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The Long March continues: A Chinese soldier stands guard at the Tiananmen gate

When Yu Hua was a schoolboy in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, green with youth and red with Maoist zeal, he and his vigilante classmates ambushed a young peasant who was illicitly selling food coupons in the town market. They pushed him to the ground, and when he fought back they hit him over the head with bricks. His right hand was clenched tight, so they smashed it until his bloody fingers opened. Inside was a wad of coupons which they triumphantly confiscated. The peasant had saved them up to pay for his wedding.

For an acclaimed novelist now in his fifties, that is quite a hinterland. A comparably shameful school memory for a British novelist of the same vintage might involve breaking the biscuit jar during a midnight raid. Yu Hua tells the story in China in Ten Words. In contemporary China, he writes, painful memories of the Mao years are not only commonplace but essential to confront if the nation is to make sense of the contradictions and discord "concealed amid the complacency generated by our rapid economic advances" over the last 40 years.

The ten words — including "revolution", "disparity", "leader" and "grassroots" — which frame each chapter are footholds for Yu to discuss today's China and where it has come from. He does so through true stories and social commentary, the words often triggering childhood memories like Proust's madeleine. His core subject matter, as in his last novel, Brothers, is China's transition from the Mao era to Deng Xiaoping's brave new world and beyond, where the peasant selling food coupons would "with a flick of the wrist" be transformed from capitalist roadster to role model.

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