Writer Yu Hua shares his thoughts on China’s wealth gap

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2015-4-9 19:43:11

Yu Hua speaks at a press conference for his new collection of essays We Live in a Huge Gap in January in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Thinkingdom House

One side shows an extravagant and dazzling downtown scene, while the other depicts a grey area of broken walls and shabby shelters. A striking white scar runs down the middle to drive home the point of the sheer contrast between these two scenes. The realistic cover of Chinese writer Yu Hua's new book tells readers that above all his book is about the current reality of China.

Titled We Live in a Huge Gap, Yu's newly published book boasts a collection of his essays written over the past 10 years and published together for the first time ever. A reflection and summary of Yu's experiences with writing and life over the past decade, Yu's essays look at society, reality, literature and culture, to name just a few, with his unique and penetrating style of observation.

'Two extremes'

An avant-garde writer, Yu has been reputed for his straightforwardness and ability to get right to the heart of a matter in his novels that directly confront reality and the human soul. His essay collection is no different as Yu doesn't hide his frank nature even a little bit.

His first book after 2013's The Seventh Day, Yu shares many of his ideas about life with readers, thoughts on writing, literature, travel to other countries and even the growth of his son. But among these topics, what most readers have found most memorable are his essays touching on social realities in China.

Several of Yu's essays talk about Chinese society and its "two extremes." In an essay after which the book is named, Yu expresses how appalling he finds the difference between China 30 years ago and China today.

"More than 30 years ago … boys and girls didn't speak to each other at middle school… today, we even have girls going to the hospital for an abortion while wearing their school uniform," he wrote. "What has made us go from one extreme to another?"

Compared with the differences brought about by time, Yu seems more worried about the economic gap and imbalances between different areas of the country that have cropped up amid the past three decades of rapid economic development.

"In late 1990s, CCTV interviewed kids nationwide around Children's Day, asking what they wanted most as their gift for the day. A boy from Beijing said he wanted a real Boeing aircraft instead of a toy one and a girl from Northwest China said she wanted a pair of white sports shoes… It is appalling to see the huge gap between the dreams of two Chinese kids' of the same age," Yu wrote.

He wrote about the huge gap between the past and present in his novel Brothers, while in The Seventh Day, with an absurd touch, he illustrates the economic gap that exists between Chinese that live in the same era. In his essay, he could not make his point clearer, "This historical gap allows a Chinese to experience in 40 years the drastic changes that could take 400 years for Europe to witness, while the economic gap makes Chinese people of the same time live as if they were in different eras."

Seeking a cure

Yu has traveled to many places across the globe over the past 10 years, and through his essays he has recorded what he saw around him, the society, different cultures, and so on. Sometimes serious and sometimes playful, he looks beneath the veneer of everyday life, such as well decorated homes and the World Cup, and tries to reflect on the times from the outside in. By putting China alongside the rest of the world, Yu presents an ever-changing society that is still on the rise.

Although he shows sympathy and concern for society, Yu declines to pass judgment on the times. "A good era can have a bad reality, while a bad era can have wonderful things as well. Social realities are complicated and varied," Yu shared his opinion in an interview with the Global Times in an e-mail interview. "China just changes fast, too fast."

As the country has changed so too has Yu's understanding of China and its realities. "My views change over time, but it is a gradual change."

One thing that remains unchanged is his determination to take a hard look at social realities, depicting shabby shelters and the pain and misery of disadvantaged groups. This attitude is prevalent in many of his works, from the early To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant to his latest novel The Seventh Day.

An important realist writer in China, Yu pointed out that it is usually the imbalances in society that stimulate a writer to write.

"This is our life. We live in huge historic and materialistic gaps. We live between these two extremes all the time… We are all sick. Since I too am sick, it's more accurate to say I'm seeking a cure rather than just telling stories through writing," he writes in We Live in a Huge Gap, pointing out that the increasing economic gap has led to psychological imbalances in many people.

The limits of vision

Although Yu's new book has just come out, to this day people are still discussing Yu's The Seventh Day. An absurd story of a man's experiences after he dies and what he sees over the following seven days, Yu bluntly illustrates the wealth gap that exists in the country as well as the happiness and misery of life.

Yu's first novel in seven years, the book was highly anticipated before it came out. However, it also raised quite a bit of controversy after it hit bookstores. Since Yu depicted many important news events that had occurred in recent years in his novel, some regarded it more of a cluster of news clippings than a story possessing depth and imagination.

The criticism was so strong that Yu eventually had to issue a list of answers to the readers' questions through the publisher.

The controversy Yu faced with The Seventh Day actually reflects the increasing level of difficulty realist writers have when it comes to striking a balance between reality and imagination in writing today. Since, more often than not, what people can read and see in the news sometimes ends up being, according to Yu, "far more absurd" than what can be found in realist novels it becomes more difficult for writers to keep readers interested.

Additionally, writers are limited by their experiences, which means in the end that their "reality" may be different from someone else's.

"Reality is huge and a writer's writing can only reflect a part of it. It's like the relationship between a single star and the whole night sky," Yu wrote in his e-mail.

"No single writer can represent the entirety of reality. They can only show what they feel about it."

Newspaper headline: Capturing reality

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