The Bonfire of China’s Vanities

From New York Times

One cold afternoon last fall I met Yu Hua at the state-run Friendship Hotel in Beijing. Cheerfully, he described to me the incipient international fame of his most recent novel, “Brothers,” one of China’s biggest-selling literary works. He had just returned from Hong Kong, where the novel was short-listed for the Man Asian Prize; he was leaving soon for Paris to receive an award for the book, which had just been translated into French. With the breezy insouciance that unbroken success creates, Yu then began to recount a somewhat irreverent memory of Mao Zedong’s death.

Though nearly 50, Yu, who wears his hair short and spiky, looks relatively young. He speaks in emphatic bursts, his face often flushing red, and he is quick to laugh. It was, in fact, his boisterous laugh that almost got him into trouble on the morning of the solemn announcement of Mao’s death. Responding to orders that blared out from loudspeakers, he assembled with hundreds of other students in the main hall of his small-town high school. “Funereal music was played, and then we had to hear the long list of titles that preceded Mao’s name, ‘Chairman,’ ‘Beloved Leader,’ ‘Great helmsman . . . ,’ ” Yu recalled. “Everyone loved Chairman Mao, of course, so when his name was finally announced, everyone burst into tears. I started crying, too, but one person crying is a sad sight; more than a thousand people crying together, the sound echoing, turns into a funny spectacle, so I began to laugh. My body shook with my effort to control my laughter while I bent over the chair in front of me. The class leader later told me, admiringly, ‘Yu Hua, you were crying so fervently!’ ”

January 25, 2009 8:31 AM
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Categories: Culture & the Arts