Yet even more than ‘the people,’ “the word that has lost the most value the fastest during the last thirty years ... would surely have to be ‘leader,’” Yu’s word #2. “Many years after the 1976 death of a genuine leader” – Chairman Mao – today’s Chinese are in the midst of cutthroat competition for mere survival: “the strong prey on the weak, people enrich themselves through brute force and deception, and the meek and humble suffer while the bold and unscrupulous flourish.”
Yu balances such vehemence with three chapters of personal reflection on “reading” (word #3), “writing” (word #4), and “Lu Xun” (word #5). In “reading,” Yu recalls the oppressive scarcity of books during the Cultural Revolution only to have books become worth less than wastepaper three decades later.
In “writing,” he shares some of his own literary history, from his early career as a small-town dentist to his aspirations toward “a loafer’s life in the cultural center” as a writer; he laughs off the critical praise he eventually receives for his “plain narrative language” as little more than the result of his untrained, limited vocabulary.
Yu confesses to his youthful disrespect toward China’s most influential 20th-century prose writer, Lu Xun, who was revered then reduced to a mere “catchphrase.” As a mature, acclaimed author himself, Yu is finally able to recognize and reclaim Lu Xun’s literary potency.
Continuing on through the second half of his 10 words, Yu’s sharp gaze proves unrelenting. He traces the evolving violence of “revolution” (word #6) over a span of 30 years, and examines the resulting “disparity” (word #7) between those who absconded with ill-gotten luxuries and those who remain trapped in “desolate ruins.” He captures the ruthless determination of “grassroots” (word #8) citizens, “who have nothing to lose, since they began with nothing at all,” who don’t allow concerns about morality or legality to obstruct their unwavering path toward financial gains.