Novelist Yu Hua Captures China's Extremes

Extremes fascinate Yu Hua. Between puffs of countless cigarettes, the Chinese author reflects on the vast distances his country has traveled—and on the yawning divides that remain. Forty years ago, the Cultural Revolution aimed to rid Chinese society of "bourgeois" influences; today it is dominated by excessive consumption and a widening wealth gap, he says. China's economy is ranked third in size but 97th in per capita income. "I saw a TV program where an interviewer asked a child from Beijing what he wants most in the world," Yu says. "The child wanted a Boeing airplane. The interviewer asked the same question to a girl from China's northwest, and she said a pair of white sneakers."

These extremes, and the absurdities they engender, inspired Yu's latest novel, "Brothers," published in English earlier this year. It follows the half brothers Baldy Li and Song Gang as they limp, romp and fight their way through the dark ages of 1960s China to its glittering present. Yu, who was born in 1960, says Baldy Li and Song Gang represent the two extremes of his generation. The first half of the novel tells of the brothers' grim, impoverished childhood in a small town outside Shanghai; the second half takes place during China's "reform era" after Mao Zedong's death, when the country's most popular slogan was "to get rich is glorious." In this new China, the promiscuous, fast-talking Baldy Li is a successful entrepreneur, while honest and gentle Song Gang struggles to make a living by peddling sexual products.

"Brothers," published in two parts in China, in 2005 and 2006, sold millions of copies and helped cement Yu's place as one of the country's few homegrown literary stars. Prodigious and ribald, it's the author's most ambitious book since his monumental 1992 "To Live," a brutally realistic tale about a former landlord who loses everything during Mao's reign but his will to live. Unlike writers who have addressed similar themes from exile, including Ha Jin and Gao Xingjian, Yu has never had his books banned. "Western readers and reporters think that mainland Chinese authors have to sing the praises of the government," he says in the thick brogue of his native Zhejiang province, citing his latest book as counterexample.

Yu, a former dentist with the charm of a salesman and an unassuming nature that have earned him comparisons to a peasant, has avoided the censorship of Chinese authorities in part by never writing about the Tiananmen Square massacre. In fact, he is surprised that the West remains so fascinated by the brutal suppression of student democracy demonstrators in 1989. "Chinese people aren't really concerned with it anymore," he says with a laugh. "The younger generation doesn't know about it because no one has told them. The intellectuals don't care because things are good now."

"Brothers" begins in a much more desolate era. Early in the novel, the Cultural Revolution descends on their town, known as Liu. Gangs of Red Guards patrol the city searching for counterrevolutionaries, "wielding kitchen cleavers and axes, until the electrical poles, the wutong trees, the walls, and the streets were all splattered with blood," writes Yu. At times, Song Gang and Baldy Li are so poor that all they have to swallow is their own saliva. The death of their mother, Li Lan, in the late 1970s marks the end of the Mao years and China's revolutionary frenzy. "The dead had departed; the living remained," Yu writes.

In the second half of the novel, Baldy Li and Song Gang separate, each striving to get rich. Baldy Li concocts a number of dishonest, unethical moneymaking schemes to turn him into the richest man in town. In one, the National Virgin Beauty Competition, originally titled the Hymen Olympic Games, 3,000 women compete for the title. But few are actually virgins and many sleep with the judges. Baldy Li awards first and third place to two of the contestants he beds—underscoring China's rampant corruption. Meanwhile, Song Gang lacks the ruthlessness that Baldy Li wields to succeed in cash-obsessed modern China.

Some Chinese reviewers have criticized "Brothers" as too absurd. Baldy Li, for instance, has a toilet seat plated with gold. "When I wrote about his golden toilet, I got a call from my friend saying, 'Hey, Yu, were you writing about my toilet?' I know so many people who have golden toilets," says Yu. In another scene, Song Gang undergoes breast-enhancement surgery to hawk fake—and toxic—chest-enlargement cream. Yu responds to critics who call that too extreme by likening it to the recent melamine scandal, in which tainted milk sickened thousands of Chinese babies. "After melamine, people have begun to understand that these things happen all the time," says Yu, his voice rising slightly. "And now they are starting to pay attention." His work doesn't give them any choice.