The Secret Lives of Dentists

How Yu Hua’s brutal novels reflect the transformation of literary China.

Before Yu Hua started writing stories in 1983, he worked as a dentist, and his prose retains what I guess might be the intensity of a provincial Chinese root canal. After reading some of his early stories, one critic remarked, “I can’t imagine what kind of brutal tortures patients endured under his cruel steel pliers.” Yu Hua has long been considered one of China’s most important novelists, and his novels To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant have just been translated into English for the first time; recently, they were named two of the last decade’s 10 most influential books in China. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant follows Xu Sanguan, a small-town factory worker, from youth to middle age in the second half of the 20th century—a period that included the forced collectivization of the Great Leap Forward, the ensuing famine, and the Cultural Revolution. Each time a crisis befalls his family, Xu Sanguan donates blood. The process is described in brutal (not to say sadistic) detail from the moment two peasants Xu Sanguan meets on the road explain that in order to dilute their blood, so there’s more of it to sell, they drink until “our stomachs are so swollen that it hurts and the roots of our teeth start to ache.”

Why is Yu Hua important? Since the 1980s, his fiction has evolved away from formally experimental short stories, which he was writing around the time of the Tiananmen movement, toward critically and commercially successful novels, which have been described as “gripping stories of ordinary men and women living through extraordinary travails.” In China, as in America, there is a debate about what constitutes popularity in fiction: Are Yu Hua’s best-selling novels a concession to China’s newly consumerist culture or a necessary response to the intellectually serious but hopelessly academic “postmodern” fiction in fashion 20 years ago in China? Whereas in the United States this discussion is an aesthetic one, the debate in China has sharper teeth; American writers may fear the culture mafia, but at least they don’t have to worry about the Ministry of Culture.

We usually associate European and American literary postmodernism with a kind of emotional distance, but Chronicle of a Blood Merchant and Yu Hua’s earlier novel, To Live (which was made into a popular film by Zhang Yimou that won the Grand Prix at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival) are blatantly sentimental. While enduring the series of catastrophes that constituted life in China under Mao, Xu Sanguan also undergoes a personal crisis: He discovers that his first son, Yile, is actually the child of his rival, He Xiaoyong. Xu Sanguan’s bizarre method of dealing with this information is to leave his illegitimate son at home while he takes the rest of the family out to eat during the famine. He explains to Yile that, “if I let you eat noodles too, I’d be doing that bastard He Xiaoyong a favor.” Yile stumbles hungrily around the village, searching for his family; arriving after they’ve left, he sits outside the restaurant, shivering in the dark. We can almost hear the violins. But melodrama works in Yu Hua’s fiction because it is purposefully absurd. Xu Sanguan’s argument about why he can’t feed his son—more like a line from a Pirandello play than a rationalization for any human action—is obviously a kind of diseased logic that he has caught from the state. During the collectivization of the Great Leap Forward, when public institutions were turned into canteens, Xu Sanguan explains to his wife that they will now eat dinner at the opera house: “You know where the kitchen is? Right on the stage. All the singing clowns from the Yue Opera Company are up onstage rinsing vegetables.” When politics becomes a kind of theater, ordinary life will follow. 

Yu Hua’s work is connected to a tradition of stylized Chinese opera, and if there is something that remains self-consciously difficult or experimental about his style, it’s the flatness of his characters. The translator of Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, Andrew F. Jones, also notes the influence of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose antipsychological approach appealed to Yu Hua as a way of reacting to the ideological manipulation of realism in the propaganda books and films of his childhood. When all the sureties of daily existence can be overturned instantly, according to a whim of the Central Committee, private subjectivity is impossible. In place of internal complexity, then, the members of the Xu family perform public displays of emotion. They cry, quarrel, and flirt in full view of their neighbors. Like the gloves from the factory where Xu Sanguan works, which his wife painstakingly unravels and reknits into sweaters, the characters seem to have been taken apart and repaired so that their linings are visible on the outside. Deprived of private experience, they cope by wearing not only their hearts but their pettiness, cruelty, and sexual perversity on their sleeves.

Everyone is familiar with the kind of fiction that struggles to connect a domestic drama to some kind of larger political or historical idea; it’s irritating when characters in a novel must stumble into a protest march, or turn on the television and see a shuttle launch, in order to seem significant. In Yu Hua’s fiction, by contrast, history is often simply dispatched in the manner of stage directions: “Xu Sanguan said to Xu Yulan, ‘This year is 1958. We’ve had People’s Communes, the Great Leap Forward, Backyard Steel Furnaces, and what else?’ ” Just as he can breezily deny his son a bowl of noodles, Xu Sanguan can rattle off a chronicle of disasters, almost as if he doesn’t remember them—and perhaps he doesn’t. On one of his numerous visits to the hospital, Xu Sanguan encounters Blood Chief Li, an official he met 10 years earlier when he came to give blood for the first time. When he asks whether the blood chief remembers him, the official exclaims: “How do you expect me to remember someone who came through here ten years ago? Even a god wouldn’t be able to remember that long.” In a politically stable society, 10 years isn’t such a long time, but in a decade that encompasses these events, memory is impossible. It would be unbearable.

While Chronicle of a Blood Merchant and To Live are clearly political novels, there’s something else happening here, too. Neither feels like a capitulation—to official pressure or commercial taste. Rather, they seem like good examples of the kind of heterogeneity that is resulting from the slow relaxation of political restrictions on writers and artists in China. Instead of simply reacting to state-sponsored propaganda, Chinese writers (with notable exceptions) are now free to blend formal or stylistic innovation with a more humanistic approach. Near the end of the novel, Xu Sanguan tries to give blood a final time; his wife reassures him: “Xu Sanguan, you don’t have to sell your blood anymore. We have enough money, and that’s not going to change.” Xu Sanguan’s beautiful, vestigial gesture—he wants to give blood, although there’s no longer any need—shows the persistence of human sensibility in the face of totalitarian logic. Underneath the stylized dialogue, the extremes of brutality and emotion, and the apparent flatness of the characters, are real people, emerging from a period of horror. They are still people who can’t risk planning very far into the future or thinking very deeply about the past. Everything they have experienced together is compressed in this vital and electric present moment.