"Yu Hua writes with a cold eye but a warm hand." — Ha Jin, award-winning poet and author of Waiting
One of the most well-known authors in China today, Yu Hua (Yu is his surname, Hua his given name) grew up in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, just south of Shanghai. After high school he received rudimentary training in dentistry and spent five years as a practicing dentist. It wasn't, he discovered, well-suited to him. As he puts it: "The inside of the mouth is one of the ugliest spectacles in the world" (New York Times Magazine).
The government was in charge of assigning professions, but Yu made it a goal to become a state-salaried artist at the local Cultural Bureau, having observed with envy the liberty these artists seemed to have in determining how they spent their days. To show he was qualified, he wrote in his spare time—when he wasn't pulling teeth—and the government granted his request. The new position gave Yu what many writers will say they covet: time to write when the mood strikes, a flexible schedule, and the ability to sleep in. He was so happy that he would wake up smiling, he told Modern Chinese Literature and Culture.
Yu spent much of his youth roaming the halls of a hospital where his parents practiced medicine. He still associates the smell of Lysol with his childhood. Because their home faced the morgue, Yu would frequently hear the sounds of people weeping. It wasn't unusual for Yu and his brother to see their father coming out of the operating room with his smock covered in blood, or to witness a nurse carrying a bucket of bloody extractions to the nearby pond to be discarded.
This was during the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when, at the behest of Chairman Mao Zedong, traditional culture was shunned and objects, including books, were destroyed. People were encouraged to denounce those they felt had wandered from the Socialist path. His town's walls were covered in "Big Character" posters with slogans and denunciations issued by one person to another. With almost no access to books, reading these posters became one of Yu's first experiences with literature. "I remember carrying my book-bag on my way home from school and reading each poster as I walked along," he said. "I wasn't interested in the revolutionary slogans. I was interested in the stories" (Modern Chinese Literature and Culture).
Though Yu was fascinated by the posters, he often worried that he'd see his father's name in a headline. His fear was well-founded, as one day his father was called out as a "runaway landlord" and "capitalist roader." The accusations stemmed from Yu's family history: his grandfather's family had once owned many acres of land and held a landlord pedigree. But Yu's grandfather—a slacker, Yu calls him, and a partier—sold off the property bit by bit to pay for his extravagant lifestyle until, by 1949, he had squandered just about everything and lost his landlord status. Other than the public shaming, Yu's father faced no further consequences.
Yu's writing career began just after the Cultural Revolution ended. His controversial early work—described as surreal and avant-garde, and often violent—drew from both his vivid childhood experiences and his desire to help Chinese literature evolve after a period during which literature was, as he has said, virtually nonexistent. Some of his early influences were Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Yasunari Kawabata, whom he read when translations of their work came to China in the 1980s. Yu's later influences include V.S. Naipaul and Toni Morrison.
Yu's "novels are ingeniously structured and exude a mythical aura," writes author Ha Jin. "Though unmistakably Chinese, they are universally resonant." The first Chinese novelist to win the James Joyce Foundation Award, Yu is the author of the novel Chronicle of a Blood Merchant—also referred to (along with To Live) as one of the most influential books in China—as well as the novels The Seventh Day, Cries in the Drizzle, and Brothers, which was a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize. His books also include Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China and China in Ten Words, a book of essays. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages, and he is the recipient of France's Prix Courrier International and Italy's Premio Grinzane Cavour. His works continue to be adapted for film, theater, and television.
Having lived through two radically different periods in Chinese history, Yu often feels that he has the soul of a hundred-year-old man, something he thinks is good for his writing (Modern Chinese Literature and Culture). He is "very different from any of the characters in his novel," says his translator, Michael Berry, who first met Yu in the late 1990s. Yu has a "sharpness, a satirical wit, an observant gaze, and a childlike curiosity. I still remember his ecstatic reaction to seeing the neon lights on Broadway" and "his excitement when I took him to his first jazz performance." Today, Yu lives in Beijing with his wife, the poet Chen Hong.
Michael Berry is the translator of several novels, including Remains of Life by Wu He (Columbia, 2017), The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (with Susan Chan Egan) by Wang Anyi (Columbia, 2008), To Live by Yu Hua (Anchor, 2004), Nanjing 1937: A Love Story by Ye Zhaoyan (Anchor, 2004), and Wild Kids: Two Novels about Growing Up by Chang Ta-chun (Columbia, 2000). He is a contributor to the ChinaFile and his popular essays in Chinese have been published in the weekly Friday supplement of The Beijing News. He is currently a professor in the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles.