THE SCENE COULD run something like this: a group of Shanghai University students gather in a cafeteria on Monday morning to discuss what they did over the weekend.
If one of them quizzed classmate Guo Jingming, they might get the following reply: 'I flew to three different cities to promote my books. And I had to sign thousands of copies both days until my arm was too tired to write any more.'
On the mainland, 21-year-old Guo is as hot as Taiwanese singing superstar Jay Chou Jielun. On internet forums fans discuss hypotheticals such as: 'If you were trapped in a burning room with Jay Chou Jielun and Guo Jingming, which one would you rescue first?'
For the record, it's still a stalemate after months of debate.
Unlike Chou, who reaches out with his shiny rap songs, Guo touches lonely hearts with haunting stories about friendship. A slight man whose size and age belie an unexpected maturity, Guo also has a well-developed commercial sense - and a touch of coldness.
'I don't know why my fans love me so much. It's a question that you really should ask them,' he says, curtly, in the empty food court of a Shanghai shopping mall. 'They seem to see me more as an icon than an author.'
If that's the case, Guo's good looks might go some way to explaining his popularity. He's diminutive but handsome, with well-chiselled features and longish, dyed hair gelled into a deliberately messy style.
His size - Guo stands 1.55 metres tall - gives him a slightly cartoonish appearance, albeit one with attitude. Pale and thin, he wears a black jacket and jeans in the utilitarian style. He has a single ring in his left ear lobe, and the grey bum bag around his waist holds a Valentino wallet and a fancy mobile phone. An unusual blue wristband with a silver metal clasp completes the look.
Guo's three best-sellers in 2003 propelled him to number 94 on the annual Forbes Celebrity List - which grades people in terms of wealth, influence and media exposure - with a reported annual income of 1.6 million yuan.
Like most on the list, he disputes the assessment. 'The figure is wrong,' he says, with a rare smile. 'But sorry, I can't tell you the real figure.'
Guo achieved overnight success with his debut, City of Fantasy, which appeared on the nationwide book market in January last year. At last count, the fairy tale had sold more than 1.2 million copies. Guo says writing it helped overcome the boredom of swotting for the college entrance examination in his last year of high school.
In the book, Guo depicts a fantasy world in which the hero, unhappy with losing his freedom after becoming a king, sees his beloved brother and friends die, one after another, for helping him break free from the shackles of royalty.
The tale reflects Guo's longing for brotherhood, friendship and freedom. And it's a feeling shared by other children born after the introduction of the one-child policy in 1980. 'We are all only children,' says Guo, the only child of a chemical engineer father and bank clerk mother. 'But without the companionship of brothers or sisters, we can easily feel lonely, as we often can't communicate well with our parents. We lack fellowship in real life, so we like to imagine one in the books we read.'
Different from the theme of justice prevailing over evil in other top-selling fairy tales such as Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, Guo's world is one in which everybody has pure and simple affections but things still end tragically. Guo's vision is depressingly cynical.
'We have high expectations of the world and of human nature, but it turns out society is far from being what we imagine,' he says. 'My book is a reflection that most of us with ideals will see them shattered by cruel realities.'
Critics have highlighted the cynicism and sentimentality in Guo's writing. In a book that examines Guo's popularity, Through Guo Jingming, writer Zhu Zi argues that the 'little emperors', or single children of the 80s, who've grown up pampered by their parents and other relatives, are so fragile and immature that they're easily depressed and disappointed.
Guo disagrees with the assertion. 'I think the new generation is more mature than the last,' he says. 'We can see and learn much more than them at the same age. I don't think there is anything that we can't shoulder.'
Then Guo says something that reveals how many of his generation think. 'I'm just an ordinary person,' he says. 'I'm no saviour. I just want to take care of myself. Things that happen outside my world are none of my business.'
Born in Zigong, in southeastern Sichuan province, Guo discovered a flair for writing early by winning national writing competitions in 2001 and 2002. He published his first work, a collection of essays titled On the Verge of Love and Pain, while still at high school in 2001.
Following the runaway success of City of Fantasy, Guo rapidly published two more books last year, his second essay collection in May and a second novel, Never-flowers in Never-dream, last November. Both made it to best-seller lists in the first half of this year.
Yet Never-flowers, which tells how a group of young college students' friendship and affections change as they grow up, has been criticised for ostensibly plagiarising Zhuang Yu's novel Inside, Outside (Quanli, Quanwai).
Guo grows angry when asked about the charge. It's the only time during the entire interview that his face shows much expression. 'If Zhuang Yu thinks it's plagiarism, she can take me to court,' he says, obviously agitated. 'Why did she, a reporter at Xinhua, tell the media first and draw people's attention to her book? The funniest thing is her book, which initially sold fewer than 6,000 copies, was reprinted after all that with an additional note on the cover saying 'famous writer Guo Jingming has referred to this book'. Isn't it all just for the publicity?'
Despite his energetic self-defence, Guo says he has read 'a few chapters of Zhuang's book'. And despite the unfavourable criticism, Never-flowers, with sales of more than 1.2 million copies, topped the best-seller list for months this year.
With the two novels' brisk sales, Guo is also pursued by TV producers and overseas publishers. City of Fantasy, with comic, traditional Chinese and Korean versions available, is being made into a TV series by the Shanghai Media and Entertainment Group while Never-flowers was snapped up by a Dalian-based TV company.
Although he's majoring in screenwriting at university, Guo says he has no intention of adapting his own novels for the screen. Nor is he decided if he will continue writing for a living.
'Writing is a hobby, just like watching DVDs and playing badminton, something I do when I feel like doing it,' says Guo, who says he spends less than half of his spare time on writing.
He has already begun to pursue a different career trajectory. With four friends and the financial backing of his publisher, the Shenyang-based Chunfeng Literary Publishing House, Guo has established his own house, Island.
They plan to publish a Guo book - or a work in his melancholic but flamboyant style - every two months, with Guo increasingly involved with design, planning and management.
The first, a series of teenagers' essays titled Debut, was released in August and a second is on the way. 'It's pleasant to see you can run an outfit and see its profits grow little by little,' he says.
That fits perfectly with his attitude to money, extolled in his early essay Gemini: 'Money is good, and I never refuse good things.'