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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Sixty years of communist rule have altered parts of China almost beyond recognition. This week, we're listening to three generations of Chinese writers who've lived through those changes and tried to make sense of them.

DAVID GREENE, host:

Yesterday, we met a man in his 60s who went from devoted revolutionary to democracy activist. This morning we'll meet a writer in his 40s.

INSKEEP: Yu Hua has sold over a million copies of his latest book called "Brothers." It captures the extremes of recent Chinese history, from the Cultural Revolution to almost unlimited capitalism.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

(Soundbite of music)

LOUISA LIM: An explosion of beauty pageants in the 1990s inspired Yu Hua's lewd, rambunctious, heartbreaking epic of modern China, "Brothers." There's 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.

In Chinese, the book came out in two volumes. The first laid bare the political excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the late '60s and '70s; the second was dedicated to the capitalist excesses of the past 30 years.

Yu Hua says for his generation, life can be divided into these two periods.

Mr. YU HUA (Author, "Brothers"): (Through Translator) The Cultural Revolution was a craziness for revolution, then we had a craziness to earn money. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: In a speech in Shanghai, he describes being assigned a job as a dentist. He spent five years peering inside people's mouths - one of the worst sights in the world, he says. An amiable-looking everyman, he has the audience laughing up gloriously.

He describes being driven to write by jealousy, jealousy at the easy life of the writers employed by the government's culture bureau. Nowadays, as a best-selling author, he relishes pushing boundaries. He forced his publisher to sign a contract agreeing not to change a single word of "Brothers."

Mr. HUA: (Through Translator) The contract was quite totalitarian. But in order to pursue their economic interests, the publishers had to shoulder some political risks.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: He charts the political madness in an earlier book, "To Live," which was made into a film by the famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Yu describes the abrupt change between then and now as the difference between Europe in the Middle Ages and today: 400 years of change crammed into just 40 years.

He believes this frenetic pace of change led to a breakdown in traditional values for which he blames capitalism rather than communism.

Mr. HUA: (Through Translator) 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.

LIM: 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, honest, hardworking Song Gang, who was going nowhere, and out of desperation had breast implants in order to sell breast enlargement potions.

Their differing fates sum up the divisions created by China's dog-eat-dog capitalism.

Mr. HUA: (Through Translator) If you're rich, you have succeeded. Otherwise, you have 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. LI RONG (Chinese Playwright): (Through Translator) Baldy Li holds a lot of political power. 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.

LIM: These unblinkered views of modern China's failings and excesses make Yu Hua controversial at home. Four different literature professors refused to be interviewed about the author, citing the sensitivity of the topic. He's also unpopular among young Chinese. Yet, he, in turn, is critical of those born in the '80s for being too nationalistic.

Mr. HUA: (Through Translator) 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.

LIM: And Yu Hua believes the financial crisis may change the way its citizens see China. It's time, he says, to look at the spiritual, moral and environmental costs of the so-called economic miracle.

Mr. HUA: (Through Translator) Over the past few years we have 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.

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

But now he sees "Brothers" in a different light: as an epitaph in novel form to China's 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.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: Tomorrow we'll hear from a 20-something Chinese writer who's earned $3.5 million in the last two years. Unlike the older writers, he says he doesn't care about history or politics.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Chinese Writer): (Through Translator) I really like my country and I'm honored to be Chinese. I don't really criticize society. I want to display the beautiful and bright side of society. I may touch on the negative side, but that's not my focus. I want to express what people cherish about society.

GREENE: For more on Louisa Lim's series about China and some of its leading writers, you can go to npr.org.

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