Originally published on Rue89, 02/03/2010
Yu Hua is one of the major modern Chinese writers. After the worldwide success of his novel “Brothers,” a collection of short stories “On the Road at Eighteen Years,” has been translated, which leads us to revisit his origins and the literature of this period.
The Cultural Revolution, a school for Yu Hua:
This is a critical period, which will influence his future books.Ten years of education in schools which were often closed in a small town south of Shanghai. His parents, doctors, had been sent there to be “rehabilitated”, but having opened a hospital, they were protected by the peasants.
This environment may explain the importance of body, blood and cruelty in some of his short stories. Hardly any books available, the first “fiction” he could read were posters accusing people with invented crimes, a technique of self protection at the time.
Later, he became an official of a Municipal Bureau of Culture. He has a lot of free time and he will catch up. Essentially by reading foreign literature, as Chinese literature was nonexistent, if one excludes the “realistic” production.
A “modernist” writer:
Kafka, Borges will have some influence on those first short stories also Robbe-Grillet. This anti-psychological approach was a way to react against the literature of the time without coming to the dead end of “art for art”.
The short story “On the Road at Eighteen Years,” published in 1987, was his first success. The collection includes eleven short stories from the 1990s, some of which had never been translated in French.
In these short stories, he tries to master literary techniques, “how the story goes”. The characters are pretty sketchy and sometimes the whole story is very crual. Only a little dog, an idiot and a coward show a little humanity in “I have no name of my own” or “I have turnip blood “.
The character of Laifa reminds us of Lu Xun, a Chinese writer that Yu Hua admires, a doctor like his parents, a son of Zhejiang Province like himself. The idiot Laifa has only a small dog, he is the victim of his neighbourhood, unable to defend himself or even to protect the animal that will eventually end in a pot.
The tradition of martial arts novels (wuxia), is diverted in “Plum Blossom bleeding” where the son of a Grand Master is indeed useless and cannot avenge the killing of his father during a battle. Finally, violence and horror, are characteristic of “Past and Punishment”, a fantastic tale that demonstrates a great talent.
Yu Hua is still nostalgic of this “modernist” period , as he told us in an interview two years ago: “At the time, Su Tong, Can Xue, Ge Fei and myself, we did not know each other, we lived in different regions. But China was back on the literary scene and, we young writers, we were taking things very seriously. “
He turns to neo-realism:
The avant garde widened the scope of literature but was not a favourite of readers. Conditions change. The crackdown in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 was a turning point, as Yu Hua says in an article in the New York Times (“The forgotten revolution of China” of 05.31.2009): people lose all interest in politics, ideas of nation and socialism seem empty, what is left is making money!
Publishers can no longer rely on subsidies, they must be close to readers and sell. Yu Hua’s approach is simpler, more traditional, more realistic and then comes the success of the novel “Live” in 1992, and of the film by Zhang Yimou, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1994.
► “On the Road at Eighteen Years” by Yu Hua, translated by Jacqueline Guyvallet, Isabelle Rabut and Angel Pino (Ed. Actes Sud. 180 pp, 19 €).
Photo: Yu Hua and one of his French translators, Isabelle Rabut, Paris 2008 (Bertrand Mialaret)