Yu Hua’s Brothers begins in the toilet. Yes, really.

And there, you will probably know whether you want to read this book or not. Because right from the start, your senses are assaulted with fecal matter and butts in a public toilet in Liu Town, China. Teenaged Baldy Li is the centre of the scandal, after being caught peeping at women in the public toilet. However, our young entrepreneur manages to benefit from this, as he had caught sight of the butt of the town’s beauty.

At this point, I was tempted to return this book (and how easy that would be, since this was an Overdrive e-book) but there was something about Baldy Li and his gutsy nature that made me curious. And then there is his brother (stepbrother, really, not even related by blood at all) Song Gang, a very different kind of boy, quiet, obedient, earnest, the kind who doesn’t quite make a story. But in this case, he is the brother of Baldy Li, who becomes Liu Town’s tycoon, and Yu alternates between Baldy Li’s rambunctious, wild ride to the top and Song Gang’s more respectable, slow journey towards happiness. Song Gang has, after all, married that very town beauty whom Baldy Li (and every other man) coveted. Baldy Li’s resulting vasectomy is dramatic but illustrates his all-or-nothing attitude that eventually leads him to success. And that’s just the first part of it. Search reviews of this book and you can probably find out how the rest of the story goes.

Brothers takes the reader through the Cultural Revolution to present day China. It is a story of hardship and of love, and also a satire of an ever changing China. It is sweet and harsh, with a lot of bawdy mixed in. It is 640 pages long. And not for everyone. Despite finishing each and every of its 640 pages, I’m still not quite sure it was for me. It is, however, a really popular book in China, and a controversial one at that. Yu, a former dentist, said in an interview with the New York Times: “If the right-wingers hate ‘Brothers’ for its depiction of capitalism in China, the left dislikes it for its depiction of the Cultural Revolution.”

However, I am still interested in checking out some of Yu Hua’s other books, especially To Live which won the Grinzane Cavour Award (check out its great list of books!) in 1998. Zhang Yimou directed the film adaptation, which  won the Grand Jury and Best Actor prizes at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.

Title: Brothers
Author: Yu Hua
Translated from Chinese by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow, Carlos Rojas
Originally published in 2005 (Published in English in 2009)

I read this book for my own personal challenge: February in Translation!


  1. I was thinking as I read your review that it reminded me of the movie To Live in structure and it turns out it’s not a coincidence. I actually found that film too episodic for my tastes. Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern was good and creepy though.


  2. I wasn’t a fan of this one. For some reason all the toilet references were far more off putting than any violence I’ve read in books like Out. I don’t think I knew enough about Chinese culture to really appreciate this one, but I look forward to your thoughts on To Live.


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