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Chinese Author Sees Breakdown Of Values

As the People's Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 60th birthday, what is the state of the world's most populous nation? We posed the question to three bestselling Chinese authors from different generations and look at their country through their works.

Author Yu Hua says that for his 40-something generation in China, life can be divided into two periods. So perhaps it is not surprising that his bestselling novel Brothers was published in two volumes. The first laid bare the political excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and '70s; the second was dedicated to the capitalist excesses of the past 30 years.

"The Cultural Revolution was a craziness for revolution, then we had a craziness to earn money," Yu says. "It's like a pendulum that's swung from one extreme to another. It's gone from being an extremely oppressive society to being an extremely free one with no moderation."

Brothers, a lewd, rambunctious, heartbreaking epic of modern China, has sold 1.3 million copies. It is wildly popular — and widely criticized — at home.

Yu was inspired to write the novel after witnessing an explosion in the popularity of beauty pageants in small-town China in the 1990s. He added a subversive twist: He writes of a government-backed beauty pageant for virgins, which creates a booming market in artificial hymens as the fake virgins busily bed the competition judges.

400 Years Of Change In 40 Years

Yu charted such political madness in an earlier book, To Live, which was made into a film by Zhang Yimou. Yu compares the abrupt changes in China to the difference between Europe in the Middle Ages and Europe today. But in China's case, he says, 400 years of change was crammed into just 40 years.

He blames capitalism, rather than communism, for the frenetic pace of change that led to a breakdown in traditional values.

"In the late '60s, people were often beaten to death on the street, but children were safe. But today, who would let their children out on the street? They could be kidnapped by child traffickers, who are of course driven by capitalism," he says.

In Brothers, the epitome of this economic madness is small-town tycoon Baldy Li, who sits atop his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of buying a ride into space on a Russian rocket. This tragedy of the absurd also focuses on his stepbrother Song Gang, an honest and hardworking man going nowhere who, out of desperation, has breast implants in order to sell breast enlargement potions.

Yu says their differing fates sum up the divisions created by China's go-go capitalism.

"If you're rich, you've succeeded. Otherwise, you've failed. There's no other criterion. Honest people are obsolete in today's China. Chinese critics say I shouldn't write like this, I should write from a positive, healthy perspective, conducting an autopsy on our sick society. But I say in this society, there are no doctors — we are all sick," he says.

'One Of The Worst Sights In The World'

Yu, 49, began his working life as a dentist after being assigned to the job without any choice. He loathed the work, but it now gives him a reliable laugh line when speaking to audiences. He recalls his five years peering at the inside of the human mouth, or, as he puts it, "one of the worst sights in the world."

He says he was driven to write by jealousy over the easy lives of the culture bureau writers, who loafed around the streets aimlessly yet still collected a government salary. Nowadays, as a bestselling author, he relishes pushing boundaries; he forced his publisher to sign a contract agreeing not to change a single word of Brothers.

"The contract was quite totalitarian," he says. "But in order to pursue their economic interests, the publishers had to shoulder some political risks."

A play based on Brothers was staged in Shanghai last year, adapted by local playwright Li Rong. The playwright believes the story's power is in its depiction of China's morality vacuum and local government corruption.

The tycoon character Baldy Li "holds a lot of political power," Li Rong says. "He controls all the industry in the county. And this actually happens in local politics here. It's government by the strong for the strong. It's the politics of dirty money."

A Bestselling Author, But Controversial At Home

These unvarnished depictions of modern China's failings and excess make Yu controversial at home. Four different literature professors refused to be interviewed about the author, citing the sensitivity of the topic. He is also unpopular among young Chinese. He, in turn, criticizes those born in the 1980s for being too nationalistic.

"They live in a world where every day is better than the last. They don't believe China has bad things, too. I have a problem understanding those new patriots, their blind feelings of happiness and glory. They don't care about other people," Yu says.

But Yu believes that the global financial crisis being felt in China may change the way Chinese view their country. It is time to look at the spiritual, moral and environmental costs of the so-called economic miracle, he says.

"Over the past few years we've been too optimistic. The speed of growth has been seen as a miracle, but it's also masked a huge number of social problems. As the economy slows, those problems will emerge all at once," Yu says.

He says he doesn't worry about social stability. "I've never doubted the Communist Party's ability to control the country," he says grinning.

But he now sees Brothers in a different light: as an epitaph in novel form to China's dog-eat-dog years of early capitalism. "Things will never be quite so crazy again," he says, with the rueful smile of one who reveled in chronicling the madness.

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Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.