the opening of yu hua’s 640-page satire on chinese capitalism

I will go out on a limb and assert that Yu Hua’s Brothers must be the best novel ever written by a Chinese dentist. Pynchon’s interest in the Freudianism of Norman O. Brown both of whom had much to say about the connections between matters capital and excremental   seems to be captured in the opening chapter, in which future tycoon Baldy Li is caught lurking inside the village latrine, gazing up at the urinating women . . . for that matter, is “Baldy Li” meant to be a faint echo of “Leopold Bloom,” modern fiction’s famously first toilet user?  At any rate, in 2002, Yu Hua became the first Chinese writer to win the prestigious James Joyce Foundation Award.    


Chapter 1

Baldy Li, our Liu Town’s premier tycoon, had a fantastic plan of spending twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space. Perched atop his famously gold-plated toilet seat, he would close his eyes and imagine himself already floating in orbit, surrounded by the unfathomably frigid depths of space. He would look down at the glorious planet stretched out beneath him, only to choke up on realizing that he had no family left down on Earth.

Baldy Li used to have a brother named Song Gang, who was a year older and a whole head taller and with whom he shared everything. Loyal, stubborn Song Gang had died three years earlier, reduced to a pile of ashes. When Baldy Li remembered the small wooden urn containing his brother’s remains, he had a million mixed emotions. The ashes from even a sapling, he thought, would outweigh those from Song Gang’s bones.
Back when Baldy Li’s mother was still alive, she always liked to speak to him about Song Gang as being a chip off the old block. She would emphasize how honest and kind he was, just like his father, and remark that father and son were like two melons from the same vine. When she talked about Baldy Li, she didn’t say this sort of thing but would emphatically shake her head. She said that Baldy Li and his father were completely different sorts of people, on completely different paths. It was not until Baldy Li’s fourteenth year, when he was nabbed for peeping at five women’s bottoms in a public pit toilet, that his mother drastically reversed her earlier opinion of her son. Only then did she finally understand that Baldy Li and his father were in fact two melons from the same vine after all. Baldy Li remembered clearly how his mother had averted her eyes and turned away from him, muttering bitterly as she wiped away her tears, “A chip off the old block.”
Baldy Li had never met his birth father, since on the day he was born his father left this earth in a fit of stink. His mother told him that his father had drowned, but Baldy Li asked, “How? Did he drown in the stream, in the pond, or in a well?” His mother didn’t respond. It was only later, after Baldy Li had been caught peeping and had become stinkingly notorious throughout Liu Town—only then did he learn that he really was another rotten melon off the same damn vine as his father. And it was only then that he learned that his father had also been peeping at women’s butts in a latrine when he accidentally fell into the cesspool and drowned. Everyone in Liu Town—men and women, young and old—laughed when they heard about Baldy Li and couldn’t stop repeating, “A chip off the old block.” As sure as a tree grows leaves, if you were from Liu Town, you would have the phrase on your lips; even toddlers who had just learned to speak were gurgling it. People pointed at Baldy Li, whispering to each other and covering their mouths and snickering, but Baldy Li would maintain an innocent expression as he continued on his way. Inside, however, he would be chuckling because now—at that time he was almost fifteen—he finally knew what it was to be a man.

Nowadays the world is filled with women’s bare butts shaking hither and thither, on television and in the movies, on VCRs and DVDs, i advertisements and magazines, on the sides of ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters. These include all sorts of butts: imported butts, domestic butts; white, yellow, black, and brown; big, small, fat, and thin; smooth and coarse, young and old, fake and real—every shape and size in a bedazzling variety. Nowadays women’s bare butts aren’t worth much, since they can be found virtually everywhere. But back then things were different. It used to be that women’s bottoms were considered a rare and precious commodity that you couldn’t trade for gold or silver or pearls. To see one, you had to go peeping in the public toilet—which is why you had a little hoodlum like Baldy Li being caught in the act, and a big hoodlum like his father losing his life for the sake of a glimpse.

Public toilets back then were different from today. Nowadays you wouldn’t be able to spy on a woman’s butt in a toilet even if you had a periscope, but back then there was only a flimsy partition between the men’s and women’s sections, below which there was a shared cesspool. On the other side of the partition the sounds of women peeing and shitting seemed disconcertingly close. So instead of squatting down where you should, you could poke your head under the partition, suspending yourself above the muck below by tightly gripping the boards with your hands and your legs. With the nauseating stench bringing tears to your eyes and maggots crawling all around, you could bend over like a competitive swimmer at the starting block about to dive into the pool, and the deeper you bent over, the more butt you would be able to see.

That time Baldy Li snared five butts with a single glance: a puny one, a fat one, two bony ones, and a just-right one, all lined up in a neat row, like slabs of meat in a butcher shop. The fat butt was like a fresh rump of pork, the two bony ones were like beef jerky, while the puny butt wasn’t even worth mentioning. The butt that Baldy Li fancied was the just-right one, which lay directly in his line of sight. It was the roundest of the five, so round it seemed to curl up, with taut skin revealing the faint outlines of a tailbone. His heart pounding, he wanted to glimpse the pubic area on the other side of the tailbone, so he continued to lean down, his head burrowing deeper under the partition. But just as he was about to catch a glimpse of her pubic region, he was suddenly nabbed.

A man named Victory Zhao, one of the two Men of Talent in Liu Town, happened to enter the latrine at that very moment. He spotted someone’s head and torso burrowing under the partition and immediately understood what was going on. He therefore grabbed Baldy Li by the scruff of his neck, plucking him up as one would a carrot. At that time Victory Zhao was in his twenties and had published a four-line poem in our provincial culture center’s mimeographed magazine, thereby earning himself the moniker Poet Zhao. After seizing Baldy Li, Zhao flushed bright red. He dragged the fourteen-year-old outside and started lecturing him nonstop, without, however, failing to be poetic: “So, rather than gazing at the glittering sea of sprouted greens in the fields or the fishes cavorting in the lake or the beautiful tufts of clouds in the blue sky, you choose instead to go snooping around in the toilet. . . .”

Poet Zhao went on in this vein for more than ten minutes, and yet there was still no movement from the women’s side of the latrine. Eventually Zhao became anxious, ran to the door, and yelled for the women to come out. Forgetting that he was an elegant man of letters, he shouted rather crudely, “Stop your pissing and shitting. You’ve been spied upon, and you don’t even realize it. Get your butts out here.”

The owners of the five butts finally dashed out, shrieking and weeping. The weeper was the puny butt not worth mentioning. A little girl eleven or twelve years old, she covered her face with her hands and was crying so hard she trembled, as if Baldy Li hadn’t peeped at her but, rather, had raped her. Baldy Li, still standing there in Poet Zhao’s grip, watched the weeping little butt and thought, What’s all this crying over your underdeveloped little butt? I only took a look because there wasn’t much else I could do.

A pretty seventeen-year-old was the last to emerge. Blushing furiously, she took a quick look at Baldy Li and hurried away. Poet Zhao cried out for her not to leave, to come back and demand justice. Instead, she simply hurried away even faster. Baldy Li watched the swaying of her rear end as she walked, and knew that the butt so round it curled up had to be hers.

Once the round butt disappeared into the distance and the weeping little butt also left, one of the bony butts started screeching at Baldy Li, spraying his face with spittle. Then she wiped her mouth and walked off as well. Baldy Li watched her walk away and noticed that her butt was so flat that, now that she had her pants on, you couldn’t even make it out.

The remaining three—an animated Poet Zhao, a pork-rump butt, and the other jerky-flat butt—then grabbed Baldy Li and hauled him to the police station. They marched him through the little town of less than fifty thousand, and along the way the town’s other Man of Talent, Success Liu, joined their ranks. Like Poet Zhao, Success Liu was in his twenties and had had something published in the culture center’s magazine. His publication was a story, its words crammed onto two pages. Compared with Zhao’s four lines of verse, Success Liu’s two pages were far more impressive, thereby earning him the nickname Writer Liu. Liu didn’t lose out to Poet Zhao in terms of monikers, and he certainly couldn’t lose out to him in other areas either. Writer Liu was on his way to buy rice when he saw Poet Zhao strutting toward him with a captive Baldy Li, and Liu immediately decided that he couldn’t let Poet Zhao have all the glory to himself. Writer Liu hollered to Poet Zhao as he approached, “I’m here to help you!”

Poet Zhao and Writer Liu were close writing comrades, and Writer Liu had once searched high and low for the perfect encomia for Poet Zhao’s four lines of poetry. Poet Zhao of course had responded in kind and found even more flowery praise for Writer Liu’s two pages of text. Poet Zhao was originally walking behind Baldy Li, with the miscreant in his grip, but now that Writer Liu hustled up to them, Poet Zhao shifted to the left and offered Writer Liu the position to the right. Liu Town’s two Men of Talent flanked Baldy Li, proclaiming that they were taking him to the police station. There was actually a station just around the corner, but they didn’t want to take him there; instead, they marched him to one much farther away. On their way, they paraded down the main streets, trying to maximize their moment of glory. As they escorted Baldy Li through the streets they remarked enviously, “Just look at you, with two important men like us escorting you. You really are a lucky guy.” Poet Zhao added, “It’s as if you were being escorted by Li Bai and Du Fu. . . .”

It seemed to Writer Liu that Poet Zhao’s analogy was not quite apt, since LiBai and Du Fu were, of course, both poets, while Liu himself wrote fiction. So he corrected Zhao, saying, “It’s as if Li Bai and Cao Xueqin were escorting you. . . .”

Baldy Li had initially ignored their banter, but when he heard Liu Town’s two Men of Talent compare themselves to Li Bai and Cao Xueqin, he couldn’t help but laugh. “Hey, even I know that Li Bai was from the Tang dynasty while Cao was from the Qing dynasty,” he said. “So how can a Tang guy be hanging out with a Qing guy?” The crowds that had gathered alongside the street burst into loud guffaws. They said that Baldy Li was absolutely correct, that Liu Town’s two Men of Talent might indeed be full of talent, but their knowledge of history wasn’t a match even for this little Peeping Tom. The two Men of Talent blushed furiously, and Poet Zhao, straightening his neck, added, “It’s just an analogy.”

“Or we could use another analogy,” offered Writer Liu. “Given that it’s a poet and a novelist escorting you, we should say we are Guo Moruo and Lu Xun.” The crowd expressed their approval. Even Baldy Li nodded and said, “That’s more like it.”

Poet Zhao and Writer Liu didn’t dare say any more on the subject of literature. Instead, they grabbed Baldy Li’s collar and denounced his hooligan behavior to one and all while continuing to march sternly ahead. Along the way, Baldy Li saw a great many people tittering at him, including some he knew and others he didn’t. Poet Zhao and Writer Liu took time to explain to everyone they met what had happened, appearing even more polished than talk-show hosts. And those two women who had had their butts peeped at by Baldy Li were like the special guests on their talk shows, looking alternately furious and aggrieved as they responded to Poet Zhao and Writer Liu’s recounting of events. As the women walked along, the one with a fat butt suddenly screeched, having noticed her own husband among the spectators, and started sobbing as she complained loudly, “He saw my bottom and god knows what else! Whip him!” 

Everyone laughed and turned to look at the husband, who was standing there motionless, flushed and frowning. Poet Zhao and Writer Liu stopped Baldy Li and, gripping his clothes, dragged him up to the unfortunate husband, as if presenting a meat bone to a dog. The fat woman continued to wail, urging her husband to beat Baldy Li up: “My bottom is for your eyes only, but now this hooligan has seen it, too. What am I going to do? Whip him! Scratch out his eyes! Why are you just standing there? Aren’t you ashamed?”


All the spectators burst out laughing, and even Baldy Li tittered. He was thinking that this man was losing face, not on Baldy Li’s account but, rather, because of this wife of his. The wife started shrieking again, saying, “Look at him, he even has the gall to laugh! He took advantage of me, and he’s happy about it! Why won’t you beat him? He’s humiliated you, and you still won’t take action?”


This man was Liu Town’s famous Blacksmith Tong. When Baldy Li was a young boy, he would often go to Tong’s shop to watch him work, and admire the sparks shooting off hammered metal. Now Tong was so furious that his complexion became darker than molten steel. He slapped Baldy Li across the face as if he were striking metal, slamming the teenager to the ground and knocking out two of his teeth, thereby filling his eyes with shooting stars and making his ears buzz for the next 180 days. This slap upside the head made Baldy Li feel that he had paid heavily for his transgression, and he swore to himself that if he ever encountered the blacksmith’s wife’s butt again, he would keep his eyes tightly shut and wouldn’t take a single look, even if he were offered all the gold and silver in the world.


After Baldy Li was smacked, Poet Zhao and Writer Liu continued to parade him through the streets with a black eye and a bloody nose. They circled Liu Town’s streets over and over again, walking right past the police station three times. By the end, even the police were standing outside their front door watching the show, but Poet Zhao and Writer Liu still refused to turn Baldy Li over to them. Zhao, Liu, and the remaining two women paraded Baldy Li around town until eventually the fresh pork-rump butt didn’t want to follow anymore and the dried-jerky one also lost interest. After the two of them went home, Poet Zhao and Writer Liu took Baldy Li through the town one last time, until their own legs and backs were sore and their throats dry. Only then did they deliver him to the police.


At the station, all five policemen rushed up and started questioning Baldy Li at once. After ascertaining the five women’s names, they started asking about each of them in detail, skipping over the little butt. They didn’t appear to be following police procedure at all but, rather, seemed more intent on getting the lowdown on the various butts.


When Baldy Li started explaining how he had peeped at the just-right, not-fat-not-skinny, so-round-it-curled-up butt, the policemen looked as though they were listening to a spine-tingler. This round-bottomed maiden, named Lin Hong, was a well-known beauty of Liu Town, and the policemen had often checked out her pretty little ass as she walked down the street. There were plenty of men who had examined her rear end with clothes on—but only Baldy Li had seen it in the flesh. The policemen realized that Baldy Li’s arrest presented them with a golden opportunity and therefore asked him about her bottom over and over again. Whenever he started describing the taut skin and slight rise of her tailbone, the policemen’s eyes all lit up like lightbulbs, but when he noted that he didn’t see much more, their eyes immediately dimmed as if the electricity had suddenly been cut. Their faces full of disappointment and frustration, the men pounded the table and shouted, “A full confession brings leniency, and holding back will only result in severe punishment! Now think carefully: What else did you see?”

With his heart in his throat, Baldy Li recounted how he had lowered himself a bit farther, trying to glimpse Lin Hong’s pubic area. His voice dropped to a whisper, and his listeners all held their breath. It was as if Baldy Li were back to his ghost story, but just as the ghost was about to appear, the story abruptly ended. Baldy Li explained that just as he had been on the verge of seeing Lin Hong’s pubic area, Poet Zhao had grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up, and as a result he hadn’t seen anything at all. Baldy Li said regretfully, “I missed it by just a hair. . . .”


When Baldy Li stopped, the five policemen at first couldn’t catch their breath and continued staring at him. Only when they realized that his lips had stopped moving did they finally understand that this was yet another story without an ending. They all had peculiar expressions, looking like five starving dogs who had just seen a freshly roasted duck fly out of their reach. One of them blamed Poet Zhao, saying, “This Zhao fellow—shouldn’t he have been sitting at home writing poetry? What was he doing in the latrine?”


Once the policemen realized that they couldn’t get anything more out of Baldy Li, they agreed to let him go home with his mother. Baldy Li told them his mother’s name was Li Lan and that she worked at the silk factory. A policeman walked out the main door of the station and started yelling out to people on the street, asking if any of them knew Li Lan: “You know, the one who works at the silk factory.” After hollering for five minutes or so, the officer finally found someone who was on his way to the factory. The passerby asked the policeman why he was looking for Li Lan, to which the policeman replied, “Just tell her to come to the station to pick up her hooligan son.”


Baldy Li stayed at the police station all afternoon, like a lost item waiting to be reclaimed. He sat on the long bench, watching the sunlight streaming in through the open front entrance. At first the ray of light on the cement floor was as wide as the door frame but then it became narrower and narrower, and eventually it disappeared altogether.


Baldy Li didn’t realize that he had already become famous and that everyone who walked by the station would come in to take a look at him—men and women, all tittering as they strained to see the guy who peeped at women’s butts in the public toilet. When no one happened to be gawking at him, one policeman after another would walk over, still hoping against hope, and slam his fist down on the table, asking sternly, “Think carefully, is there anything you forgot to report?”


It was night by the time Baldy Li’s mother finally showed up at the station. She hadn’t come earlier because she was afraid of people in the street pointing and talking about her. Fourteen years earlier Baldy Li’s father had brought her excruciating shame, and now her son had exacerbated her humiliation. Therefore, she waited until after dark, then put on a head scarf and a surgical mask and crept to the station. When she entered the front door, she took one look at her son and immediately averted her eyes. Cowering in front of the lone remaining policeman, she explained in a trembling voice who she was. The policeman, who was supposed to have already gone off duty, blew a gasket, shouting, “Do you realize what fucking time it is? It’s already eight o’clock and I haven’t even eaten yet, and furthermore I was supposed to see a movie tonight. I had to push and shove at the ticket booth just to get a ticket, and now what the hell am I going to be able to see? Even if I took a plane to the theater, I’d only get to see ‘The End’ flash on the screen.” Throughout this tirade, Baldy Li’s mother stood there cowering in front of the policeman, nodding at every curse, until finally he said, “Stop nodding your goddamn head and get the fuck out of my sight. I’m going to lock up.”


Outside the police station, Baldy Li’s mother walked silently, head bowed, along the dark side of the main street. He followed behind her, strutting and swinging his arms blithely, as if she had been the one caught in the latrine and not he. When they got home, Baldy Li’s mother walked into her room without saying a word, shut the door, and didn’t make another sound. Late that night, in his half-asleep state, Baldy Li thought he sensed herwalk up to his bed and, as on other nights, replace the blanket he had kicked off. Li Lan didn’t speak to her son for several days, until finally one rainy night she tearfully uttered a single phrase: “Chip off the old block.” She sat in the shadow of the dim light and recounted to Baldy Li in an even dimmer voice how his father had drowned while peeping at women’s butts in the public latrine. At the time, she had felt so ashamed that she had considered hanging herself, but she had resolved to live on only thanks to her newborn’s tears. She said that if she had known then that he would turn out the same as his father, she would have gone ahead and killed herself.



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