A Wild Swans for this generation?

Once Upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo

It is inevitable that Guo’s memoir, which was shortlisted this year for the Rathbones Folio Prize (which I wrote about here), will be compared with Jung Chang’s brilliant family history and memoir Wild Swans, with Guo adding her story as a young woman from the next generation. Guo’s voice and life is very different to Chang’s, however her story is equally compelling, told in sometimes detached and often calm but angry prose.

Xiaolu Guo was born in 1973 – and her parents gave her away to a peasant couple who lived in the mountains. Two years later, they couldn’t feed her any more, Guo was suffering from malnutrition, and they took her back down the mountains to her illiterate grandparents in their fishing village. Her grandfather had lost his boat at sea, and now only made a meagre living by scavenging for things to sell. He was a grumpy old drunk and increasingly ill eventually dying. Then one day when Xiaolu was seven, her parents arrived in the village…

I saw two strangers sitting in the kitchen. A man and a woman. The man was slender and wore glasses. The woman was much shorter, and bore a stern expression. She came straight up to me and took hold of one of my skinny arms. She looked me up and down and in a very strange accent said: ‘Ah, Xiaolu, you are so big now!’

It was an even bigger shock, when her parents took her back to the city where they worked to discover that she had an older brother – they hated each other on first sight.  Xiaolu struggles to build any kind of meaningful relationship with her mother too. A former Red Guard, Xiaolu’s mother was the exact opposite of her father who was an intellectual. The Red Guard had to kick and spit on the ‘stinking number nines’ as her father’s class was categorised under Mao, but her mother took pity on him and fell for him – they effectively eloped to marry.

There must have been some love between them, but no one ever used that word. In fact, I don’t think I ever heard it in our family; there were never fancy words like ‘love’ in a family’s life in China then.

Xiaolu has no problems getting on with her father though, appreciating the ink paintings he did as an antidote to his job as a state artist creating propaganda posters. He later supported her application to the Beijing Film Academy, and second time lucky, in 1993 she beat over 7000 other applicants to gain one of the coveted places and another new life beckons.  After film school, she wrote soap opera scripts and screenplays before getting a grant to come to London in 2002 to study at the National Film and Television School.  The last quarter of the book charts her progress in film-making and writing but also meeting her husband and having a baby. This last event bookends her story, as the prologue begins with her taking her child back to China to meet her mother.

Once Upon a Time in the East is very much a memoir of two halves. The first which takes us up her going film school is definitely the stronger, giving us colourful and often shocking visions of the hardships of peasant life in rural China of the 1970s, contrasting with collective working and getting an education in the 1980s.  To call it a Cinderella story would be to over-romanticize, hers is a gritty life full of incident. Always underneath is the failure of the mother-daughter bond, and she is very hard on her mother the whole way through the book. Once she escapes the familial claws at film school and beyond, in the second half of the book there are few surprises. I liked her depiction of being stranded in Beaconsfield on arrival in England though:

I felt like a complete alien in Beaconsfield. I was told that this was the richest village in all of Britain. For a Chinese person, village is synonymous with peasants, rice paddies and buffaloes. Here, every home was surrounded by trimmed rose bushes.

There is no denying that she has lived through such hardship in those fascinating times and to write this for us in a non-native language is a huge achievement. Still, I found it hard at times to warm to the author – perhaps due to her lack of sentiment. It’s just not in her nature, she’s never afraid to tell it like it is. She always had this urge to escape and abandon her ancestry, yet she was, underneath it all, still loyal to her roots – there’s an internal conflict there which, with marriage and motherhood, she seems to have come to terms with. Overall, I really enjoyed this memoir, and I must read more of her novels, having only read 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth pre-blog. (8.5/10)


Source: Review copy sent for the Rathbones Folio Prize – thanks to FMcM

Xiaolu Guo, Once Upon a Time in the East (2017) Vintage paperback, 336 pages.

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3 thoughts on “A Wild Swans for this generation?

  1. I loved this (and struggled much less with Xiaolu’s style). Having not got on with those novels of hers I’ve read, I was fascinated by how her early books were written and now feel I ought to return to them. I feel like too many Chinese books are compared to Wild Swans, but in this case I think the comparison is absolutely right – it’s not just the content but the way that Xiaolu writes that reminds me of Jung Chang.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I loved the first half of this book, but once she got to Beijing it was interesting to me. I always sympathised with her experience and fighting spirit though. I do have her book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers which I’m now keen to read.

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