THE CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE
ONE RAINY NIGHT
by Ian Wallace, Edinburgh
On this side of George Street, here in Edinburgh
tonight, something [...] is taking place and you are
all very lucky people to be witnessing it. Someone
gifted and talented is before you. Someone who [...]
often gets described in terms of the challenges she
has overcome. This person, of course, is Xiaolu Guo,
and the obstacles she faced were those of being an
“alien” in another land and of not speaking the
language in which she now needs to survive.
Now, all of that is true. And it is remarkable that
she has not only survived but flourished, against all
the linguistic odds. Within a short space of time she
has had books published, films made, and is now for
the second time being asked to present her work at the
Edinburgh Book Festival. Quite astonishing for a
person arriving from China just a few years ago
speaking barely a word of English.
However, now all that has been explained, [...]
Xiaolu’s linguistic hurdle cannot and should not
protect or define her art. That must be judged on its
own merit. And when you do just that, you’ll still see
that Xiaolu’s ‘Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for
Lover’s” is a book that demands your attention.
Because it’s an artistic achievement that shines
regardless of the means by which it came into being.
Yes, it is of course true that a book with this title
is very much about language – about how it displays
the way in which we view each other and the world. A
book about how language can display the barriers we
face in living and loving – on all levels, public,
private and cultural. And it’s for those reasons that
it will delight and illuminate, regardless of the
author’s personal struggles. [...]
Xiaolu makes fabulous things. And that’s that.
There’s one other notion central to Xiaolu’s book I
must mention. And that is the enormous stature of
China’s intellectual ability and art. That this is
something which demands to seen as equal to anything
from the West, if we are ever to understand one
Just listen, for example, to the main character’s
indignation that English should not follow the same
precepts as Mandarin, which is portrayed as
grammatically superior. This is not something we are
used to hearing.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm, explains:
“…for at least two millennia the Chinese Empire, and
most of its inhabitants, considered China to be the
centre and model of world civilization.”
This is quite the opposite to the lazy Western view of
it being largely culturally backward and marginal. He
“China, quite correctly, saw its classical
civilization, art, script and social value system as
the acknowledged inspiration and model for others.”
Indeed, the Chinese characters denoting the nation of
China literally mean ‘centre of the Universe’.
And here is the frightening beauty of Xiaolu’s book.
This towering sense of cultural identity that flows
down to even the most intimate level can make or break
everything in someone’s life. As readers we can see
the possibilities of bridging this divide. As
protagonists, however, this is not so straightforward.
We must fight for it.
As Xiaolu shows, this is surely a fight worth having.