The books that stay with you, that you return to again and again, are those that seem miraculously to coincide with the events of your own life at the time that you first read them. Guo Xiaolu’s A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers was like that for me back in 2008. It may seem odd that a novel about a young Chinese peasant girl living in London reverberated for me so deeply, given that I am white, male, Australian, middle class and, alas, not particularly young. But like Guo’s protagonist, when I read A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary I was adrift in a language and culture not my own, living in Beijing and negotiating a relationship with a local across a cultural chasm that felt as wide as it was deep. Guo’s book perfectly captured the wonder, humour and frustration of physical and emotional intimacy with someone mentally living in a different world. Whole conversations in the book could have been lifted from my daily life. As I was to discover, Guo’s novels are rife with these complex cultural negotiations.
Although I knew little about Guo when I read A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary, her book conveyed the impression of being powerfully infused with autobiographical experience. Much literature is of course inflected by the life of its creator, but Guo’s novels up to and including A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary read like a working through of trauma, dislocation and exile. There are few fully fleshed out characters in her early books, no range of subjectivities offering different perspectives on the events of the plot. Instead, we have a direct, first person account of experience rendered raw. This impression is only reinforced by Guo’s new memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, which retraces the period in which her early novels are set – China of the eighties and nineties – and shows just how closely their stories reflect the author’s own.
Part one of Once Upon a Time in the East relates Guo’s desolate childhood in coastal Shitang – the ‘Village of Stone’ that provided the title for her English-language debut (translated from the original Chinese in 2004). Her memories are stripped of the vaguely surreal touches that lent Village of Stone its quality of whimsy tinged with menace, but many of the characters, events and impressions are the same. There’s the frail, half-blind grandmother keeping her granddaughter alive on a diet of boiled kelp and soup. There’s the sullen, violently abusive grandfather forever clutching a bottle of hard liquor, sitting in his barren second-storey bedroom contemplating the sea. And there is the little girl wondering why she doesn’t have parents like her friends next door. The horrific sexual abuse dramatized in Village of Stone also recurs in Once Upon a Time, but it comes later, after Guo is suddenly reclaimed by her parents at age seven and taken to a nearby town for schooling. The opening sections of Once Upon a Time provide a fascinating insight into Chinese rural life during the immediate post-Mao years, but they make for unrelentingly grim reading.
The most engrossing, upbeat section of her new memoir details Guo’s years studying at the Beijing Film Academy and writing scripts for television soaps after her graduation. Her account of earning a place at the academy should be compulsory reading for those who complain about the pressures of Australian schooling. Despite having no family connection to China’s tightly knit film world, the teenage Guo rote-learnt the history of cinema from books borrowed from her hometown library, before journeying to the distant capital to compete with over 6000 applicants for a place at the prestigious film school. She made it some way through the fortnight of intensive interviews and exams before being eliminated for failing to adequately explain Stanislavski’s method. She returned home and studied for another twelve months, before enduring the entire ordeal again, this time fighting off 7100 other hopefuls to win one of seven places.
Guo relocated to Beijing just as the country was shaking off the agony of the Tiananmen Massacre, plunging headlong into a period of rapid social change and even faster economic growth. Soaking up European art house cinema and Hollywood classics at the Film Academy, she hung out with performance artists on the Great Wall as they dodged police and informers to stage their work. She recalls being present for the now-legendary 12 Square Metres performance by Zhuang Huan, in which the artist ‘covered his body in a visceral liquid of fish and honey to attract flies’ and squatted for hours in a squalid public toilet. Guo’s earliest filmic images were of Zhuang and his friends hanging around the East Village, an artists’ slum long since wiped from Beijing’s map that has now passed into the city’s folklore.
These heady days in the capital recall the frenetic pace of Guo’s first published novel, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, which focused on a young peasant girl working as a film extra in Beijing (a revised English version was published in 2008). Like Guo, the protagonist of her novel wanders the still-intact alleyways of old Beijing enjoying the new Western-style bars, dancing to rock music and dating the smattering of foreign men who were just beginning to appear on the city’s streets. It’s a world away from the towers and sweeping ring roads of today’s capital, and Guo’s memoir, as well as her earlier novel, memorialise a period in which money had yet to trump creativity as the city’s driving force. The poignant irony is that Guo felt she had to leave China to realise the opportunities the country’s social transformation afforded her, as every one of her film scripts written after graduation was rejected by the Chinese censors. ‘The layers of self-censorship we had to engage in before the official censorship came to get us had already strangled any creative work,’ she laments. When Beijing was awarded the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games, the old city was rapidly transformed into a ‘moonscape of construction sites,’ and Guo felt she had to get out.
Meanwhile, back in her parent’s hometown her father was diagnosed with throat cancer. Guo’s visit to the hospital is one of the memoir’s most moving passages:
The sheer number of patients was shocking… women and children who had never smoked in their lives were dying of lung cancer. Most likely because of the pollution – Zhejiang was a fast-developing industrial province with countless large-scale factories… So much of what the ‘New China’ is about is getting rich at any cost. And what’s waiting for us? Cancer on a national level.
China’s transformation allowed Guo to pursue opportunities her parents or grandparents could never have dreamed of, but economic development has exacted a heavy price. Her father’s inability to speak after the removal of his larynx is a pitiful image of ordinary peoples’ powerlessness to moderate the ferocious pace of change.
Shortly after her father’s diagnosis, Guo applied for and won a Chevening Scholarship to study film in Britain. Those familiar with A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers will recognise the immense culture shock she describes upon arrival in the UK. If Westerners are often grossly ignorant of even the most basic tenets of Chinese culture, Guo’s image of the West before her arrival illustrates the extent to which film and television had painted an idealised vision of British life for those in People’s Republic:
My mind was instantly filled with images from The Forsyte Saga – one of the most watched English television programmes on the Chinese internet. The wealthy housewives of Beijing in particular loved the fancy houses and rich people dressed in elegant costumes riding about on white horses.
Reality hit as soon as she left Heathrow Airport:
As I looked out at the streets through the rain-drenched window of the taxi, it smelled damp and soggy… The sky was dim, and the city drew a low and squat outline against the horizon: not every impressive.
Guo mined the sense of dislocation she felt during her initial years in Britain for A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers , the first novel she wrote in English. She turned her intense struggle with the language to her advantage by placing it at the centre of the novel’s structure and story. It begins in the broken English of a new arrival, a peasant girl sent by her newly rich parents to study abroad. The narration gradually becomes more articulate as the young woman acquires proficiency in her second tongue. As with 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, the protagonist’s experiences echo many of Guo’s own, and the episodic narrative reads like a series of interlinked short stories. Unlike her earlier novels, A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary is also, in parts, very funny – and heartrending for anyone who has lived through the kinds of cross-cultural romantic struggles the book details.
Although centred on a relationship, A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers, like all Guo’s work, employs an earthy tone and stripped back approach. Unsurprisingly her formative influences were American writers such as Hemingway and Kerouac. Fittingly for a novelist whose characters have so often moved between cultures and tongues, Guo initially encountered these foreign works in Chinese translations. She explains that the lack of tenses or verb conjugations in Mandarin imbued the writing of these US authors with an immediacy that was disappointingly absent when Guo re-read their work in English years later. It is these kinds of details that make Guo’s writing such a rich source of insight into the productive collision of cultures that has played out since China opened to the world. As the country emerged from decades of cultural isolation under Mao, outside ideas and influences were eagerly consumed, but at the same time China was still sufficiently sequestered in the eighties and nineties for these shards of foreign culture to spark a generative frisson as they entered. Contact with the outside world was not something taken for granted by Guo’s generation, and her writing reflects this very particular historical moment.
Once Upon a Time’s focus on Guo’s youth creates the impression that the memoir is a rewriting of her early work from a more distanced perspective, a return to the traumas that have fuelled her creativity even as they have marred her personal life. Where Village of Stone heavily fictionalised the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, for example, here Guo confronts it head on, naming the man she claims molested and raped her repeatedly as a child, and writing at length about the impact these horrendous events have had on her attitude towards sex and relationships. There’s a sense of catharsis and the purging of old demons, especially in the first half of the book.
Unfortunately, the detailed account of the genesis of her first novels is matched by a perfunctory treatment of her later work. Her second English-language novel – UFO in Her Eyes (2009) – is barely mentioned, despite signalling an important shift in her focus and style. A Kafkaesque satire of contemporary Chinese authoritarianism, UFO in Her Eyes unfolds through a disjointed set of official documents and diary entries, detailing a government investigation into a UFO sighting in a remote Chinese village. Although not entirely successful, it marked an important departure in Guo’s writing, as she moved beyond the autobiographically inspired first-person narratives of her early career, to evoke multiple perspectives of characters from a range of social and political backgrounds. The book’s absence in the memoir is puzzling.
The changes to her style marked out by UFO in Her Eyes were more fully realised in Guo’s most recent and sophisticated novel, I Am China (2014), which represents a giant leap in terms of thematic and stylistic complexity. Spanning several decades and two continents, I Am China traces the parallel journeys of the rock star–activist Jian, and the poet Mu, as they meet in Beijing in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen protests and attempt to hold on to the love and idealism that binds them through the ensuing years of struggle and change. As in Guo’s previous novel, the story is related via fragments of text – here mostly letters and diary entries – but the plot is given an added layer of mystery and a cross-cultural perspective by the figure of Iona, a Scottish translator trying to make sense of Jian and Mu’s writings for a British publisher. I Am China is a masterfully constructed, deeply moving story about the corrosive effects of authoritarianism on creativity and human relationships, as well as an affecting commentary on the emotional emptiness of modern life in the West. Once again, however, there is little in the new memoir about the novel’s creation, or the book’s obvious references to real life incidents and characters, such as the Chinese rocker Cui Jian. There is also no mention of the influence of Vasily Grossman’s under-appreciated Life and Fate, a Soviet masterpiece that similarly depicts the contortions citizens go through to survive in an authoritarian state. Instead, I Am China is discussed primarily in terms of the serious eye problems Guo experienced during its writing – a personally significant development no doubt, but not particularly illuminating for readers interested in her work.
There is also, surprisingly, very little in Once Upon a Time in the East about Guo’s filmmaking. Although better known as an author, a number of her features and documentaries have garnered awards and critical acclaim, including her adaption of UFO in Her Eyes (2011). My first encounter with Guo’s work was a viewing of her directorial debut, How is Your Fish Today? (Jintian de yu, zenmeyang?), at the Sydney Film Festival in 2007. The film’s tone is as idiosyncratic as its title, and I can still remember the bemusement I felt as I left the State Theatre after the screening. But something about the tale of a depressed scriptwriter journeying to China’s northernmost village made me think that this was a talent to watch. Some of her films in the years since, such as the excellent documentary Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009), have taken a notably more sociological approach to portraying contemporary Chinese society. The only screen work discussed in any depth in Once Upon a Time in the East is the documentary that Guo shot about her parent’s first visit to Europe, which isn’t even named in the book (for the record the film is We Went to Wonderland, released in 2008).
Once Upon a Time is the East is, then, a vexingly imbalanced memoir – rich in detailed descriptions of Chinese life in the eighties and nineties, increasingly cursory as it approaches the present. It does, however, effectively sketch a ground-level view of a period little understood in the West, as China opened up and embarked on its ascendency to global economic power. More broadly, Once Upon a Time in the East continues Guo’s ongoing account of the encounter between Chinese and Western culture that is one of the defining fault lines of our times. The inside cover describes the memoir as, ‘A Wild Swans for a new generation,’ and despite the eye-rolling predictability of this claim – typical of the reductive manner in which Chinese literature is often discussed in the English-speaking West – the comparison with Jung Chang’s bestseller is not entirely spurious. Although Guo came of age during China’s ‘Reform and Opening Up’– a very different era to the Maoist years described in Wild Swans – her story, like Chang’s, is emblematic of the way in which societal changes in China have indelibly marked the lives of ordinary citizens. Unlike Chang’s work, however, Guo’s writing is about more than just her home country. Her upbringing in a tiny village far from China’s urban elite, and her late transposition to Britain, allows Guo to bring a coolly analytical eye to both cultures, dissecting the strengths and foibles of each with wit and precision. In short, the complex process of cross-cultural negotiation Guo traces in her novels makes her a keen commentator on the experience of globalisation for everyday people, and the impact on global culture of China’s opening and rise.
Personally, I can attest to the strength of Guo’s lexical and cross-cultural insights. The relationship I was wrestling with when I first read A Concise Chinese–English Dictionary for Lovers later led to marriage – and we’re still going strong nearly a decade later. It was Guo’s book that helped me glimpse, for the first time, the world through the eyes of my lover. I’ve encountered no other writer who captures the emotional complexities of this contemporary collision of cultures, empathetically straddling both sides of the divide – and in doing so, bringing them closer together.