From the Publisher
“Sensational, sweeping. . . . tremendous. . . . In recognition of this terrific literary achievement, I think that, instead of the Year of the Ox, this should be the Year of Yu Hua.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air
“Impressive . . . a family history documenting four decades of profound social and cultural transformation in China. . . . [and] an irreverent take on everything from the Cultural Revolution to the capitalist boom. . . . [A] relentlessly entertaining epic.” —The New Yorker
“Portraits of contemporary China are rarely sharper or more savage.” —Time
“[A] great literary achievement. . . . A sprawling, bawdy epic that crackles with life's joys, sorrows, and misadventures.” —The Boston Globe
“This new English translation of Brothers excellently captures its beauty and high farce.” —Time
“Waggish but merciless. . . . A consistently and terrifically funny read.” —Los Angeles Times
“A work of rare scope and grandeur. . . . [Yu Hua’s] sharply unadorned language is all his own, carrying a ripe and pungent tone. . . . This is the epic as plain-spoken brawl, one with blood on its face, a tear in the eye, and a grin on the lips. 10 out of 10 stars.” —Pop Matters
“For their translation Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas receive high marks, giving their narrator a consistent voice with palpable wit and visible verve, shortening Yu Hua’s sentences to fit English expectations but maintaining fidelity to the length and pace of his clauses, the real seat of an author’s prose style.” —Rain Taxi Review of Books
“Yu Hua’s epic novel—a bestseller in his native China—is a tale of ribaldry, farce and bloody revolution, a dramatic panorama of human vulgarity. . . . at once hyperrealist and phantasmagorical. . . . We can see a true picture of the country refracted in this funhouse mirror.” —The Washington Post
“Vigorous and racy. . . . This widely-ranging and ironic portrait of modern China evokes the very feel of the place, with its popular Korean TV soaps, Eternity bicycles, factory labor, Big White Rabbit candies, neon lights and raucous music. . . . A major achievement by any standard.” —Taipei Times
Spanning 40 years of Chinese history, from the Cultural Revolution to the economic boom, this rollicking novel reveals the exploits of two stepbrothers, one bookish, the other brackish. (LJ 2/1/09)
…a tale of ribaldry, farce and bloody revolution, a dramatic panorama of human vulgarity…And yet the writing is not coldblooded; human warmth and compassion do come through all the cruel absurdity. There is little doubt that Yu is paying tribute to the magical realist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but his use of language is faithful to his mother tongue, and this translation by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas never falls into the Westernized diction that afflicts many fiction writers in modern China. Ironically, we can see a true picture of the country refracted in this funhouse mirror.
The Washington Post
Baldy Li, the hero of Yu's epic third novel, comes into the world on the same day his father slips to a disgraceful demise while ogling women in a public toilet. The incident is big news in tiny Liu Town, China, and leaves the family tainted with shame. Yet even as Baldy Li and his mother, Li Lan, cower under the taunts of their neighbors, things begin to change for the better. The tall, handsome Song Fanping falls in love with Li Lan and marries her. Li Lan gains new happiness and Baldy Li gains an older stepbrother, Song Gang. Together, the two boys weather the changes of the Cultural Revolution, reform and globalization, and Yu's unflinching narrative, by turns tragic and hilarious, shows ordinary lives being broken down and built up again. Whether Baldy Li is peddling scraps or using Sun Tzu's war tactics to court the village beauty, Hua weaves the common thread of humanity through all his actions and desires. By the last page, the novel has imparted a whole world of histories and personalities that are difficult to forget. (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The lives of two stepbrothers, temperamental opposites nevertheless sworn to love and protect each other, are traced, in exuberant and exhausting detail, in this massive novel, originally published in Taiwan in two volumes in 2005 and 2006. Chinese author Yu Hua (Cries in the Drizzle, 2007, etc.) creates a rich panorama of post-Mao China during the 1990s, when loose-cannon entrepreneur "Baldy Li" (Li Guan) and his gentle, scholarly "brother" Song Gang follow different paths, despite and because of their shared attraction to Lin Hong, the reigning beauty of the village (Liu Town) in which they grow up, after Baldy Li's widowed mother Li Lan marries Song Gang's handsome, intrepid father Song Fenping. When the latter is murdered for being a landowner supposedly unsympathetic to revolutionary principles, Li Lan wastes away, but lives long enough to extract her sons' promises to honor Song Fenping's loving nature. But when Song Gang achieves fulfillment in a quiet contemplative life, having won the hand of Lin Hong, Baldy Li hatches one hare-brained moneymaking scheme after another, enlisting creditors from several briskly characterized townsmen and reaching a peak of commercially viable vulgarity with the creation of a "National Virgin Beauty Competition," whose contestants benefit from surgically implanted artificial hymens. Comparisons to China's flamboyant image-building during the recent Beijing Olympics are doubtless inevitable. But the novel is even more interesting for the pointed, often hilarious connections Yu Hua makes between the care and manipulation (and voyeuristic observation) of female bodies, and the various "makeovers" to which modern China has subjected itself. The novel ischeerfully vulgar and obscene, insistently declarative and overemphatic. But it's gripping throughout 600-plus pages, and it rises to a tremendous climax, after Baldy Li's furious acquisitive energies have precipitated tragedy and created monsters that seem to have emerged, sweating and shrieking, from the realms of myth. A deeply flawed great novel, akin to the best work of Zola, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and, arguably, Rabelais.
Yu Hua's epic novel, about two brothers awash in the roiling tide of modern Chinese history, sold more than a million copies in China when it was first published, in two hefty volumes, in 2005 and 2006. Some critics there hated the book, accusing Yu -- an influential Beijing writer in his mid-40s -- of producing little more than a vulgar soap opera. Others praised the novel for capturing both the absurdity and the brutality of Chinese society as it lurched from the havoc of revolution to the lunacy of hypercapitalism.
What can American readers derive from this book? I can say this with confidence: Even if you speak no Chinese and have at best a hazy impression of events in China during the last 40 years, there is nothing remotely inaccessible about this rich, funny, lewd, violent, beautiful, intensely moving work. It's both a tragedy with a smirk and a comedy with a shock buzzer; either way, thanks to the narrative's zing and the brilliance of its translation, its allure is universal.
The action takes place in Liu Town, a rural outpost on the country's southeastern side, a few hours' bus ride from Shanghai. Here the brothers of the book's title grow up: impish Li Guang -- nicknamed Baldy Li because his penny-pinching mother always told the barber to shave his head -- and quieter, bookish Song Gang. (In truth, the boys are stepbrothers: Song Gang's father married Baldy Li's mother after Baldy's birth father met a grotesquely comic death.) When the boys are still quite small, Mao's Cultural Revolution sweeps viciously through the village. Song Gang's father, a gentle middle school teacher, is imprisoned, tortured, and eventually beaten to death. As his tall, once-dignified body is mutilated to fit into its cheap coffin, the streets of Liu Town run red with the revolution's nonsensical chaos. Its citizens, "who all wore the same red armbands and waved the same red flags, were beating one another up with fists, flagpoles, and wooden bats, tearing at one another like wild beasts."
At the end of the book's first section, the boys' mother dies also, but not before exhorting the brothers -- now 15 and 16 -- to look after each other. After the revolution concludes and Deng Xiaoping's Opening Up Campaign begins, the brothers take factory jobs and fall in love with the same local beauty, a girl named Lin Hong.
What I've left out of the plot summary thus far is, quite simply, much of the novel's juice. There's no avoiding the fact that Brothers is brimming with bodily fluids and withholds no details about their distribution. In fact, the novel begins in the toilet and never ventures far from there. It is in the public latrine that Baldy Li is caught spying on Lin Hong's nether regions, a transgression that will determine much of his future. He's also, from the tender age of seven, a more than normally exuberant devotee of masturbation, cozying up to the town's electrical poles and benches with impressive dedication.
What's distinctive about Baldy Li's youthful high jinks is that they all take place, as does every character's every action here, in the middle of a crowd. Privacy does not exist in this world, where a man expresses his love for his wife by washing her hair in the front yard, as onlookers gather; where class enemies wearing dunce hats are shouted at and ridiculed by their neighbors on the street; where the dead are paraded in open carts to their final rest; where all emotions -- shame, fear, joy, grief -- have a public face.
To further highlight the qualities of so relentlessly collective a way of life, Yu provides a circle of tradesmen who stand guard throughout the long narrative, each serving as a barometer of the momentous changes that buffet Liu Town. At first joining the revolutionary throngs in the streets and later signing on as profit-crazed investors when Baldy Li becomes an internationally successful businessman, this group of rude mechanicals includes Popsicle Wang, Blacksmith Tong, Tailor Zhang, Little Scissors Guan, and Tooth-Yanker Yu (perhaps a sly nod to the author himself, who spent five unhappy years practicing dentistry before he became a writer). In a broader way, these buffoonish figures mimic the transformations of Baldy Li and Song Gang as they adapt to the frantic market economy that overtakes the village during the brothers' adult years.
Both siblings are haunted by that promise to look after each other as circumstances fling them farther and farther apart. One marries the beautiful Lin Hong, while the other's lovelorn heart is broken. Baldy Li turns a scrap business into a phenomenally lucrative corporate empire, while Song Gang ruins his health in a series of backbreaking jobs and eventually leaves town to assist a traveling charlatan who's hawking breast enlargement cream. In the book's longest set piece, publicity-hungry Baldy Li decides to host a beauty contest for virgins. Of the thousands of women who turn up in now-garish Liu Town, not one proves to be a virgin, and a robust business in the sale of artificial hymens develops on the competition's sidelines.
The novel's translators, in an incisive preface, point out that a beauty pageant fever really did grip China around 2003, when Yu Hua was writing Brothers. The country hosted a large variety of competitions, including a National Contest of the Beauty of the Gray-Headed for participants over 55 and a Miss Artificial Beauty contest for plastic surgery recipients. Armed with this knowledge, a reader can begin to understand that the more grotesque elements in Yu's novel are not so much surreal as hyperreal: if fake hymens aren't for sale in China's materialistic free-for-all, something very similar might be.
One of Yu's biggest triumphs in Brothers is the fact that, although the circumstances in the book might be perfectly absurd, the characters are not. They manage to exhibit a Chaplinesque dignity in the most humiliating situations, and it's there, in many small emotional scenes, that this coarse slapstick epic slips into refinement. In those moments -- a shy mother takes her baby outside only after midnight, bathing him in moonlight while other children are sound asleep; a father, his house looted by revolutionary thugs, gives his children twigs to use as utensils, explaining that they are "the chopsticks of the ancients"; after years of estrangement, the poorest man in town asks the richest man for a job: "They had formerly been brothers and were still brothers now" -- this rollicking tragedy reveals its tender heart. --Donna Rifkind
Donna Rifkind's reviews appear frequently in The Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The American Scholar, and other publications. In 2006, she was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Read an Excerpt
Baldy li, our Liu Town’s premier tycoon, had a fantastic plan of spending twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space. Perched atop his famously gold-plated toilet seat, he would close his eyes and imagine himself already floating in orbit, surrounded by the unfathomably frigid depths of space. He would look down at the glorious planet stretched out beneath him, only to choke up on realizing that he had no family left down on Earth.
Baldy Li used to have a brother named Song Gang, who was a year older and a whole head taller and with whom he shared everything. Loyal, stubborn Song Gang had died three years earlier, reduced to a pile of ashes. When Baldy Li remembered the small wooden urn containing his brother’s remains, he had a million mixed emotions. The ashes from even a sapling, he thought, would outweigh those from Song Gang’s bones.
Back when Baldy Li’s mother was still alive, she always liked to speakto him about Song Gang as being a chip off the old block. She would emphasize how honest and kind he was, just like his father, and remark that father and son were like two melons from the same vine. When she talked about Baldy Li, she didn’t say this sort of thing but would emphatically shake her head. She said that Baldy Li and his father were completely different sorts of people, on completely different paths. It was not until Baldy Li’s fourteenth year, when he was nabbed for peeping at five women’s bottoms in a public pit toilet, that his mother drastically reversed her earlier opinion of her son. Only then did she finally understand that Baldy Li and his father were in fact two melons from the same vine after all. Baldy Li remembered clearly how his mother had averted her eyes and turned away from him, muttering bitterly as she wiped away her tears, “A chip off the old block.”
Baldy Li had never met his birth father, since on the day he was born his father left this earth in a fit of stink. His mother told him that his father had drowned, but Baldy Li asked, “How? Did he drown in the stream, in the pond, or in a well?” His mother didn’t respond. It was only later, after Baldy Li had been caught peeping and had become stinkingly notorious throughout Liu Town—only then did he learn that he really was another rotten melon off the same damn vine as his father. And it was only then that he learned that his father had also been peeping at women’s butts in a latrine when he accidentally fell into the cesspool and drowned. Everyone in Liu Town—men and women, young and old—laughed when they heard about Baldy Li and couldn’t stop repeating, “A chip off the old block.” As sure as a tree grows leaves, if you were from Liu Town, you would have the phrase on your lips; even toddlers who had just learned to speak were gurgling it. People pointed at Baldy Li, whispering to each other and covering their mouths and snickering, but Baldy Li would maintain an innocent expression as he continued on his way. Inside, however, he would be chuckling because now—at that time he was almost fifteen—he finally knew what it was to be a man.
Nowadays the world is filled with women’s bare butts shaking hither and thither, on television and in the movies, on VCRs and DVDs, i advertisements and magazines, on the sides of ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters. These include all sorts of butts: imported butts, domestic butts; white, yellow, black, and brown; big, small, fat, and thin; smooth and coarse, young and old, fake and real—every shape and size in a bedazzling variety. Nowadays women’s bare butts aren’t worth much, since they can be found virtually everywhere. But back then things were different. It used to be that women’s bottoms were considered a rare and precious commodity that you couldn’t trade for gold or silver or pearls. To see one, you had to go peeping in the public toilet—which is why you had a little hoodlum like Baldy Li being caught in the act, and a big hoodlum like his father losing his life for the sake of a glimpse.
Public toilets back then were different from today. Nowadays you wouldn’t be able to spy on a woman’s butt in a toilet even if you had a periscope, but back then there was only a flimsy partition between the men’s and women’s sections, below which there was a shared cesspool. On the other side of the partition the sounds of women peeing and shitting seemed disconcertingly close. So instead of squatting down where you should, you could poke your head under the partition, suspending yourself above the muck below by tightly gripping the boards with your hands and your legs. With the nauseating stench bringing tears to your eyes and maggots crawling all around, you could bend over like a competitive swimmer at the starting block about to dive into the pool, and the deeper you bent over, the more butt you would be able to see.
That time Baldy Li snared five butts with a single glance: a puny one, a fat one, two bony ones, and a just-right one, all lined up in a neat row, like slabs of meat in a butcher shop. The fat butt was like a fresh rump of pork, the two bony ones were like beef jerky, while the puny butt wasn’t even worth mentioning. The butt that Baldy Li fancied was the just-right one, which lay directly in his line of sight. It was the roundest of the five, so round it seemed to curl up, with taut skin revealing the faint outlines of a tailbone. His heart pounding, he wanted to glimpse the pubic area on the other side of the tailbone, so he continued to lean down, his head burrowing deeper under the partition. But just as he was about to catch a glimpse of her pubic region, he was suddenly nabbed.
A man named Victory Zhao, one of the two Men of Talent in Liu Town, happened to enter the latrine at that very moment. He spotted someone’s head and torso burrowing under the partition and immediately understood what was going on. He therefore grabbed Baldy Li by the scruff of his neck, plucking him up as one would a carrot. At that time Victory Zhao was in his twenties and had published a four-line poem in our provincial culture center’s mimeographed magazine, thereby earning himself the moniker Poet Zhao. After seizing Baldy Li, Zhao flushed bright red. He dragged the fourteen-year-old outside and started lecturing him nonstop, without, however, failing to be poetic: “So, rather than gazing at the glittering sea of sprouted greens in the fields or the fishes cavorting in the lake or the beautiful tufts of clouds in the blue sky, you choose instead to go snooping around in the toilet. . . .”
Poet Zhao went on in this vein for more than ten minutes, and yet there was still no movement from the women’s side of the latrine. Eventually Zhao became anxious, ran to the door, and yelled for the women to come out. Forgetting that he was an elegant man of letters, he shouted rather crudely, “Stop your pissing and shitting. You’ve been spied upon, and you don’t even realize it. Get your butts out here.”
The owners of the five butts finally dashed out, shrieking and weeping. The weeper was the puny butt not worth mentioning. A little girl eleven or twelve years old, she covered her face with her hands and was crying so hard she trembled, as if Baldy Li hadn’t peeped at her but, rather, had raped her. Baldy Li, still standing there in Poet Zhao’s grip, watched the weeping little butt and thought, What’s all this crying over your underdeveloped little butt? I only took a look because there wasn’t much else I could do.
A pretty seventeen-year-old was the last to emerge. Blushing furiously, she took a quick look at Baldy Li and hurried away. Poet Zhao cried out for her not to leave, to come back and demand justice. Instead, she simply hurried away even faster. Baldy Li watched the swaying of her rear end as she walked, and knew that the butt so round it curled up had to be hers.
Once the round butt disappeared into the distance and the weeping little butt also left, one of the bony butts started screeching at Baldy Li,
spraying his face with spittle. Then she wiped her mouth and walked off as well. Baldy Li watched her walk away and noticed that her butt was so flat that, now that she had her pants on, you couldn’t even make it out.
The remaining three—an animated Poet Zhao, a pork-rump butt, and the other jerky-flat butt—then grabbed Baldy Li and hauled him to the police station. They marched him through the little town of less than fifty thousand, and along the way the town’s other Man of Talent, Success Liu, joined their ranks. Like Poet Zhao, Success Liu was in his twenties and had had something published in the culture center’s magazine. His publication was a story, its words crammed onto two pages. Compared with Zhao’s four lines of verse, Success Liu’s two pages were far more impressive, thereby earning him the nickname Writer Liu. Liu didn’t lose out to Poet Zhao in terms of monikers, and he certainly couldn’t lose out to him in other areas either. Writer Liu was on his way to buy rice when he saw Poet Zhao strutting toward him with a captive Baldy Li, and Liu immediately decided that he couldn’t let Poet Zhao have all the glory to himself. Writer Liu hollered to Poet Zhao as he approached, “I’m here to help you!”
Poet Zhao and Writer Liu were close writing comrades, and Writer Liu had once searched high and low for the perfect encomia for Poet
Zhao’s four lines of poetry. Poet Zhao of course had responded in kind and found even more flowery praise for Writer Liu’s two pages of text. Poet Zhao was originally walking behind Baldy Li, with the miscreant in his grip, but now that Writer Liu hustled up to them, Poet Zhao shifted to the left and offered Writer Liu the position to the right. Liu Town’s two Men of Talent flanked Baldy Li, proclaiming that they were taking him to the police station. There was actually a station just around the corner, but they didn’t want to take him there; instead, they marched him to one much farther away. On their way, they paraded down the main streets, trying to maximize their moment of glory. As they escorted Baldy Li through the streets they remarked enviously, “Just look at you, with two important men like us escorting you. You really are a lucky guy.” Poet Zhao added, “It’s as if you were being escorted by Li Bai and Du Fu. . . .”
It seemed to Writer Liu that Poet Zhao’s analogy was not quite apt, since Li Bai and Du Fu were, of course, both poets, while Liu himself wrote fiction. So he corrected Zhao, saying, “It’s as if Li Bai and Cao Xueqin were escorting you. . . .”
Baldy Li had initially ignored their banter, but when he heard Liu Town’s two Men of Talent compare themselves to Li Bai and Cao Xueqin, he couldn’t help but laugh. “Hey, even I know that Li Bai was from the Tang dynasty while Cao was from the Qing dynasty,” he said. “So how can a Tang guy be hanging out with a Qing guy?” The crowds that had gathered alongside the street burst into loud guffaws. They said that Baldy Li was absolutely correct, that Liu Town’s two Men of Talent might indeed be full of talent, but their knowledge of history wasn’t a match even for this little Peeping Tom. The two Men of Talent blushed furiously, and Poet Zhao, straightening his neck, added, “It’s just an analogy.”
“Or we could use another analogy,” offered Writer Liu. “Given that it’s a poet and a novelist escorting you, we should say we are Guo
Moruo and Lu Xun.” The crowd expressed their approval. Even Baldy Li nodded and said, “That’s more like it.”
Poet Zhao and Writer Liu didn’t dare say any more on the subject of literature. Instead, they grabbed Baldy Li’s collar and denounced his hooligan behavior to one and all while continuing to march sternly ahead. Along the way, Baldy Li saw a great many people tittering at him, including some he knew and others he didn’t. Poet Zhao and Writer Liu took time to explain to everyone they met what had happened, appearing even more polished than talk-show hosts. And those two women who had had their butts peeped at by Baldy Li were like the special guests on their talk shows, looking alternately furious and aggrieved as they responded to Poet Zhao and Writer Liu’s recounting of events. As the women walked along, the one with a fat butt suddenly screeched, having noticed her own husband among the spectators, and started sobbing as she complained loudly, “He saw my bottom and god knows what else! Whip him!”