China's Youth: Ravenous for the West, With No Memory of the Past
Xiaolu Guo, 35, is one of the most widely read international Chinese writers, whose novels such as 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth and A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers have been translated into many languages. She is also a filmmaker whose work has been shown at the Cannes and the Sundance film festivals. She spoke with Michael Skafidas, editor of the Greek edition of NPQ.
NPQ | As a writer you are dealing above all with the anxiety of youth. You are part of the last generation which came of age in China before the Internet boom. Your last best-selling novel, 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, revolves around the romantic idea of self-discovery. Where does your journey begin?
Xiaolu Guo | My family was born in a little fishing village in the south of China and my grandparents belonged to that generation of fishermen who went out to fish in the open sea without any knowledge of the weather forecast. So the whole village was mainly inhabited by widows because most of the men died at sea.
My own father survived the sea but he was sent to a prison camp. My childhood is like any another kid's childhood of the 1970s' and 1980s' generation. We were brought up without knowing much about the world. I became a writer as a reaction to this completely bleak and lonely environment.
There were very few books around. So I started writing a diary and poetry. Around that time I discovered Sylvia Plath. I read her poems about death, something shocking for me as a Communist kid. In China we can't even choose our lives and then someone in America, in a place called Boston, a young woman, can choose to die by herself. That was something! That inspired me.
I wrote something about Plath's death when I was 14 without even knowing where America was. It got published in a national poetry magazine and three weeks later I received a large amount of money as payment. I was shocked and that's how it all started. I earned the money!
Yet, a young poet in a village where nobody knows how to write is not a hopeful situation. I left for Beijing when I was 18. I was longing for civilization, to be part of an intellectual environment.
NPQ | The most commercially successful writer in China today, the 24-year-old Guo Jingming, is often portrayed as the Madonna of the Chinese Internet pop-minded generation. Even though his books are not appreciated by the critics, they sell by the millions. According to one American critic, they "exemplify the social ideas of the new China—commercialism and individualism." What's your take on that?
Guo | Individualism is a quite complex concept in China. If you are over 15 years old and you live in the big cities, you are part of the Internet generation, an experience which literally wipes away the Chinese traditions. Young people in China thus have their own fictional characters nowadays—they pay in cyberspace to support these fictional characters in online video games. The quality of Jingming's books reflects that reality. They addresses, above all, the Internet generation with surreal, absurd, fairy-tale types of characters and settings. It's another way for Chinese youth to escape the hard reality that materialism is creating. Clearly there is a void in our reality, something is missing.
NPQ | Part of your work, it seems to me, is an attempt to locate and extract what is missing. You have said "memory is identity, but it is also mythology." This notion of memory as the provider of identity through the redemption of time almost brings us back to Marcel Proust.
Guo | It's funny you said that because I was just reading the last chapter of Proust's Time Regained. I still haven't finished reading all of Proust's volumes after 20 years. But I guess that's the purpose of his work, to be read and appreciated through time. The whole text is such a blurry memoir.
What is missing in today's youth is that there is no memory, which is what establishes identity. That is because, in China, the past has been lost for this generation. Not just factual memory, but emotional memory. In this sense of a blank past, and thus open future, China today is better at being American than America. If China eats the world, it will be because its youth are so ravenous for the West's very own bright, shiny, romantic dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness at any cost. In terms of modernization, and the speed of change, China is completely American. Perhaps it's even faster than America. China has thousands of years of history, but then it can turn into this shiny, brand-new, full-of-concrete nation in little time. The taste and smell of today's China has nothing to do with its past.
Signs of the past have been reshaped so much by the Socialist regime that certain parts of China have become almost unrecognizable. The architecture, for example, in the whole of China is Western, Manhattan style. It's impossible for a peasant to connect with it. A peasant's memory has to rely on familiar objects—a house, a glass, a bed. But what happens now in China is that we don't use our old-style beds anymore, people don't like the old-style houses. We live in a completely Americanized environment, and that is an alienating environment.
It's like the entire nation is trying to forget about the past.
The new generation doesn't even have to remember because they are growing up in this kind of brand-new environment, just like kids do in the United States. So they have no reference of the past.
The power to reshape memory should not be ignored. It's almost like a technique of wiping out some parts of the brain so memories disappear. Even young intellectuals who try to remember don't have the references any longer.
NPQ | In 1958 there were 8,000 historical buildings in Beijing. By the end of the next year there were only 78 left. It was during the Mao years that the old city was destroyed. You captured this transformation successfully in your documentary The Concrete Revolution, which follows the legions of the displaced construction workers who came from all parts of China to build the new capital.
Guo | The magnitude of this displacement was heartbreaking. In Beijing all these countless workers found no links with their hometowns. No emotional reflection, no love, no woman. They experienced a profound rootlessness.
On the other hand, I don't like to overstate these things, because, in a strange way, it sounds like propaganda. Blaming modernization for everything is not healthy.
The rebuilding of Beijing was foremost an economic ambition. In order to achieve a level where we could have an equal conversation with the West, especially America and Europe, China had to view itself as strong as America. Only when the quality of life is equal, and people's education can improve, can we have a conversation. And the West will have to learn Chinese as well. I don't think there is a conversation yet.
NPQ | What about the spirit of nationalism that is part of the new China, in particular the Chinese anger over the international criticism about Tibet?
Guo | Extreme nationalism, of course, is very dangerous. I was sick of it when I was growing up, but China was always like that. If you live in Chinese society, it becomes part of your world. But, of course, that could also be a stereotype if you judge it from abroad.
Chinese people are very kind and generous, especially in the provinces. Especially if you are a foreigner they will do anything to help you. But this is a society that from very early on has been told "love your country beyond anything else."
It's hard and it takes time to beat this mentality. But I don't think it's happening strictly in China. There are ways, for example, to compare the Western media with the Chinese propaganda. There is a certain propaganda that is the product of the American media machine of the (President George) Bush era and we should not forget that. When I travel around the world, I see the problem of nationalism everywhere, in America as well.
NPQ | Have you been to Tibet?
Guo | Yes, I have. I am sorry to say, I think that the Westerner sees Tibet in a mythological way. It's a real place. It's a very difficult place, in terms of the high altitude and geography and its poor economy. It's a place that has always been used by different governments.
They say it is a beautiful place, but "beautiful" is a middle-class concept. How can a place be beautiful on top of its people's poverty? It's like when middle-class whites go to North Africa to find prostitutes.
"Beautiful Africa!" What does it mean? Beautiful is a tricky political concept and I always get very impatient and anxious when I hear it. So, I think that the representation of Tibet in the West is quite ideological and romanticized. Tibet is also a different culture, and that's why I can't say much about it. Also, I have a Chinese passport and I need to live in China.
NPQ | A critic speculated recently that "novels in China are coming into their own...new freedoms of expression are being claimed by their authors." How does this resonate with the current debate about the repression of intellectuals in China?
Guo | The more repressed, the more creative artists can be. One of my favorite authors is Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of Master and Margarita. It's a brilliant novel reflecting this very idea of repression. A devil arrives in Communist Moscow and he starts deconstructing it. It's such an imaginative, vivid and romantic novel about the love affair between Master and Margarita and the fight with the Stalinist regime. I always think that in a strange way repression brings out the best of an author. You cannot express yourself publicly, you cannot travel abroad, you cannot do many things, so all this accumulated energy finds its way onto the page. If you are an artist you always find a technique to externalize this. You might be banned, but the work is there.
NPQ | Has your work been banned in China?
Guo | All my films cannot be shown but my books so far are not banned. Some sentences were taken out, but I allowed that because it did not affect the overall structure of these books. But I have a new novel coming up and that might be banned.
NPQ | What is it about?
Guo | It's called UFO in Her Eyes and it's about a very poor village in China, so poor everyone is living in ignorance and poverty. One day a peasant woman sees a UFO arriving at her doorstep, she faints and she loses her memory. The whole story is about everyone in the village going mad after the appearance of the UFO. It's a Kafkaesque kind of story in a Chinese environment.
NPQ | A few years ago the Nobel Prize was awarded to Gao Xingjian. Did that have an impact on the conditions of the writers in China?
Guo | I don't think there was any practical impact. It was just an impact in terms of China's international reputation, but other than that it did not change things in the way Chinese writers are perceived in China.
But it was good enough for me that the Nobel Committee awakened the ignorance of Westerners so they could see there is Chinese literature.
I don't know how lasting or effective that attention was. Chinese stories are so distant from the Western experience, they sound almost exotic. Sometimes I hear that Westerners cannot follow a Chinese novel because they don't share its sensibility. On the other hand, Chinese people are very well acquainted with international literature.
American, English, French and ancient Greek literature are all popular in China. We are 1.4 billion people and the young now study all kinds of languages, and that's a big stimulation. There is also great curiosity to know about the world at large, and there is great admiration for contemporary art and literature. Even in places like the town where I grew up, it's easier to find and read foreign literature. Every single young Chinese knows all about Greek mythology nowadays, and that's impressive.