sometimes witty book reviews
First published: 2005 (this English translation by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow & Carlos Rojas 2009)
Found: Syllabus of a Literature Course at Peking University
Pages/read time: 641, too long – too, too long
[edited version of a class summary]
The story of Baldy Li was not easy to read. The simplification of women’s bodies and their visceral experiences was certainly difficult to stomach at first reading of the opening chapters. The author, however, is exceptionally good at making the reader squirm. The language, descriptions and Baldy’s viewpoint are simply skin-crawling. Even when key plot points are taking place it is difficult to see them until the layers of visceral and objectified descriptions the female incidental characters are forced into. I am honestly not sympathetic to any of Baldy Li’s beatings.
From the limited scope of the tale of two toilets (a gold plated private loo and a public, wooden latrine) Yu Hua make a very long comment of the ‘old’ functional, possibly backwards China, and the new, superficial and ego-centric China. I pushed through with this reading for the sake of the class, but honestly I was beyond finding the metaphors or imagery funny at all after it became clear that the toilet and the bedroom (though I wish I had a more sordid word) for the remainder of the book. The tragedy and satire are indeed well rendered and executed, it’s just a fixated objectification of female orifices that got old quickly.
Overall, Yu’s characterisation is fairly flat. His two step-brother leads are locked in a constant pull and push. Baldy Li does most of both while faithful Song Gang endures for decades. The descriptions are cruel to the disempowered. For example: Li’s co-workers are described as ‘two cripples, three idiots, four blind men, and five deaf men’ and later only ‘the love-crazed idiot’ and ‘the two non-infatuated idiot minions’. Women are cast aside, their posteriors, breasts and personhood as stimulating and their personalities as wooden as the poles and benches Baldy Li humps as a child. This honestly feels like a lyrical pornography starring disenfranchised and abandoned rural-dwelling personal histories.
I concede that perhaps the only way Yu Hua could deliver such a scathing critique of China old and new is through the gross exaggeration and disgustingly humanising language of its metaphors. It fairly well disguises the criticism of the CCP entering Song and Li’s village, and appropriately condemns Song’s land-owning father while actually evoking symphony for the family as the man has his legs are broken into an affordable coffin. Having read several reviews, it appears Chinese critics found it similarly unsettling, but overall the major critique of the Chinese system itself is buried under the shit-heap of metaphors. And, in my opinion, very nearly drowned in the cesspool of its own similes not unlike Baldy Li’s father. At the end of the section one there is a crude metaphor for the shallow needs of oncoming capitalism. The brothers break into a warehouse said to hold the relics of China before Communism came to town; a treasure trove of paintings, furniture and other dynastical marvels. Instead, the oncoming era of capitalism leaves them a single, red high heeled shoe. The treasure incoming that scream emptiness, impermanence and dysfunctionality.
For some reason part two subjects us the rise of Baldy Li as a profiteer and conniving business owner. Undoubtedly an extended (and excrement-ed) metaphor for the rapid rise of China in the world. The gregarious and groping Li gets richer and richer, more depraved and older. Meanwhile his brother Song is cast out and away, forced to work hard menial labour jobs to make ends meet. Every time his plight seems its most dire, Yu Hua swoops in to make it worse. Baldy and Song embody the not overly exaggerated rise and decline of the China respectively in Yu Hua’s unfortunately not entirely dystopic world.
By the description of the fake-hymen merchant I was happy to be rid of the brothers grim of Li and Song. The only redeeming plot point for me personally was the hoodwinking of Baldy by a competitor in his beauty pageant show. Faking her ‘virginity’, she beats Baldy at his own came, claiming that to her mind she ‘will always be a virgin’. Considering the concept and multiple definitions of ‘virginity’ in contemporary society I find this sentiment hopeful. A female uses the body previously so objectified to thwart a lecherous older man, finally dismissing the entire construction of her society’s measure for quality in a woman by both exploiting and rising above their ridiculous and imagined standards or perfection.