Mainland material boy is writing the dream
He calls himself a 'mainland version of the American dream', a self-made kid from poor circumstances who now tops the 2011 Rich List for Chinese writers, with royalties last year alone of 24.5 million yuan (HK$30 million).
Critics call Guo Jingming's writing overly commercial and narcissistic. But to his young fans, the 28-year-old writes about their lives with sensitivity, in a melancholy, polished style. Guo estimates he has a loyal readership of between two and three million, mostly aged between 14 and 28 and the only child in their family. They are a generation stereotyped as apolitical, selfish and materialistic.
'For young readers, I am like a spokesman close to their age and experience, and so they connect with my work,' Guo says.
An editor of two magazines, a publisher and the president of a cultural products company, Guo offers his own life story as a model for his young readers in pursuit of the good life.
'I'm unique,' Guo said recently. 'Others might have a wealthy family background or senior-official parents, but I came all the way from a very small city without any help and achieved what I have today.'
His newest book, Tiny Times 3.0, released this month, continues a series he has been writing for five years. It depicts the lives of four female university students who step into society after graduation. With a first printing of two million, it topped best-seller lists last week.
The day before its release last month, Guo talked with the Sunday Morning Post at his publisher's office in Beijing.
Guo said teenagers and young adults see themselves in him. 'I used to be an ordinary student and my life resembles theirs in my writings: I studied, I was confused by the university entrance exam and I sometimes dated.' He added: 'Now I have become a tough person, so they aspire to who I am, which is also what they aspire towards in the world.'
Guo, who has been among the top five on the writers' rich list since its 2006 launch, does not understand why some people believe a writer must be poor. 'It's unfair on writers,' he said. 'In other businesses, 20 million yuan might not be enough to get into the top 100.'
Wu Huaiyao, founder of the writers' rich list, says Guo's books 'are associated with the confusion and dreams of youth. Teenagers are attached to Guo's work regardless of whether his books are good or bad.'
Guo gained fame when Ice Fantasy, a story he wrote during preparations for that confusing university entrance exam, was published in 2003. It tells of a prince who has to kill his younger brother for the throne.
Next came his novel, Never Flowers in Never Dreams, about a love triangle set in Beijing, which sold more than a million copies. He went on to establish the magazines Top Novel and Top Cartoon and manages a company of more than 60.
Many believe he simply got lucky - his books 'fast-food' culture that spread quickly and his personality perfect for playing the part of an entertainment sensation.
Guo disagrees. 'I am competitive, focused, result-oriented and driven,' he said. 'I know very well what I want and have clear goals, so I don't get sidetracked from what I am doing.'
His popularity underscores a phenomenon in today's China: young people from eight to 18 years old are the major source of readers. Adults tend to be too busy to read or buy books.
Guo's pop fiction offers them a lusty embrace of the materialistic and is laced with lengthy descriptions of luxury goods and lifestyles. His books have been criticised by many as shallow and lacking social conscience.
Professor Tao Dongfeng , of Beijing Capital Normal University, wrote on his blog that the 'post-80s' generation lives an affluent material life but an impoverished spiritual life.
'They are deprived of historical memory and live in an isolated phase historically,' Tao wrote. 'On the one hand, they pursue consumerism; on the other hand, they care little about public affairs and are reluctant to participate.'
Guo is often contrasted with another popular writer, Han Han , a high school dropout and rally driver, who writes social critiques.
'I do things that I am good at,' Guo says. 'When talking about Han's novels, you probably cannot think of a character. But he is excellent as a social commentator and essayist.'
Born to an engineer father and a bank-clerk mother, Guo grew up in the small southwestern city of Zigong in Sichuan province.
He got good grades as a student, but failed to get admitted to Xiamen University. Instead he went to Shanghai to study film, art and technology, and soaked up a city that, as he sees it, is obsessed with commercialism and ruled by jungle law.
As the only non-native in the class, Guo confessed he felt isolated and inferior to his fellow students, who changed mobile phones regularly. He believes the experience changed him. 'Shanghai swayed my personality to be more pragmatic, objective and sober,' he said.
Han Han, a Shanghai native, has criticised Guo's Tiny Times as 'just a lesson about luxury brands in bustling and flourishing Shanghai to people in small towns, counties or villages on the edge of cities'.
But Guo shrugs off the critics who fear that his novels corrupt or mislead young readers. 'Before I wrote, I knew my work would spark controversy,' he said, 'but I want to depict a contemporary Shanghai the way it is. It would be ridiculous to avoid its typical luxurious lifestyle.'
He denies he writes to educate or influence his young readers.
'Readers can judge if it's good or bad. I won't tell you what to choose,' he said. 'I prefer telling them the world is cruel and there is nothing you can do about it.
'I only want to record this time - no matter whether it's good or bad - because many people do live like this.'
He added: 'I don't pay attention to others' opinions. I would rather work hard because action speaks louder than words,' he said. 'Words are weak and easily forgotten.' Guo said he appreciated constructive criticism. 'To remarks such as, 'You are so short' or 'You are so ugly', or some fabricated news, what can I respond?'
His public image has changed over the last 10 years from that of a young, frivolous person to an entrepreneur and publisher, via a figure of controversy embroiled with lawsuits - Guo was accused of plagiarising Zhuang Yu's In and Out of the Circle in Never Flowers in Never Dreams. A court in Beijing ordered him to pay damages to Zhuang of 200,000 yuan.
He appears obsessed with how the public see him. His clothes and hairstyle are carefully chosen for each occasion and he poses bare-chested on his blog and in the magazines he runs. When promoting his new novel in Beijing, he refused to be photographed because he was too busy to dress up.
'What I wear and how I behave and speak must be adjusted under different circumstances, because whatever I do, I stick to a principle that helps me achieve results.'
With his hair tucked into a baseball cap and wearing a light grey jumper with white jeans, Guo, about 1.52 metres tall and skinny, looks much younger than his years. His employees call him 'Little Four', from a pen name 'disiwei', which means 4-D. 'But I work like a mature man,' Guo said.
He is busy at his company office in the day and writes at night. He sleeps only five or six hours in every 24. 'There's no doubt that I am working harder than most others,' he added.
Guo and Han Han are often labelled as the archetypal twentysomething writers. But Guo argued: 'I am more of an icon rather than a professional writer. My success reflects the impatience and fickleness of the whole society, including media, readers and public.'
His company is working towards being listed on ChiNext, an independent market of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, in the next three years.
When asked whether he made more than 24.5 million yuan a year, he said with a smile: 'I'd think so.'
He added: 'My success can hardly be replicated by other writers. Every writer is unique. There are many talented post-1990s-born writers who badly need a platform to perform.'
Iconoclast's dim view Page 16
My success reflects the impatience and fickleness of the whole society, including media, readers and public
The number of employees in Guo's mini empire, which includes two magazines