An Honest Writer Survives in China

China in Ten Words

by Yu Hua, translated from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr
Pantheon, 225 pp., $25.95

To Live

by Yu Hua, translated from the Chinese and with an afterword by Michael Berry
Anchor, 250 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Brothers

by Yu Hua, translated from the Chinese and with a preface by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas
Anchor, 641 pp., $16.95 (paper)

The Past and the Punishments

by Yu Hua, translated from the Chinese and with a postscript by Andrew F. Jones
University of Hawaii Press, 277 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Yu Hua @

by Yu Hua
digital book in Chinese published by Tianyi Yuedu Jidi and Hongqi Chubanshe
johnson_1-101112.jpg
Leonardo Cendamo
Yu Hua, Turin, Italy, May 2000

A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too.

We stayed in a villa in a secluded development built on part of a wetlands park. The string of houses, bridges, and canals was surrounded by high walls and walkie-talkie-wielding guards. Yu’s neighbors were film producers, directors, artists, writers, and government officials—all beneficiaries of a city-run company that owned the properties and lent them out to anyone it figured might lend luster to Hangzhou, do something artistic, or simply had the pull to live in a luxury development. Yu is one of China’s most famous writers and even though his relationship to the city is tenuous—he was born in Hangzhou but left as an infant for a small town and now lives in Beijing—officials hoped he’d give their city some cachet.

Over the next few days, the villa was the setting for a series of meals, one raunchier than the next. The high point was a boozy lunch where the head of the local writer’s association ogled the legs of the deputy head of propaganda, while a paunchy singer for the People’s Liberation Army showed off a “talented young lady” he had taken under his wing. Later, a Party secretary arrived with a suitcase full of French wine and an enormous celadon vase from the onetime imperial kilns of Jingdezhen—the sort of trophy that governments in China fob off on famous visitors and hotel lobbies. When everyone was suitably drunk, Yu quieted the room with an announcement.

“We were just at West Lake,” he said, referring to the city’s most famous tourist site. “I haven’t seen so many people in one place since June 4”—the 1989 massacre of antigovernment protesters in Beijing.

“Ha-ha, Yu Hua, only you,” the writer’s association chairman cackled as he cocked his head in Yu’s direction. “I live next door to him. Always joking.”

“What are you saying?” Yu said crossly. “Your only contribution to society is to file fake meal receipts.”

The chairman widened his eyes and was about to counterattack but everyone began laughing at him. He meekly bowed his head, whimpering: “We’re neighbors, we’re neighbors. Ha-ha. He’s joking.”

And so it went for another hour as Yu treated the local notables to jokes, innuendos about corruption, and the failings of the Communist Party. When the wine bottles had been emptied, the prawns sucked dry, and a bottle of grain alcohol lay on its side, the guests staggered out to their government-issue Audi A6L limousines, windows tinted and doors held open by drivers in dark aviator glasses. Yu saw them off with a wave and then wondered …

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