Writer Xiaolu Guo: Fragments of my life

The Independent, London, 10 May 2008

What does individuality really mean in the world’s most populous country? Here, an award-winning novelist grapples with the very personal question of identity


In some countries, a dog is supposed to carry ID, so is a cat. The police must be so busy with their work. One day, when there is no better job to do, each shrimp in the sea will receive its ID too – without it they won't be allowed to live in the water. I wonder, stupidly, is that how our society is going to be?

"Identity", most of the time, is something that exists but isn't chosen. And one has to accept it or else lose one's social position. I, too, have a noble piece of plastic – it says: Chinese, Hui Minority, Peasant Household. I've carried this piece of plastic for more than 30 years and I've never understood what is Hui and why I am a peasant. The only thing I know is that my family came from a rural Hui Muslim background, while most Chinese are Han Majority, which makes up 92 per cent of the 1.3 billion Chinese population.

I have been all right with that ID card. I learnt to speak Mandarin at schools and in Beijing, and I eat pork too. "No exception," as old communists would say; no one should be higher than someone else. Everyone is equal, man or woman, majority or minority.

But why Hui? Why peasant? We never had one piece of land to grow rice or anything. We lived in a fishing village; the only land was some beach with dead fishes. My family never told me why. If I belong to the Hui People, Muslims, of Turkish and Persian background, then why don't we live in the western part of China, on the grassland of Xinjiang, or in Qinghai, or in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region? And why don't we wear white caps or dress in robes like the Uyghurs or Muslims do?

No answers. No explanations. My grandfather committed suicide when I was about 10. He was a real Hui I suppose, but then he ate pork as we do. So why is he "the Hui" and where did he come from? No one knows. No one knows why he committed suicide. But how can nobody know that a man wants to die? I asked. The villagers answered me back with a blank face. In a "peasant" village like the one I came from, no one questions anything; there gossip floats in the air, then one day it dies, like the flies when the autumn wind arrives. So when my grandfather died, he didn't leave any trace of what he had been thinking about all his life. No will, no notes, no money, no nothing left for us to understand his resolution to die. He drank a bottle of DDT – the poison pesticide. To die by swallowing DDT, that's desperate. Did he not feel pain going through his stomach until he died? Or did he not care about pain and death any more?

Neither did my grandmother know why she was a Hui. She died soon after her husband in the Eighties. Both of them were illiterate, they didn't even know how to write their names. Then here comes my father, a convinced and confident believer in Communism. Perhaps he was already too late to know where he came from. A mute family. A deaf family. A family which doesn't know anything about its past. A family which lives in all the banality of day-to-day life, no questioning, no pondering. Our house was a house of silence – only coughing, a collective uniform of coughs, with the same pitch and the same confused emotion each time.

Someone said that our family originally came from Fujian province, from a village by the East China Sea where everyone is a Hui Muslim. The whole village migrated from north-west China, that is to say, from Xinjiang or Ningxia or Qinghai or Gansu. If so, then were our family or our ancestors indeed Turkish or Persian? I don't know. No one knows. Why ask? People stare at me – isn't life itself problematic enough? Why ask more questions?

Then one day, when I was 20 years old, I went to Xinjiang [on the border with Tibet]. We drove a broken Jeep across a vast grassland, or rather a desert with thorny grass. Hours and hours, nothing else apart from white stones and brown sand. Then I rode a black horse, the smallest horse the locals could provide. We were trying to reach Mount Tianshan, to make a TV commercial about a herbal medicine that can cure arthritis and infertility. There are supposed to be some beautiful flowers growing above the snow line, at something like 3,000m. It is a legendary flower we all knew from our songs and text books – perhaps only a few people have seen it, I don't know why. So, in my youthful age I was excited to find out about that magic flower. But the problem was my horse, it ran so unsteadily that it scared me to death. So I started to weep as soon as it ran. Finally we got to the bottom of the mountain and suddenly the horse turned direction and ran towards a river. Then it stopped in the middle of the river and started to drink water. I couldn't swim. I couldn't come down. I cried my heart out.

Eventually, we managed to find the snow flowers, but they were ugly; a huge and thick plant resembling a cabbage, the colour of grey snow – Darwin's surviving philosophy perhaps. We filmed the flowers and picked one as a sad souvenir.

Then my commercial director and I drove that Jeep for another two days, across miles and miles of land with no soul in sight, only yellow grass with an occasional cow. At last, a settlement appeared in the distance, with some horses grazing around it. We stopped nearby a tent and two Uyghur brothers greeted us. Seeing us sneezing and freezing, the older one went into his tent to prepare us some salty tea on the fireplace, which was the spot I desperately wanted to be close to. We gave him 200 yuan for our food, which must have been twice as much as he saw each month. So he sent his brother to kill a lamb for us. The younger one grabbed a long rope and jumped on his horse. He started to chase a sheep, in a procedure that looked beautiful and professional to us, and eventually caught one with his magic flying rope.

The animal was cooked in a huge pot with a handful of lake salt as the only other ingredient. We ate it holding a chunk of lamb in our left hand and a sharp knife in our right one, cutting out bits of juicy flesh as we bit into it. Then we drank the oily, salty broth too.

It was late. A woman arrived with some more bread. We realised the two brothers shared one wife, the three of them slept together in one bed. "We don't have money to find another woman," the older one said. I understood nothing about them and life on the snowy grassland, but I understood the poverty.

Then we went back to Beijing and edited the TV commercial. "Snow flower powder" – your life, your sex, your health!" That was the slogan. The tackiest work I've ever done. I survived for a few months, though, with the money they paid us.

Later, while at the Beijing Film Academy, I recalled the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and I realised I had not met any Hui. They say there are about 10 million Hui people in China – the western provinces like Qinghai, Xinjiang and Ningxia are supposed to be their homeland. But I remember I asked people living in the Gobi Desert or on Mount Tianshan, "Are you Hui?" – "No," answered their sunburnt faces standing in front of their tents. So where are the Huis? The people I am supposed to belong to?

Then two years later, in 1996, I went to Qinghai Province, to write a TV script about environmental issues. I was paid by the state-run TV station. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is much windier and colder than Xinjiang. I visited the famous Qinghai Lake, the largest inland saltwater lake in China. The water was as blue as in those old legends. I could see shrimps swimming in the waves. Fragile little creatures. Wild grass grew here and there, trying to survive in the salty soil. Here in this high land, everyone is from a minority: Tibetans, Mongols or Huis. I was the only one wearing a modern jacket and jeans, speaking Mandarin like a Han Chinese from the city, complaining about the cold wind. I was an art-college student, and the things I was eager to know were: who is Jean-Luc Godard, Hemingway? Did Pollock's painting technique start by accident or was he philosophical from the beginning? I was young, I wanted to be a world citizen and I didn't care about anything else.

Some years later, on an April day, I left China, and I ended up in a rich and dead village in England. Each house surrounded by an army of thorny roses. The place was called Beaconsfield, 30 minutes on the train from London. One day in the post office, a Beaconsfield lady asked me:

"Are you the girl from Hong Kong who visited here last year?"

"No, it's my first time here. And I'm from China."

"Oh, I'm sorry. You know, all Chinese look the same to us."

The Beaconsfield lady had a very posh accent. Her hair was perfect, as well as her outfit and her great golden buttons.

What she had said depressed me. I hated those pink roses around the big houses. But then I started to realise that identity is actually the most important thing in a foreign country. I wondered, if a person doesn't have an identity, would they have a face? A person without a face is a person without voice or memory. And that doesn't take into account how much a person tries to grow as an individual – with his own voice and his own face.

So here I am in decayed Europe, looking at the map of China. A map of China with English letters. That is confusing – when you read your own country's map in a foreign language, you are not sure any more where those places are supposed to be. I don't really find the China with its cities and towns, all I see are those borders: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and many other countries lost in the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. And on that map I'm still trying to find out why I am a Hui and why I am a peasant and why I am a Chinese.



Read original article







  © 2004 - 2008 Xiaolu Guo