. Looking at it, I’m struck by its inscrutability. Who is this man? And why did he choose that shirt?

After a few moments of opaque wondering, my eye is drawn to the background. Yu is standing in front of a reflecting pool that is busy mirroring the building that has been erected around it. Is this composition supposed to tell us something? There are no clues, so I am forced to fill in the gaps myself. I choose to think Yu thought deeply about the photo while smoking his cigarette, after a few moments suddenly turning to the photographer and saying, “Quick, take it.”

Reading about China is a similar venture. Westerners sometimes claim that China’s culture is unknowable, while at the same time politicians and business people will say that the Chinese want what everyone else wants: to make money. The reality is that as foreigners looking into China we are looking into a history that is so vast and intense that our imaginations have difficulty containing it. Did most Chinese farmers really melt down their tools because Mao told them to increase steel production, thereby initiating the greatest famine the world’s ever known? Were all books really banned except for Mao’s The Little Red Book and a boxed set of a history of the Chinese Communist party?

The backdrop of living through the disastrous effects of Mao’s pronouncements are what makes the essays in China In Ten Words among the most compelling, and profoundly real, books available on China in the English language. Yu Hua (the surname comes first in Chinese) describes a world that at times seems like a fantasy novel, a tale of a land that couldn’t possibly exist, a story of a people that couldn’t actually be real. Yu’s book, originally intended for his Chinese countrymen, has the tangible feel of authenticity, and the directness of insight.

In US cities public libraries are now mostly the daytime residence for the homeless and people wanting to rent movies on the cheap, but well into the mid- to late ‘80s, libraries were still the de facto hangout for young kids whose parents wanted them to spend their time doing something other than watching TV during the summer months. Several days during the week my family’s schedule included an hour or two at the library.

Yu had a similar experience growing up in ’60s China, but his reading supply was severely limited due to Fahrenheit 451-like mass book burnings incited by Mao’s Communist party. Each chapter in the book is titled by a single word, and the chapter titled “Reading” is one of that I’ve returned to now several times. On his childhood obsession with the local library Yu writes, “Since the bulk of the library’s holdings had perished in all the Red Guard book burning, there was very little left to read. The fiction shelf featured only twenty-odd titles, all so-called socialist revolutionary literature…” The contents of a library gutted, burned and replaced with only 20 propagandized volumes, and yet out of an innate need Hua read each of them:

“…in these books I encountered neither emotions, nor characters, nor even stories. All I found was grindingly dull accounts of class struggle. This did not stop me from me reading each book through to the end, because my life at the time was even more grindingly dull.”

Nor was it just Yu’s intellect that was starved by the Revolution. While he was writing Ten Words, a Chinese couple told him about a letter the wife had sent to the husband during the Great Famine of 1959-62, during which some estimates say 45 million people died. It described the plight of most Chinese at that time. “Things are awful here,” the letter said. “The students have eaten all the leaves off the trees.”

Living standards have changed drastically in China since then, beginning with Mao’s death in 1976. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, is credited with the reforms that brought about today’s modern China. In 1977 once banned books were allowed to be published again and Yu lined up with hundreds of others in his small town to obtain a copy of the likes of Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy.

There weren’t nearly enough copies to go around, so most people were not able to get a book. Those who did, “…generously held the books up to our noses and let us sniff their subtle, inky smell. For me that odor was a heady scent.” Yu’s description of the singular aroma of newly printed paper and ink will be familiar to any lover of books. If nothing else China In Ten Words reveals that despite circumstance, we all have the capacity for cosmopolitanism.

Yu’s book is valuable because it gives the Western reader — a reader who rarely makes time for reading and then has far too many choices about what to read — the simultaneous emotional experience and historical account of being an average Chinese citizen growing up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Yu also describes coming of age during the sweeping reforms that have brought the country to the precipice where it stands today. He is clear that China is standing at the edge of a cliff:

“In the thirty-odd years since Mao’s death China has fashioned an astonishing economic miracle, but the price it has paid is even more astounding. When I left South Africa at the end of a visit during the 2010 World Cup, the duty-free shop at Johannesburg’s airport was selling vuvuzelas — Chinese-made plastic horns — for the equivalent of 100 yuan [$15.00 USD] each, but on my return home I learned that the export price was only 2.6 yuan each [$0.41 USD]. One company in Zhejiang manufactured 20 million vuvuzelas but ended up making a profit of only about 100,000 yuan [$15,744 USD].”

The effects are catastrophic:

“This example gives a sense of China’s lopsided development: year after year chemical plants will dump industrial waste into our rivers, and although a single plant might succeed in generating a thirty-million-yuan boost to China’s GDP, to clean up the rivers it will cost ten times that amount […] Environmental degradation, moral collapse, the polarization of rich and poor, pervasive corruption — all these things are constantly exacerbating the contradictions in Chinese society. More and more we hear of mass protests in which hundreds or even thousands of people will burst into a government compound, smashing up cars and setting fire to buildings.”

What is seldom communicated by the Western media is the astounding gap between rich and poor in China. Don’t worry Westerners, the Chinese economic miracle is only a miracle of scale, not of quality. If nothing else reading Ten Words will give you a substantially less hyperbolized account of the true nature of the Chinese juggernaut. While China’s gross domestic product is ranked second in the world and set to eventually overtake the US, their per capita income is still at the level of developing countries, 95th in the world (World Fact Book, 2011) with an average income of $8,400 US dollars per person. Yu gives an arresting example of what this actually means:

“…China Central Television interviewed Chinese youngsters on Children’s Day, asking them what gift they would most like to receive. A boy in Beijing wanted a Boeing jet of his own, while a girl in the northwest said bashfully, “I want a pair of sneakers.” Though much the same age, these two children were worlds apart in their dreams, and the girl is probably no more likely to get a pair of sneakers than the boy is to get a plane.”

Brave Dragons is another book about China, this time from the outside looking in. Written by the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Yardley, it follows the year-long odyssey of ex-NBA head coach Bob Weiss as he attempts to improve China’s version of the Bad News Bears, the Shanxi Brave Dragons (Shanxi is a province in northern China). Unlike China in Ten Words it mostly concerns itself with those making well above the average wage in China.

Yardley describes the city that the Brave Dragons play in, Taiyuan, as an industrial wasteland “so polluted it will stain the collar of a white shirt,” if you’re unlucky enough to be walking outside on the wrong day. Understandable, since Taiyuan is in a continuous battle with three other Chinese cities for the title of most polluted city in the world.

Taiyuan (not to be confused with Taiwan) provides a significant amount of electricity for China, due to its sitting atop a rich vein of coal ore which is burned in electrical generating plants. Need for electricity has paralleled industrial and manufacturing growth in China, resulting in making millionaires out of a small number of what were once low-level bureaucrats. One of these newly-minted millionaires, Wang Xingjiang, took it upon himself to buy the Brave Dragons. As the 236th richest man in China at the time Brave Dragons was written Wang was worth more than one billion of his fellow countrymen.

Most Americans would say that at the bare minimum a child would need an interest in sports to be able to go on to play basketball professionally. They would undoubtedly find it hard to believe someone could be commanded to play a game, but as Brave Dragons shows, that is exactly what occurs in China. There, interests are largely assigned. Sport to the Chinese is described by Yardley as being part assembly line work and part phrenology-like science. Interest in the sport is a secondary concern, if considered at all. The players are chosen in adolescence based on x-rays which doctors use to project their growth. It sounds unbelievable, but many professional teams practice eight hours a day, six-seven days a week, for 50 weeks a year. Instead of improving most of the players quickly burn out, losing whatever original desire they had to play.

According to the team’s general manager this is done because the players, “…cannot control themselves. They need someone to manage them. If they are left alone, they could lose control…” He continues, “In China, in this league, management believes that controlling players is more important than developing their skill level. They only respect you if you treat them harshly.” Additionally, in contrast to the American need for political correctness and inclusion, the Chinese have an innate belief that they are physically inferior to the rest of the world. An assistant coach told Yardley, “As we all know, Asian players are not as capable as players elsewhere.”

Sport is capitalism in its purest form. There’s little room in either for the weak. The strong, intelligent, and equally lucky survive. There are few rewards for second place. Additionally, both are systems which are all encompassing. Once you are in the game there are only painful ways out. The same is true with capitalism. It has a tendency to become a belief system, overtaking culture and history, and is characterized by efficiency and minimalism. Unfortunately, many of the things that make humans interesting are killed off as a byproduct of pure capitalism – ornament and depth. This is what characterizes the age we live in now. Societies will eventually need to find ways to mitigate this effect of capital, or they will continue to suffer as the institutions which provide meaning, such as religion and a liberal education, die off. Or, in the case of the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, are killed off.

After reading both books on China, an image kept coming into my mind. Like the scene in romantic movies where two lovers see each other from across a crowded room and begin running towards one another, culturally the US seems to be rushing towards China as fast as China is rushing towards the US. Much like China was under communism, difference is somehow no longer available to Americans, and the frontier spirit of individualism and toleration of fringe lifestyles is quickly evaporating. Difference requires isolation. The advent and now universal adoption of a corporate-controlled Internet as the hub for social interaction in the US has evaporated difference like drops of water in a desert.

Perhaps in the final analysis we’ll see that what happened during China’s Cultural Revolution has also happened to us, that the strength of a shared history has been taken from a people. No longer are we a nation of puritan meritocracy and enlightenment-based freedom. Sometimes subtly and other times overtly controlled by oligarchs, our two countries are quickly becoming equals in the push towards efficiency, predictability, and control.