Nine Continents, A Memoir in and Out of China, by Xiaolu Guo


Xiaolo Guo has ridden the brutal waves of twentieth-century Chinese history in which individual lives are engulfed by the State. Growing up in 1970-1980s Chine, she tellingly says of these years that we never used the word, “love.” In this vivid memoir, winner of he NBCC award for autobiography, Xiaolu describes the historic moment of her birth,1973, three years before the death of Mao Zedong and its impact on her life. There is little poetry in the telling. She was born to a harsh mother who became a Red Guard at the age of sixteen, and a sensitive father who was a painter sent down to the countryside by Mao to be punished with other “stinking #9 intellectuals.” (35,000 intellectuals died during this period).  Xiaolu is sent to foster parents for two years and then to her impoverished and grandparents in a peasant fishing village, Wenling, Shitang, where she is haunted by hunger, deprivation and abuse. Unbelievably strong willed, she vows at the age of seven “not to be tripped up by my rotten peasant roots.” 1970’s China under Communist control offered no books, tv, money, food, amusements, education or intimacy. Yet she describes an early acuteness, precocity, and ambition that sometimes strains credulity. Her fisherman grandfather, an embittered and brutal alcoholic, does not take to being swallowed by a State Fish Farming Collective. Xiaolu observes his daily beatings of her frail grandmother--who prays to Guanyin, the goddess of Compassion--the only person toward whom she expresses a trace of love. She listens to her grandmother’s mournful chirpings and her ambitious heart grows wild,  “ I wanted great excitement, I wanted whatever I saw, balloons, sweets, picture books, beautiful clothes, butterflies and hair clips. I wanted things, not strange ideas about empty forms of suffering” (61). This longing for “things” infuses the younger generation in China today.

One endures the deprivations of her early years and sadly observes how “it had killed all the tenderness in her heart” (16). At the age of seven she moves to live with her parents in Beijing then a whirlpool of people, dirt and noise where she faces her own illiteracy, sexual abuse by a teacher, and continued hunger. Trained to harshness in her provincial village, she is ambitious and driven to learn, become educated and, eventually to attend for seven years the prestigious Beijing Film Academy film, one of 7,000 applicants. Though not fully acknowledged, her father’s belief in her, contacts and fine reputation as an artist are part of her success. She wins a Chevening and British Council Scholarship to study in Kent, England for a year in 2002, again competing against hundreds of applicants. This changes the course of her life and fulfills the prediction of a monk in her old fishing village, “this girl is a peasant warrior who will travel the Nine Continents.” She will live in England and Germany, have Western partners, a baby girl, and write successful novels: Lovers in the Age of Indifference, I am China and the acclaimed, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. In this novel published in 2007 and nominated for the Orange Prize, she writes in journal form, a year in the London life of a Chinese girl from a factory town in China who falls in love with a sculptor.When her mother is dying of cancer, Xiaolu returns to China with her Australian partner and a baby, Moon. There is still no love between them but rather an understanding now of how the history of China has molded them both. Resilient yet, she looks back and remembers an art student who had visited her childhood fishing village and applied shimmering blues and golds on paper to a village scene she had always viewed as dull and monotonous.  “I was suddenly captivated by the girl’s imaginative act: that one could reshape a drab and colourless reality into a luminous world” (366). It was an imaginative act that Guo would follow.


Xiaolu Guo, Nine Continents, A Memoir in and Out of China, Grove Press (2018).

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