Sunday, May 04, 2008
China’s Pop Fiction
May 4, 2008
China's Pop Fiction
By AVENTURINA KING
The most successful writer in China today isn't Gao Xingjian, the winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize, or even Jiang Rong, the author of the best-selling novel "Wolf Totem," just released in the United States. It's 24-year-old Guo Jingming, a pop idol whose cross-dressing, image-obsessed persona has made him a sensation in a country where the Communist dictatorship advocates prudery and heterosexuality. Thousands of teenagers — his readers are rarely over 20 — flock to Guo's signing sessions. Some post frenzied declarations of love on his blog: "Little Four, I will always be with you!" (Guo's nickname comes from "fourth dimension war," a random quotation he found in a magazine.) Alongside adoring letters addressed to "Big Brother Guo," the author posts pictures of himself half-naked in the shower, in his underwear or swathed in Dolce & Gabbana accessories and Louis XIV-style shirts.
Guo is hardly universally beloved. Last fall, he was voted China's most hated male celebrity for the third year in a row on Tianya, one of the country's biggest online forums. Yet three of his four novels have sold over a million copies each, and last year he had the highest income of any Chinese author: $1.4 million.
The most critically acclaimed Chinese novels of recent years — "Wolf Totem" (a parable about the death of Mongolian culture and a veiled critique of the Cultural Revolution), Yu Hua's "To Live," Mo Yan's "Republic of Wine" — generally use their characters as vessels for broad social and political commentary. But Guo's novels focus on the tortured psyches of his adolescent characters, who either nurse their melancholy by sitting alone for long hours under trees and on rooftops, or try to blunt it with drinking, fighting and karaoke.
"My main goal is to tell the story well and have everyone like it," Guo said recently in a telephone interview. Which isn't to say he traffics entirely in escapism. For all the over-the-top melodrama and brand-name dropping, his novels' contemporary urban settings, Guo said, are far closer to the reality of his readers' lives than the harsh countryside of China's modern classics. And his frothy novels, though often denounced as "chain-manufactured writing," do reflect social issues in their own way. The editor of Guo's first novel, "City of Fantasy" — about the 350-year-old prince of an Ice Kingdom who is forced to kill his younger brother to protect the throne — told one of China's leading newsweeklies that he had decided to publish the novel because it would appeal to the lonely children of China's one-child generation.
Guo is the most successful of a dozen young celebrity authors who make up the "post-'80s" generation, some others of whom have also achieved book sales in the millions. This group includes the high school dropout and professional car racer Han Han, 25, who derides China's inefficient educational system in his novels and regularly insults older, more established artists on his blog, and Zhang Yueran, 26, whose novel "Daffodils Took Carp and Went Away" features a bulimic girl who falls in love with her stepfather, is mistreated by her mother and is sent off to boarding school.
While the Chinese government frequently jails dissident writers or forces them into exile, it mostly ignores the antics of Guo and the other post-'80s writers. For all their flamboyance, they exemplify the social ideals of the new China — commercialism and individualism — said Lydia Liu, a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Columbia University. They "don't pose any threat," Liu said. "They collaborate."
Tao Dongfeng, a professor at Capital Normal University in Beijing who has harshly criticized some post-'80s writers for their lack of social conscience and their reliance on overblown fantasy elements, said young fans see authors like Guo less as writers than as "entertainment idols." "What they write isn't important," he said. "What's important is Han Han's looks, the cars that he drives."
Such things are certainly important to the authors themselves. I met with Guo last summer in a newly built upscale area on the outskirts of Shanghai, in the offices of Ke Ai (a homophone of the Chinese word for "cute"), the entertainment company he established in 2004 to produce teenage literary magazines like "I5land" and "Top Novel." He enthusiastically demonstrated his encyclopedic knowledge of "American Idol" and his excitement at seeing the "Transformers" movie. An hour before the interview, I had phoned to ask if I could take his picture. He politely refused, saying an hour wasn't long enough to prepare. "My fans worry about whether I look good, what clothes I wear," he said. "There's no way around it."
All of Guo's novels include a shy, mysterious hero who gets good grades and whose life otherwise parallels aspects of the author's own. Guo was born in the southwestern city of Zigong, to an engineer father and a bank clerk mother who encouraged him to write. In 2001, when he was still in high school, Guo won first prize in a national essay contest sponsored by Mengya magazine. A short version of "City of Fantasy" — written, he told me, as relaxation therapy during his exams — was later published in the magazine and went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies in book form.
Guo's second novel, "Never Flowers in Never Dreams," a love triangle featuring harmless forays into the Beijing underworld, was published while he was studying film at Shanghai University. It sold 600,000 copies in its first month. Soon after, Guo was accused of plagiarizing the novel from Zhuang Yu's "In and Out of the Circle." In 2006, a court ordered him to pay $25,000 to Zhuang Yu and to apologize. Guo paid the judgment but refused to apologize or admit any wrongdoing. The press was outraged, calling Guo "Super Plagiarism Boy," a play on "Super Voice Girls," the Chinese equivalent of "American Idol." When the author Wang Shuo, famous for his best-selling novels about Beijing drifters and lowlifes published in the late 1980s and early '90s, denounced Guo as an "out-and-out thief" with "no sense of decency," Guo replied that it was only "normal for the previous generation to discipline the later generation."
Guo remains unbothered by the episode. "A lot of people who criticize you, they haven't read your works, they really don't understand what this thing is, so I don't pay attention to those opinions," he told me.
Neither, apparently, do his fans. While the case was still in process, Guo produced a musical album, "Lost," a thin spread of guitar and piano under lyrics about young love, performed by singers chosen in a national competition he organized. It sold 400,000 copies. Last year, his novel "Cry Me a River," about the ostracism and suicide of a pregnant high school student, sold a million copies in 10 days.
Guo may have survived charges of plagiarism and bad writing, but today he faces what may be a more dangerous threat: even younger writers. The past few years have seen the rise of a group of teenage authors, sometimes called the "post-'90s" generation. Four years ago, 9-year-old Yang Yang received $150,000 for his novel "The Magic Violin," about a young boy who is befriended by enchanted objects after his father disappears. It sold 100,000 copies. He has since published three more books and last year signed a contract for a 10-book series. Last month, Yang Daqing's "Story of the Ming Expedition," a novel about the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, supposedly written when the author was 13, hit bookstores. And 14-year-old Tang Chao's second novel, "Give My Dream Back," about unrequited love and suicide, was recently published with a first run of 50,000 copies.
Over the phone, Guo spoke dismissively of these potential rivals. "I don't really know much about them," he said. And they certainly don't seem to be interfering with his plans. Guo's next novel, "When We Were Young," about four university students, arrives in stores in October. And next year, he plans to hold a national competition for young writers and to design his own line of stationery.
Aventurina King has written about Chinese culture and entertainment for The New York Times, Wired.com and The South China Morning Post.
Posted by cardinale at 10:54 PM