China's fraternal failings


Yu Hua's first novel in ten years has had mixed reviews in the country it frankly criticizes


Yu Hua’s novel Brothers was first published in China in two parts, in 2005 and 2006. The shorter first part is set during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76); the second follows the same characters through the very different decades following Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening Up” campaign after the death of Mao. Yu Hua is remarkably successful in depicting the horrible violence of the Cultural Revolution and its effect on families and the brashness of the more recent get-rich-quick China, providing an almost text-book history of the past forty years. Though many of his set pieces may seem grotesque, they are solidly based in fact. Hymen-reconstruction is big business in China, dangerous unlicensed medicines are widely sold, and the recent scandals involving poisonous baby formula and infected blood are small examples of the dangerous lengths people are prepared to go to in order to get rich.

The two boys in the novel become brothers when a widow with one son marries a similarly situated widower. Their appearance and personalities are very different: Baldy Li – so-called because his harassed mother would ask the barber to shave the child's head in order to save visits – is short and stocky, cheeky and adventurous, while his brother Song Gang is tall and pale, quiet and easily led. Despite their differences, the cruel events of the Cultural Revolution bind them closely together until they fall out over a woman. The story of Song Gang is that of a bystander, a shy man who does not push himself forward. Having promised his stepmother on her deathbed that he would always look after Baldy, he does his best but gets left behind in the desperate search for a quick fortune. The story of his involvement with Wandering Zhou, an itinerant seller of artificial hymens, bust-enhancing cream and vitality pills (“the imported ones are made with genetic engineering and nanotechnology, while the domestic ones are made from Ming-Qing dynastic medical files from the Palace Museum”) is both poignant and very funny. One of their more intimidating customers buys imported pills for himself and domestic ones for his snarling Alsatian.

Baldy Li is destined to thrive. As a child, he is looked after by Song Gang who takes charge of the household and cooks for his brother; as an adult, Baldy has a head-butting approach to life which is almost a guarantee of success. Although he starts work in the state-owned Good Works factory which employs fourteen others – “two cripples, three idiots, four blind men and five deaf men” – it is not long before he makes his first fortune from recycling rubbish. He moves on to another form of rubbish, cheap Japanese suits with bizarre labels, and is soon appointed to the provincial People’s Congress. While Song Gang rides an old-fashioned Eternity bicycle, Baldy Li moves from a red Santana saloon to a white BMW for daytime and a black Mercedes for after dark, because “he wanted to become one with nature”. Obsessed with sex from childhood, when he was notorious for trying to rape telegraph poles, he decides when older and richer to set up the Inaugural National Virgin Beauty Competition. This creates a sudden demand for hymen-reconstruction surgery and artificial hymens: Virgin Beauty contestant Number 1358 is a mother of one who spends 3,000 yuan on surgery but forgets to have her stretch marks removed; not only is contestant Number 864 “not an original virgin”, but in order to secure the championship she has slept with six of the judges.

The beauty competition may sound unlikely but several Miss World competitions have been held in China, and in the spring of 2007, the city of Chengdu took the idea to its logical conclusion, staging the first naked Miss Sichuan competition. The year before, in Blog China’s Beautiful Blogger Contest, a blogger styling herself Hedgehog Mumu won the popular vote but was disqualified from the championship for posting “semi-nude” pictures of herself on the web. In between the fantastical but credible extremes described by Yu Hua, there are more prosaic moments. Wandering Zhou, the charlatan selling bust-enlarging cream and fake Viagra, is only truly happy when watching lengthy Korean soap operas on television; in the courtship and marriage of Song Gang’s father and Baldy Li’s mother, an important part is played by White Rabbit toffees, which used to be served on Chinese aeroplanes.

There is a strong lavatorial theme throughout the novel, which begins with some apparently hereditary peeping-Tom activities. Baldy Li’s father used to spy on women in public lavatories until a nasty accident put an end to this habit; to his mother’s embarrassment, Baldy Li is caught doing the same thing. He gets people to buy him bowls of noodles in exchange for providing detailed descriptions of the women’s bottoms he has seen, particular interest being taken in that of the town beauty. He is beaten up by the blacksmith who recognizes his wife from Baldy Li’s description. When he becomes rich, as well as occupying a thousand-square metre office, Baldy sits on a gold-plated toilet seat. Some younger critics have found this hard to take, but it is true to life. Anyone who was in China thirty years ago will remember flimsy and rickety lavatories with plenty of viewing possibilities, often built out on stilts over a full cesspit far below, inviting accidents of the type that befell Baldy Li’s father. In 1993, remembering a trip to China over fifty years earlier, Martha Gellhorn said that “In fifty years of travel, China stands out in particular loo-going horror”.

Yu Hua is one of China’s bestselling writers; an earlier novel To Live (1992) was made into a film by Zhang Yimou which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1994. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995), like To Live, focused on the recent horrors of contaminated blood in China. After a silence of ten years, the critical reception of Brothers in China has been mixed, partly because of the very different nature of the novel’s two parts. Older critics felt that Yu Hua’s detailed depiction of the vulgar lifestyle of the new entrepreneurs in China was exploitative, and that he himself was selling out. Younger critics, those unused to primitive toilets, criticized him for his bleak, black picture of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of which they know almost nothing.

Yu Hua sees this rush to the defence of China, particularly among the young, as an aspect of a depressing new nationalism; he believes that an uninformed, automatic rush to defend China is a threat to artistic expression. The young, easily roused to almost annual attacks on Japan for its failure to confront the past, are dismally ignorant of their country’s own more recent history. And, unaware of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, they have become to some extent overcompliant with government policies. At a conference on internet freedom held in Cambridge recently, young PhD candidates from China, many supported by government grants, happily announced that they had no trouble with sites being blocked, for they “self-censored” when using the internet. They are a long way from Mao’s dictum, “It is right to rebel”.

This translation of Brothers with its American spelling and vocabulary, cracks along well. However, I don’t think the translators, who refer to Yu Hua’s repetitive narrative, make the literary link between the storytelling style the author has adopted, with its many short chapters and recapitulations, and the characteristic storytellers’ narrative in China’s classic novels such as Shui hu zhuan (variously translated as The Water Margin, Warriors of the Marsh or All Men Are Brothers), and San guo zhi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms). There are occasional references to classic historical tales in Brothers, and the fights, especially when the “sweeping leg kick” is involved, are strongly reminiscent of the famous fights in Shui hu zhuan. These references will not be lost on Chinese readers.

Yu Hua
Translated by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas
641pp. Picador. £17.99.
978 0 330 46971 5

Frances Wood is the author of The Silk Road, 2003. She is curator of the Chinese collections at the British Library.