When Xiaolu Guo was a student at Beijing’s prestigious Film Academy, in the early 1990s, she found herself drawn towards a varied group of avant garde artists. As she writes in her new book, Once Upon a Time in the East, the more memorable works of the period included Yue Minjun’s absurd “Laughing Man” portraits and Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Metres, a piece of performance art staged in a public toilet.
Guo reserves special affection for the anonymous “shock artists” who practised ever more outrageous forms of xing wei yi shu (“behaviour art”). At one happening on the Great Wall, Guo saw a young man tattoo his 15-digit ID number onto bleeding skin, another eat a meal of placenta, and watched someone else paint their penis red before making vigorous love to the floor. The evening ended in a police raid, albeit a rather half-hearted one, and a reprimand from the school.
“I loved those crazy performances,” Guo writes of these illegal provocations that she nevertheless tired of as she developed her own career as a writer, filmmaker and feminist. “It was too macho and too blunt, to put it simply. What these artists did was give their middle finger to the official talk of the People’s Daily. But we young people didn’t give a damn about the People’s Daily ...”
Now 44, Guo has been thinking back on these formative days, and not only because her new book includes reminiscences of those times. She detects something of the defiance of those Beijing enfants terribles in the protests springing up after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
“After Brexit, it was very depressing. Immediately I felt this anger. I felt this atmosphere which I had when I was in Beijing as a 20-something. I thought, ‘Maybe this is good. It generates public thinking. It motivates the lazy intellectuals,’” she laughs.
Guo is well-placed to comment. Resident in London since 2002, she now divides her time between Hackney, a rapidly gentrifying borough in the east of the British capital, and Berlin, Germany. I suspect, however, that wherever Guo lives, she will always be drawn to just this sort of social and political upheaval. Her best writing – in novels such as A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) and I Am China (2014) – is fuelled by cultural and geographical dislocation, by characters striving to find their place in unsettling environments. As a filmmaker, she is fascinated by the outsider, whether this is a poverty-stricken couple building roads before the 2008 Beijing Olympics (The Concrete Revolution; 2004) or London’s demi-monde of “beggars, gangsters, and working class heroes” (Late at Night; 2013).
These artistic concerns feed back into Guo’s own life and character, which resist easy definitions and exist between obvious categories. Ask Guo where her restlessness comes from and she mentions everything from her grandfather’s nomadic Hakka ancestry to the relative novelty in China of growing up beside the sea.
“The Chinese are from this huge land. This identity is so heavy,” she argues, before talking enthusiastically about the popular but controversial television series River Elegy. “There is no ‘Blue Imagination’ like Columbus. Why did China never make a colony or bomb another continent? Because this ‘Yellow Earth’ identity has swallowed our inner desire. I thought that is so accurate.”
Guo herself never seems weighed down. She has made a life in a foreign land and carved out an impressive career in a foreign language despite having been adopted twice before the age of two, having grown up in poverty beside the East China Sea and having been sexually abused by a school teacher. Even that place at Beijing’s Film Academy meant beating more than 7,000 rivals.
Defying the odds may fuel Guo’s life and work, but it can leave her vulnerable. She remains shaken by the antagonistic reception afforded a recent article about her in a British newspaper. Her assessment of life in China and Britain inspired attacks from people of both nations.
“I should never read the comments. I discover such hostile messages. Ninety per cent hostile: ‘This woman is so unfriendly to her native country and her adopted country.’ I thought maybe some people cannot accept that a Chinese artist can be an international artist, a universal artist. This is because of the preoccupation with China from such a nationalistic point of view. You don’t suffer from this as a European. You suffer from this as a Chinese, an Iranian or a Russian.”
Guo tells a second story, from more than a decade earlier, about a screening at Harvard University of The Concrete Revolution. After the film was shown, she was “attacked by two chubby, pompous Chinese PhD boys. Probably from [the families of] very high-ranking officials. They probably didn’t go to Harvard because they have great marks; they go to Harvard because their rich mummy and daddy paid.”
What was the problem?
“They say, ‘You are the betrayer. How dare you show our bad face to the Westerners.’ I am thinking, ‘My god, it was horrible.’” Guo says these last words more in a tone of wearied disbelief than outright shock. Her response was to re-figure the confrontation in I Am China. “It had to be real. I couldn’t invent that.”
We talk at Hackney’s arthouse cinema, near the flat Guo shares with her partner, Stephen Barker, an Australian-born philosophy lecturer at Nottingham University, and their three-year-old daughter, Moon. Guo seems utterly at home in one of London’s most liberal bubbles: in last year’s Brexit referendum, Hackney ranked third in voting to Remain, with 78.5 per cent of its inhabitants wanting to stay in the European Union.
She wears the sort of fashionably Bohemian military coat that the Beatles once affected. While I wait for what feels like weeks as the barista prepares two cups of coffee, Guo whips out her laptop to check the latest missives of Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former minister of finance, who stared down the EU over his country’s debt crisis. Guo is a fan of his Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 manifesto to “create a fully fledged [European] democracy”. For Guo, Varoufakis typifies a growing resistance to the nationalistic atmosphere that accompanied Brexit.
“I truly believe that from the ruins there is going to be a second renaissance of art and culture. The centre will be London, not Florence.”
Our conversation continues along similar lines. Guo is open, likeable and free from self-pity. Self-confident but rarely arrogant, she is quick to put her achievements into context.
“Maybe I am unusual to want to get out from tiny little village to become artist. It is also extremely ordinary. Thousands of Chinese kids rebel against this heavy culture. They want to be rock ’n’ roll star or something totally different from their parents’ or grandparents’ generation.”
Her default setting is an intense intellectual earnestness enhanced by occasionally staccato English. High-brow names drop from great heights onto low-brow ones.
“If you [have studied] stuff like Sartre or Foucault, you set your goal in that place. I was never really into Stephen King. I love all the films adapted from his books but, once I opened the page, I couldn’t really care less.”
Such cool philosophising enables her to be admirably forthright about even the most personal of issues: the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a school teacher in Wenling, Zhejiang province.
“I don’t like sentimental writing, so I would not treat those subjects without dignity and political integrity. Womanhood is a historical product and a political situation, as de Beauvoir wrote wonderfully in The Second Sex . Society has changed but not so much.”
Guo can be stridently funny, not least about the perils of navigating a small child through the trust-funded slackers who crowd Hackney’s pavements. But even as she lampoons skinny-jeaned hipsters, one senses she still yearns to be part of their in-crowd, even more so since becoming a parent.
“I was so worried my image would be totally [tied] to a pram. This depressed-looking new mother who has suddenly lost her own identity to the job of looking after this baby. I was worried I would become one of them. I would say to my partner, ‘Let’s not get too confined with this new life.’”
Moon has set limits, on her mother’s film-work above all: “Family does not make it easy to film in the fields for two months.” But, Guo mainly talks about motherhood in glowing terms, regularly employing her favourite adulatory adjective, “strong”.
“It is a very strong experience. I refuse to say that having a baby is always better. But it is an amazing, strong experience for someone who for 40 years never had children.”
Moon plays a small but defining role in Once Upon a Time in the East. Her birth begins and ends the book, creating the sense that she has helped her mother come full circle. Guo did write a chapter about Moon, but left it out.
“I was worried that my emotion is so strong to my own daughter that the chapter swallowed the early parts: [my] story of an uncultured peasant child with a desperation to become artist is the most important. [Motherhood] is so strong and different that it felt like another thing.”
Guo’s complicated feelings about parenthood (she uses the word “ambivalent”) owe much to her own extraordinary upbringing. “There is no model for my parental world. Not my grandmother. Not my mother.”
This begins in Shitang, a small village beside the East China Sea.
“Say I have four lives,” Guo tells me. “The first is the very brutal fishing village life. The feudal style for the first seven years.” She was raised, not by her biological parents but, initially, by a peasant couple who lived in the nearby mountains. “There was no love. They grow yams on the mountain and they never talk. In my memory, I grow up on a silent mountain.”
After poverty made this adoption untenable, two-year-old Guo was handed over again, this time to her paternal grandparents.
“When I am returned to my family, they don’t talk very much either.” Indeed, Once Upon a Time in the East paints a melancholy portrait of family life in general. “I grew up really without any love. When I was young I was desperate. I wouldn’t talk to the world. I stayed home every day and write.”
“Brutal” is how Guo describes Shitang and the book does little to soften the impression. She regularly witnessed her grandfather beating his wife.
“When I grew up, men beat woman, every house in the night. Husband beat wife up because they all fishermen. It looks romantic, but it was a harsh environment.”
Her grandfather’s violent streak also sprang from bitterness. Having lost his beloved fishing business after Mao Zedong nationalised the fishing industry, he was reduced to scavenging the beach for debris (cigarettes, shrimp, soap) that washed up from passing ships. While not much more affectionate, Guo’s grandmother was at least kind, sneaking ice lollies into her granddaughter’s grateful hands. Her grandmother was the only person Guo mourned when she left Shitang.
This happened when Guo finally met her parents. She was six when the family reunited in the fast-expanding industrial city of Wenling.
“That was my second life: factory Communist life.” The exact reason for her adoption remains unclear but a combination of economic hardship and maternal indifference are held responsible.
“[My mother] doesn’t want baby girl. When she was bored of me, she sent me to another family,” Guo states evenly. She is circumspect when I ask her feelings about being given up for adoption while her elder brother remained with their mother and father. “I don’t think that was unique. So many baby girls in China had a different life without knowing their real parents.”
Such attempts to rationalise her early abandonment do nothing to diminish Guo’s disdain for her mother: a Red Guard who never disguised her preference for her male child, nor seemed to regret handing her baby daughter over to strangers.
“The more I grow up, the more I look like my mother. She was everything I don’t want to be. I don’t want to repeat her history. So brutal: Red Guard, emotionless, loveless. All her life’s about practicalities. The practicality of China killed so much stuff; the creativity and imagination.”
One exception to this might be Guo’s father, a state painter who was imprisoned for 10 years at a labour camp in Changshi, “a small mountain/mining area in my province some decades ago; now it must be [...] ‘urban nowhere’ space”. His crime was to have, unwisely, taken Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign at its word and openly criticise the Communist Party. It’s hard not to see his life as providing a blueprint for his daughter’s more expansive travels. Indeed, what positive memories she does retain of her parents are expressed through his “intellectual” character. “How can you imagine an outside world when you have never been out as a little child? Never ignore your birth parents’ character. If you believe in genetic inheritance, your childhood is tainted by their ambition. Although I knew my father later, I always knew he was cultured. I always knew my parents are away somewhere better than this village, doing much more civilised things. I thought, ‘There is a life beyond this little life.’”
Like Guo, her father was a natural-born non-conformist: a Hui Chinese, he was happy to eat pork, unlike many in the predominantly Muslim ethnic group. Like Guo, his way out of Shitang came through art.
“My father became a painter. He left the village when he was 17. He doesn’t want to become a fisherman.” It was her father who praised Guo’s early attempts at poetry and who encouraged her to study for admission to the Beijing Film Academy. When she failed the entrance examination the first time, he spent money the family couldn’t afford on books about Stanislavski and film theory. His faith was rewarded when Guo beat 7,100 applicants to gain one of 11 places.
Beijing staged the “third act” of Guo’s life. In addition to discovering its underground art scene, she fell in love, with jealous and sometimes violent Chinese men and indifferent Americans on their way to somewhere else. More significantly, she developed a feminist outlook and found her voice as a writer.
“I really wanted to be a rebelling artist, punk artist as young girl. I didn’t have much of a platform, but I produced. I published eight books and wrote hundreds of TV soaps. I made a living as a writer. I was a journalist. That was very important in my third life, to become myself.”
This process was both continued and complicated by Guo’s subsequent move abroad.
“Coming to Europe was my fourth life. Suddenly I felt my provincial life was unique because it doesn’t appear in the Western life. The idea of the multiple identity became very clear when I began to write in English. That forced me to accept that, actually, I do have multiple identities, which eventually I feel happy about.”
There were challenges and confusions: for example, when she lived briefly in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, everyone called her Lucy, mistaking her for the only other Chinese person who had ever lived in the area. But there were life-changing moments, too, often coming from the most unexpected of places. When I ask if anyone provided a model for motherhood, Guo mentions a collective of slightly older, lesbian, militant feminist filmmakers she met in Paris and Berlin. A conversation with one director proved especially influential.
“She said, ‘You’re not going to make the same mistakes we European feminists made in the 60s and 70s, to reject everything – politically and physically – that a woman has. Maybe we don’t need to be against a woman’s ability to have children.’ Her reason was one of cultural inheritance. ‘If we don’t help make a better next generation, then we are futureless. If we know some problem, we could avoid it by bringing up a better next generation.’ That was amazing,” Guo pauses, then exclaims. “From hardcore feminist lesbians! Can you believe it?”
It is tempting to see the memoir as signalling Guo’s “fifth life”, in which she strives to balance family and work, art and politics, East and West; the latter combination combine in her parenting style.
“In the East, it perhaps is more hands-on from the parents’ side. In the West, I feel there is more room to play, to create. But it will be good to have both.”
As Once Upon a Time in the East illustrates, Guo seems destined to embody a fusion of disparate influences as her past and present exist in a constant state of flux. No matter how far she has come, where Xiaolu Guo is today depends upon where she has been. I ask what would have happened if her parents had not reclaimed her almost four decades ago?
“I would have been early married and would have had a lot of kids. I would have been one of those peasant women – just like my grandmother. I would have grown up with that family on the mountain.” Guo pauses. “I would never have become what I am now.”
Once Upon a Time in the East in hardback (Chatto + Windus) is out now.