Hundreds of millions lifted from poverty and vast empty ghost cities—so much about China’s social and economic miracle is extraordinary and strangely hard to believe. Explanations of this miracle, given by economists and political analysts, do not much help—they skirt a reality that lies beyond their terms of reference. Something so vast and so strange as China needs an artist’s interpretation.
Superficially, Yu Hua sees modern China as quite different from the China of his youth. When he was at school in the sixties and early seventies, party doctrine discouraged girls and boys from speaking to one another. That has changed—his son tells him that for his sex education lessons the girls were instructed to sit on the boys’ knees.
But he also suggests similarities. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards toured the country dispensing “revolutionary justice” while peasants sang fantasy songs about sweet potatoes as big as young children. Today, successful businessmen construct replica White Houses, complete with Lincoln bedrooms to which they take their secretaries. The story of how the most communist country in the world became the most capitalist is one of change—and of unsettling continuity.
When Yu explores the words “Copycat,” and especially “Bamboozle,” the connections between the Cultural Revolution and its successor mass movement, “economic development,” become clear.
“Bamboozle” is what the system tries to do to you—and also what you do in order to defeat it. This word “throws a cloak of respectability over deception and manufactured rumour.” For example one city, in the course of its “marketable operations,” sold its pavements and everyone had to walk in the road. The inhabitants were bamboozled. In another province, teachers were obliged to take an exam to test their professional competence—apart from single parents, who were exempted. So the teachers all got divorced and the government was bamboozled. When another city auctioned the right to name roads and buildings, the prospect of living in “Ladies’ Soother Estates” (Ladies’ Soother is a brand of vaginal cream) proved a bridge too far for inhabitants. As entertaining as bamboozling can be, Yu sees it as a sign of “a breakdown of social morality and a confusion in the values system in China today; it is an aftereffect of our uneven development these past thirty years.”
Yu’s frequently hilarious dissection of modern China is a much needed—and hugely subversive—dose of reality. The government reacts badly to criticism, and most China…