New York Times Review on “Brother”, Yu Hua’s New Novel

September 29, 2006 at 9:12 pm (China, Culture)


This review has been out for a while.

I prefer Yu Hua’s old novels more than this one. Yu lost his inspiration on the new novel. All he did is repeating himself, in a more grotesque, exaggerated way. It’s understandable that most writers’ creativity could be exhausted. Yu Hua is apparently not among a small group of geniuses.


A Portrait of China Running Amok by David Barboza


The most talked about novel in China this year is “Brothers,” by Yu Hua, a surreal tale of two stepbrothers coming of age during the economic boom in the 1990’s.

The novel, published in two volumes in 2005 and 2006, has sold nearly one million copies here, a remarkable achievement in a country where book piracy is widespread and novels are easily downloaded free from the Internet.

The China of Mr. Yu’s black comedy is a society in which everyone is scrambling to get rich and con artists abound. Li Guangtou, the younger brother in the novel, becomes famous by creating a beauty pageant for virgins; Song Gang, the older brother, has one of his breasts surgically enlarged to help sell a line of breast-enlargement gels for women in the countryside.

Many critics here have lashed out at Mr. Yu, who has long been one of China’s most respected novelists, for producing what one called a trashy, Hollywood-style portrait of the country.

Others have praised the work as a compelling picture of an increasingly materialistic, self-indulgent and even unhinged society. “I basically disagree with the critics,” said Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese cultural studies at Duke University. “This is a tremendous book. And Yu Hua is really one of the best Chinese contemporary writers.”

Mr. Yu, 46, is an unlikely looking renegade. Short and youthful-looking, he constantly smiles and jokes, chain-smoking all the while. He could easily be mistaken for a factory worker.

“My stories may be extreme, but you can find all of this in China,” he said in an interview in Beijing, where he lives with his wife and 12-year-old son.

Mr. Yu says his stories are rooted in his upbringing. Born in 1960, he grew up in a small town near Hangzhou in coastal Zhejiang province, where his parents were doctors.

He was 6 when Mao began the Cultural Revolution, which swept China into 10 years of near-anarchy. Schools were closed and most books banned, so Mr. Yu often wandered the streets searching for something to read. He said he grew fascinated with “big character posters,” the large handwritten postings that allowed neighbor to denounce neighbor and common people to publicize their grievances, often in great detail.

In the crude, accusatory posters, Mr. Yu said, he discovered the power of language. “You could read just about everything in them, even sex,” he said. “They were like the blogs of today.” The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, when Mr. Yu was 16, and he was able to attend school, graduating from high school and then receiving state training as a dentist. He practiced dentistry, a job he hated, for five years. “The inside of the mouth,” he said, “is the place with the ugliest scenes in the world.”

He found work at a local cultural office and began writing stories and novels. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s translations of Western literature began appearing again in China, and Mr. Yu found himself inspired by writers — like Kafka, Borges and García Márquez — whose work blurred the line between the real and unreal. His own writing was infused with fantasy and filled with what he called a “rage against the world,” a reaction to the brutality he saw during the Cultural Revolution.

His first novel, “Leaving Home at 18,” the story of a young boy’s miserable journey in search of an elusive hotel, was published in 1987, when Mr. Yu was 27. It sold poorly but made him well known in avant-garde circles. His short stories — surreal tales, full of sex and violence — published in the late 80’s, made him a star among China’s leading literary circles.

In 1992 he switched gears, much to the displeasure of those who lauded his experimental work, and published a realist narrative about a family’s struggle to survive war, famine and the Cultural Revolution. The novel, “To Live,” was made into a film by the director Zhang Yimou. It won the grand jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, catapulting Yu Hua to fame and making his novels best-sellers in China.

In 1995 he published “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant,” the tale of a man driven to sell his blood to make ends meet, which also became a best-seller. By then he was considered one of the leading writers in China, alongside Mo Yan and Wang Anyi.

Then, having published prolifically since 1987, Mr. Yu was silent. For 10 years he published no fiction. Much of that time, he says, was spent traveling, writing essays and working on a huge historical novel. But two years ago, after a seven-month trip to the United States, he abandoned the novel and began a story describing the new China.

“My generation seems to have experienced more than any generation,” he said. “For the first 20 years of my life, I was living in a time of poverty and oppression. The next 20 years were spent in a time of increasing wealth and freedom. I want to document these two periods in everything I write.”

The result was “Brothers.” (Random House and Penguin UK are negotiating to publish the novel in English.) In Volume 1, the young brothers live through the Cultural Revolution, a fitting subject for Mr. Yu’s black humor. This part of the novel ends with the two boys’ father being beaten to death by a mob, leaving them orphans.

In Volume 2, as the economic reforms of the 1980’s take hold, the two young men are caught up in China’s accelerating pursuit of wealth.

Li Guangtou, now a young adult, quickly adapts, making millions peddling used Japanese suits. But Song Gang holds onto his job in a state-owned factory, assuming it will be safe forever.

When he is laid off, he too tries his hand at being an entrepreneur and fails miserably, later committing suicide.

“Brothers” is filled with graphic scenes, from masturbation to murder — not to mention descriptions of Li Guangtou and his father spying on women in the public toilets — but, surprisingly, was not censored.

Many within China’s literary establishment were scandalized by the novel. Sun Kai, an editor at Oriental Outlook, a Chinese magazine, said, “I really can’t understand why such an important and famous writer who wrote masterpieces before can publish such a rough, absurd novel, like a tear-jerking soap opera.”

“Brothers” was also compared to “Shanghai Baby,” and “Beijing Doll,” two popular books about the sex lives of young women.

But Yu Hua makes no apologies, either for his subject matter or for his style. He says he wanted to show that, in some ways, the madness everyone now associates with the Cultural Revolution can also be seen in this period of economic growth.

“During the Cultural Revolution we lived in a closed society, and everything was crazy; everything was black and white, and if you were on the wrong side, you were dead,” he said. “But pursuing economic growth is also crazy. Every evil has come out. Chinese society has found emptiness. After people get money, they don’t know what to do.”

A perfect illustration of this theme of one evil compounding another in “Brothers” is a scene of Bald Li, as Li Guangtou now 45 and one of China’s post-revolutionary hyper-rich, is called. “He was thinking about spending $20 million on a seat on the Russian Space Shuttle Soyuz for a trip to outer space,” Mr. Yu writes. “Sitting on his famous gilded toilet, Bald Li closed his eyes and envisioned how he would float along in orbit, surrounded by an abysmal silence. Witnessing how the great earth slowly turned around, he couldn’t help feeling sad and tears rolled out of his eyes. Then he realized that he did not have a single relative on the earth.”

China, moving from the Cultural Revolution to the present economic upheaval, has simply gone from one extreme to another, Mr. Yu says.

“If you want to talk about modern China you must understand the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “It’s not only about money. During the Cultural Revolution there was no stage for the individual, just the government. Now there is a stage for everyone. And you can see a show every day.”




  1. Yiannis said,


  2. Iannis said,

    Sorry 😦

  3. Aristotelis said,


  4. Markos said,


  5. Dion said,


  6. Georgey Thomas said,

    Congrats and Good Luck. Please send the details of Yu Hua esp.his literary agency and its mailid.

  7. Ameth said,

    Hi, I read “Brothers” too and I want to share with you my review about it (but unfortunately it is in french only : (


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