China fragments

Those of a certain generation will remember the 'compare and contrast' exercises we were given in English, and these two books would fit that brief precisely. Xiaolu Guo was on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list; Yiyun Li featured on its American counterpart. Guo's book is a memoir with essays; Li's is essays with a memoiristic bent (the press release indicates that a memoir proper will be published later in the year).

Author Yiyun Li
Author Yiyun Li

There are clear similarities in that both write about the process of exiling oneself, about how to write, think and dream in a new language, and about problematic relationships with mothers. But there are fundamental differences as well. Li has never written “literature” in Chinese, while Guo’s early works, such as Twenty Fragments Of A Ravenous Youth and Village Of Stone, were in her native tongue. Li grew up in Beijing, while Guo was adopted for two years, then sent to her grandparents in a fishing village on the East China Sea, eventually being taken back by her parents at the age of seven. Guo reflects a great deal on her Chinese literary heritage – the different sections are separated by a retelling of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey To The West, better known as Monkey – and although Li mentions en passant reading the poetic classics, her essays focus on her Western idols; William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen and Katherine Mansfield. Guo discusses her background in film-making; Li her former career as an immunologist.

But the differences are more deep-structured than superficial, in that Guo and Li represent two sides of an almost perpetual literary dichotomy; the Romantic and the Classical. Although Li writes movingly and affectingly about her own circumstances – the essays were born out of two spells in hospital for depression and speak openly about suicide – she writes towards a kind of selflessness. (One wonders how this will translate into the forthcoming memoir: she, like Guo, writes about the difficulties of the English “I” for Chinese speakers). Her prose is honed, balanced, precise. As she says in the opening essay, for her, “reticence is a natural state”. She discusses fatalism as both a carapace and a sepulchre. Guo is, in contrast, rebellious, flamboyant and fundamentally optimistic. It is no wonder that she was attracted to the xing wei yi shu movement, a combination of “behaviour art”, “shock art”, “body art” and “performance art”. When she writes about her Western influences, they are Walt Whitman, John O’Hara and Jack Kerouac. (Both, incidentally, have a fondness for Philip Larkin, and one can see a kind of strict melancholy in him that recalls the classics of Li Po and Tu Fu).

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Some of Guo’s narratives of herself are staggering. Her grandfather committed suicide by drinking DDT; her mother and father met when her father – a painter – was being “re-educated” during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was one of the Red Guards who humiliated and abused him. Her mother buried her son’s child in secret, so the family did not have to do so. She writes frankly and furiously about being sexually abused, and how endemic such abuse is in Chinese society – Li mentions glancingly the same fears.

Guo’s Romantic daring is exemplified in her first English language book, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, a book which capitalised on her lack of acquaintance with English, which was written in order to learn the language in which it is written. Li is the opposite: “My private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody’s concern, is that I disowned my native language”; English becomes her “private” language.

Li’s essays reveal a strange ambivalence: she is extremely self-conscious about her own thoughts, interrogating each idea in a manner strangely reminiscent of Maoist self-criticism sessions. “How much of your life is lived to be known to others?” she asks. Guo is more outspoken about her experiences of censorship, particularly when working in the Chinese soap-opera industry and in attempting to have her own films made.

A major theme in Guo’s memoir is self-creation – she writes: “The protagonists of all my favourite novels were orphans. They were parentless, self-made heroes. They had to create themselves.”

For Guo, Beijing was not the Forbidden Palace but the avant-garde; for Li, the avant-garde is found in writers we might consider conventional: John McGahern, Thomas Hardy, Stefan Zweig. Li asks “To take one’s private suffering into one’s own hands: Is it not a rebellion, too, a refusal to have one’s life measured against other lives?” Guo’s rebellion is overt, Li’s covert.

Both books are individually fascinating, but read in tandem they become even more so.

With the backdrop of China’s 20th and 21st centuries, they offer different answers to the same question: what does it mean to be revolutionary?