Speaking of Freedom
To escape China's censors, the author had to do more than just physically flee the country. She also shed the repression of her mother tongue.


by Julian B. Gewirtz
The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 6, 2017

Growing up poor in a coastal Chinese village in the 1970s and ’80s, Xiaolu Guo had scant evidence of Beijing’s drive to reform the centrally planned economy in the pursuit of wealth and global power. For her, these policies were heard more than seen: In school, she was drilled on the “Four Modernizations,” Deng Xiaoping’s agenda for China to modernize the fields of agriculture, industry, defense and science by the year 2000.

“In 2000 I would be twenty-seven years old,” she recalls in “Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China.” “How and where would I live? In a brand-new high-rise in Beijing or Shanghai? With a functioning flushing toilet and a microwave oven? Perhaps I would learn to drink Western wine in long-stemmed glasses.”

When the new millennium arrived, China had far surpassed what had seemed possible two decades earlier—and Ms. Guo had escaped her village for life as an artist in Beijing. On New Year’s Eve, she was at a party with film-school friends listening to a Rolling Stones song. “It was our new propaganda slogan,” she writes, wryly. “I can’t get no satisfaction, but I try and I try and I try.” China had modernized rapidly as a result of “reform and opening up,” as the Party catchphrase had it, but dissatisfaction and yearning were everywhere.

This unease animates “Nine Continents.” China is now the world’s second-largest economy and a global power, but the lived experiences of the countless individuals whose lives changed alongside their country remain difficult to comprehend. Ms. Guo’s memoir offers a haunting account of how China’s rapid shift from Maoist ideology to market-driven growth has simultaneously created extraordinary opportunities for the Chinese people and intensified their craving for meaning and purpose in the face of continuing authoritarian controls.

Ms. Guo is now an acclaimed novelist and filmmaker living in Britain. With immediacy and honesty, she recalls her escape from rural poverty, her discovery of an artistic calling and her decision to leave China at the age of 29. Given up as a baby amid the chaos of the late Mao period, Ms. Guo spent the first six years of her life with her illiterate grandparents in the fishing village of Shitang, until her parents returned to claim her. Ms. Guo admired her father, but her mother was frequently abusive and inscrutable: A Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, she refused to talk in detail about her experiences or feelings. “I would never know exactly what she did in those years,” Ms. Guo reflects. “It had already become a kind of myth to my generation.”

Such myths are numerous in contemporary China, where official history is carefully policed and recounting “problematic” episodes is discouraged. The result is a widespread suppression of memories, whether because of fear of political consequences or a personal desire to forget. Ms. Guo challenges this tendency by powerfully articulating her own memories.

She is especially vivid—and funny—in describing the moments when her childhood intersected with high politics. She recalls watching as an 8-year-old the televised trial of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was prosecuted after her husband’s death for abuses during the Cultural Revolution. Ms. Guo writes, “I asked my father: ‘Is she really the Chairman’s wife?’ ” Yes, her father said. “But how come? She looks just like a man!” Ms. Guo exclaimed. “She’s very ugly, and kind of spooky!” And yet the trial also awakened Ms. Guo to the pervasive sexism of Chinese society. Her mother dismissed Jiang as a “manipulating wife.” Later she calls Ms. Guo herself a “useless girl” and a “food bucket.” Worse, beginning when she was 12, Ms. Guo was sexually abused by a colleague of her father’s. “Stop crying! Every girl has to go through this!” he would tell her.

These struggles did not silence Ms. Guo—and her discovery of modern Chinese and Western literature as a teenager showed her the possibilities of telling one’s own story. Her career took off after she moved to Beijing. Ms. Guo clearly has an astonishing work ethic: In addition to her work as a filmmaker and screenwriter, she quickly published six books and found success amid the ferment of China’s quickly evolving cultural scene in the 1990s and early 2000s. She encountered new frustrations as well. The Censorship Bureau rejected one project for having “an overall sickly, melancholic tone” and lacking “hopeful realism.”

In fact, the problem of censorship soon became intolerable. She discovered that, in China, “creativity meant compromise,” that “self-censorship was like a shadow body embedded in every Chinese writer.” She applied for a scholarship to move to the United Kingdom, where, to escape the repression that seemed to weigh on her mother tongue, Ms. Guo began writing in English. The burden of learning a new language turned out to be far less acute, at least for her, than the burden of staying in China. Her first English-language novel, “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers,” was lauded when it appeared in 2007, and further acclaim followed: In 2013, shortly before the publication of “I Am China,” her most recent novel, Granta named her to its list of Best Young British Novelists.

Yet this success came with a cost, too. Because she decided to stay in England, she often feels like “a cultural orphan,” alienated from her origins. Even so, she builds a meaningful life, falls in love with an Australian expatriate and gives birth to a daughter, Moon. She reflects: “As the old Chinese saying goes, uproot a tree and it will die; uproot a man and he will survive.”

Ms. Guo has done far more than simply “survive” the hardships and dislocations of her life. She has triumphed—not only against the odds of her birth but against China’s contradictory system of harsh constraints and new “openings.” The country’s transformation has awakened many millions of imaginative, passionate and thoughtful individuals who want—and deserve—to give full-throated expression to their identities and ideas. Ms. Guo, for one, could do that only by leaving her homeland. “Nine Continents” shows the rewards of listening to an unleashed voice remembering and speaking with full freedom.


—Mr. Gewirtz, a fellow in history and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, is the author of “Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China.”






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