Yu was born on 3 April 1960 in the city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. His father, Hua Zizhi, worked in a vaccination brigade and was studying to become a surgeon, and his mother, Yu Peiwen, was a nurse. When Yu was two, he and his elder brother moved with their parents to the rural Zhejiang village of Haiyan. Yu was six years old at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. He often wandered the halls of the hospital where his parents worked, and in 1971, the family moved to the hospital staff quarters, opposite the morgue. Literature was scarce in the village, but in 1972, when Yu completed Xiangyang Primary School, the Haiyan library reopened, and his father got library cards for him and his brother. He eagerly consumed all the government-approved literature he could, especially enjoying such novels as Li Xintian’s Shanshan de hongxing (1972), the story of a boy’s coming of age in the years before the Chinese Revolution of 1949. He later reveled in forbidden Western classics that were circulating clandestinely in pieces.
Yu found another source of literary inspiration in the dazibao (big character posters), which lined the streets of the town. Dazibao were handwritten placards on which citizens posted anonymous complaints about those they claimed had deviated from official ideology. The posters were a part of everyday life during the Cultural Revolution, and their vitriolic accusations and denunciations showed Yu a different side of human nature than that which appeared in his government-censored studies and reading. He learned about storytelling and imagination from expressions of jealousy, anger, and fear in the dazibao.
After Yu completed his secondary education in 1977, his parents apprenticed him to a dentist. He later remarked that he did not like the work, eight hours a day of looking “at other people’s mouths, which are not the world’s most scenic places,” and found life as a dentist “gloomy.” He noticed that the employees of the local cultural center seemed to enjoy a relaxed work environment, and they told him that if he were able to get his writing published, he could request official permission to change his job. In 1979, while in dental training in Ningbo, Yu encountered the work of Nobel Prize-winning Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata, whose detailed novels impressed him. Thereafter, Yu devoted himself to writing in his free time, living alone in order to focus on his literary efforts. He read novels by Márquez and published his first short story in January 1983.
In 1984, Beijing wenxue published several of his stories, one of which won the journal’s annual award, and Yu formally transferred to the Haiyan Cultural Center, where he met Pan Yinchun, whom he married in 1985. In 1986, Yu first encountered the fiction of Kafka, which he remarked was “a gift of fate.” Later that year, at a literary conference in Beijing, well-known critic Li Tuo complimented a draft of Yu’s short story “Shiba sui chu men yuan xing” (“On the Road at Eighteen”). Yu cemented his status as a rising literary star when Beijing wenxue published this avant-garde work in 1987. In 1988, he moved to Beijing to pursue his writing career, enrolling in graduate studies at Lu Xun Literature Institute, where he read works by Faulkner, among other foreign classics. In Beijing, Yu became sympathetic to the student-led movement advocating against governmental corruption and for greater social freedom. In the spring of 1989, he frequently joined protesters as they gathered in central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in spite of growing tensions with Chinese authorities. In early June, he was returning to Beijing from a visit with his family in Haiyan when he learned that the People’s Liberation Army had cleared Tiananmen Square, killing an undisclosed number of young protesters.
Yu’s first collection of novellas and short stories was published in 1989, and the following year he finished his MA in Literature. He and Pan Yinchun divorced in 1991. In 1992, Yu married the poet Chen Hong, whom he had met at Lu Xun Literature Institute. Also that year, Yu published his first full-length novel, Huhan yu xiyu (Cries and Drizzle), soon renamed Zai xiyu zhong huhan (1993; Cries in the Drizzle). In 1993, Yu and his wife briefly returned to Haiyan, where she gave birth to their son. The family afterward settled in Beijing. His next two novels, Huozhe (1993; To Live) and Xu Sanguan mai xue ji (1996; Chronicle of a Blood Merchant), eventually won placement on the largest Shanghai newspaper’s list of the ten most influential books of the 1990s. In the last few years of the twentieth century, Yu composed numerous essays on a wide range of topics, many of which were collected into books. His works had begun to be translated into foreign languages from the early 1990s, and in 1998 he received the Italian Premio Grinzane Cavour for To Live. During the early 2000s, Yu’s work gained further international recognition. He received the James Joyce Foundation Award in 2002, and two years later he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He received the Special Book Award of China in 2005, the year the first volume of his two-part novel Xiongdi (2005-06; Brothers) was published, and in 2008 he won France’s Prix Courrier International. In 2013, shortly after his novel Di qi ri (2013; The Seventh Day) was issued, Yu became a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times.
Eight pieces of short fiction that Yu published in Chinese periodicals beginning in the mid-1980s appear in English translation in the collection The Past and the Punishments (1996). These early works express the confusion and disaffection of a generation disillusioned by the rapid rise of capitalistic enterprise and self-interest in the years following the death of Communist leader Mao Zedong. Critics consider “On the Road at Eighteen,” a picaresque narrative grounded in the absurd, one of Yu’s characteristic stories. A satire of lost innocence, the story tells of a young man who is sent on a journey of discovery that ends in frustration and humiliation. The novella Xianxue meihua (1989; Blood and Plum Blossoms) also focuses on a youthful search for adventure and maturity, this time in the form of a son’s quest for revenge after the death of his father. Yu infuses modernism into the ancient motif of the solitary traveler by emphasizing his protagonist’s complete disconnection from his own emotions and his apathy toward events around him.
Yu’s first novel, Cries in the Drizzle, is a study of alienation and death in a narrative about a rural youth named Sun Guanglin. Pervaded by the atmosphere of gloom and dread suggested by the title, the novel explores eleven different deaths that touch the protagonist in some way. The novel introduces past and present events simultaneously to create a multilayered story of the boy’s maturation and his place in history. Some critics found the novel overly psychological and stylized and argued that Yu was unable to maintain his absurdist vision effectively in a longer work. Other critics admired its ambitious scope; Zhansui Yu (2010) asserted that Cries in the Drizzle “sooner or later will be recognized as a classic of Chinese fiction.”
Yu used a more realistic approach in his next novel, To Live, the story of Xu Fugui, a former landlord’s son reduced to peasant farming who lives through the revolution of 1949 and the turbulent period of social upheaval that follows. Like Sun Guanglin, Xu is surrounded by death and the inexorable unfolding of history. Xu survives, but his life is defined by unending grief and labor. Critics and readers praised the novel’s portrayal of the human condition. In 1994 the popular film adaptation shared the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Yu continued to progress toward stylistic realism in the narrative Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, published three years after To Live. Financial difficulties force the novel’s protagonist, Xu Sanguan, an urban husband and father, to sell his blood repeatedly in order to support his family. Drawing on both melodramatic aspects of ancient Chinese literature and a modern, absurdist worldview, the novel examines the effects of the devastating famine that resulted from the Chinese government’s failed attempt to revolutionize the nation’s agricultural production during the early 1960s.
Brothers recounts the relationship between two stepbrothers. The first volume, which describes their family’s struggle to survive during the Cultural Revolution, ends with the deaths of both parents and one brother’s promise to care for the other. In the second volume, the narrative continues amid the economic reforms of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The more ruthless brother prospers while his more passive and responsible sibling fails repeatedly before finally committing suicide. His death results in a moral epiphany for the surviving brother. Some Chinese critics admired the first volume of the novel but found the second volume to be overly simplistic and repetitive, while others praised Yu’s understanding of human nature.
In 2010, Yu published La Chine en dix mots (China in Ten Words), a collection of ten short essays. With titles such as “People,” “Leader,” “Disparity,” and “Bamboozle,” the essays examine modern Chinese society by means of Yu’s own experiences. After the first edition appeared in French, a Chinese edition, Shige cihuili de Zhongguo, was published in Taiwan in 2011, and an English translation of it appeared the same year. The work won international recognition for its forthright portrayal of the many contradictions in modern Chinese society.
The Seventh Day tells of a dead man without a family and too poor to pay for his funeral, who wanders around for a week, meeting other unfortunate souls from his past who are caught in similar limbo. This surrealist story of the recently deceased Yang Fei, who searches for his long deceased father, depicts the widespread consumerist greed of modern China as well as the endurance of individual connections of affection.
Many of Yu’s works became best sellers upon publication, but the critical response to them has been mixed. Xiaobing Tang (1993) cited early commentary from such critics as Li Tuo, who introduced Yu’s first collection and praised his “emancipation of language.” In contrast, as noted by Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg (2008; see Further Reading), Brothers angered readers on the left with its pessimistic portrayal of the Cultural Revolution and readers on the right with its satire of the ills of the Chinese market economy. One collection of essays critical of Brothers bore the title Gei Yu Hua bo ya (2006), which translates to “Pulling Out Yu Hua’s Teeth.”
Nevertheless, as Zhansui Yu reported, Yu remains “among the most influential and most widely read Chinese writers, both in China and abroad,” and many critics acknowledge his work as being “technically creative and innovative.” Echoing the latter judgment, Rong Cai (1998) observed that Yu “is not simply vigilant about literary conventions as a writer facing narrative choices, but lands his characters in the interactions between competing value systems.” Tang pointed out the influence of such modernists as Kafka on “On the Road at Eighteen” and other works by Yu: “the narrative unfolds to belie a certain paradigm of experience and parallel the emergence of a new self-consciousness.” Wedell-Wedellsborg (1996) also noted Yu’s distinctive perspective on “identity-loss and cultural breakdown,” declaring that “Yu Hua’s surgical knife cuts the connection between sign and meaning by presenting his characters as nothing but signifiers for an absent self.”
While critics have placed Yu among literature’s modernists, given his focus on the absurd and his experimental narrative techniques, some have also remarked on his grounding in traditional forms. Tang suggested that “On the Road at Eighteen” contains “obvious narrative elements of traditional Bildungsroman,” while Cai analyzed the story as part of a Chinese tradition of literature employing the journey of a solitary traveler to explore social ferment. In her 2008 study of Brothers, Wedell-Wedellsborg concluded that “it is possible to identify pre-modern as well as modern and post-modern traits within the textual universe of the novel.”
Tina Gianoulis. "Yu Hua." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 410, Gale, 2017.