Modern China was built on the nearly thirty ruthless years of Mao’s rule. The country’s elite—the “literati” of educated small landowners who held the empire together at the local level—was brutally eliminated. Almost everyone’s personal life was destroyed: homes searched for incriminating books, thoughts remolded by struggle sessions, and streets inundated by the din of tinny propaganda. People still loved and lived, but their futures depended on a capricious and brutal state that tolerated no competitors. After the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death forty years ago last fall, the private sphere was partly restored along with many traditions, but society remains unmoored. With so many of the old rules, standards, and ties gone—and nothing convincing to replace them—China is like a sailboat moving wildly across the water.
One way to see this is to look at the country’s chaotic social media scene. Every so often, people’s privacy is violated in a nasty, humiliating fashion. A video showing a couple making love in a changing room is posted online, along with photos of their identity cards, causing the couple to be arrested. As punishment for being someone’s mistress, a woman has her blouse and bra ripped off in a subway car, and pictures of her (and the passive bystanders) make the rounds. Or one of China’s most famous Buddhist monks is accused of having an affair—not a crime, actually, but the personal details of both parties are posted online in clinical detail.
What makes such violations remarkable is that most are mob-like attacks, eruptions of a feral glee in destroying the private lives of others. The Internet has brought new channels of information to millions of Chinese, causing optimists to see in it a tool to erode state control over society. But for many Chinese, the result is a widespread sense of disquiet, a loss of trust in others, and an uneasy feeling that every selfie-snapper is feeding into a primordial chaos of images and information that others use for their malicious pleasures.
These events came to mind while reading three recent novels by two of China’s leading authors: Yan Lianke’s historical novel The Four Books, his madcap parody The Explosion Chronicles, and Yu Hua’s dreamlike The Seventh Day. Taken together, these disturbing works describe the causes and effects of China’s moral vacuum. They do so allegorically or through exaggerated storytelling, but in unmistakably pointed ways, their tales rooted in the happenings of half a century ago.
The most ambitious of the three and the earliest chronologically is The Four Books. Shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker International Prize, it describes the Great Famine between 1958 and…
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