“I Am China” by Guo Xiaolu and the Question of Representation of Chinese Punk in a Work of Fiction

Guo Xiaolu 郭小橹 was born in China in 1973, and grew-up in Zhejiang province. A complicated childhood which is the subject of her 2017 memoir, Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up. In 1993, she entered the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, where she befriended the artistic marginal community of the 1990s, participating to some radical performances, before moving to London in 2002. She was named in 2013 one of Granta’s best of young British novelists. In 2014 she published a novel in English entitled I Am China, a political love-story taking place in several continents, between two Chinese lovers. Since I am not a literary critic, my own aesthetic appreciation of the novel is irrelevant, but there is something interesting for me in the novel: one of the major characters is a Chinese punk musician. I know that a novel doesn’t have to truthfully represent the reality, but it nonetheless raises questions about the representation of Chinese punk in a work of fiction.

Guo Xiaolu, I Am China, Anchor, 2015

Guo Xiaolu is not the first Chinese author to tackle the question of Chinese punk in a literary work. Before her, the Shanghai writer Mian Mian 棉棉 mentioned the Beijing punk community in her novel Candy 糖 (2000), and more importantly, Beijing Doll 北京娃娃 (2002), Chun Shu’s 春树 memoirs, is centered on her experience of the Beijing punk subculture in the late 1990s. Guo Xiaolu is not interested in depicting the Chinese punk community itself, but she rather uses punk’s radicality as a mean to explain the political engagement of her main protagonist. A protagonist that looks way more like Cui Jian 崔健, the famous Chinese rocker, than a typical Chinese punk.

I Am China tells the epistolary story of two Chinese lovers, Mu and Jian, and their English translator, a Scottish girl named Iona. The love story itself is pretty cliché – the two Chinese lovers are bound by a complicated but true love (“The love between Mu and Jian seems almost non physical. It is an abstract love, young and innocent”, p. 240), while the white English translator has meaningless sex with a different partner every night (“For Iona, there are two modes of expression that bring her to life. One is the sexual act”, p. 11). Mu and Jian were separated because of political repression – Jian, the punk-rocker, distributed a mysterious political “manifesto” during his big concert at Beijing’s Worker Stadium, and was consequently arrested by the police and got kicked out of China. Mu is a poet and performer, obsessed with the late poet Hai Zi who committed suicide in 1989. She toured the US with her radical punk performance band “Sister Sabotage” before accepting a job in a Chinese construction company in London. Jian spent two years drifting in Europe as an asylum seeker, from England to France, Switzerland and Greece. Weirdly enough, nobody in the West seems to know him – an English scholar in the novel can mention Xie Tian Xiao 谢天笑 (XTX) and his band Cold Blooded Animal 冷血动物, but not Jian – who has in the novel the same level of celebrity as Cui Jian…

Cold Blooded Animal 冷血动物, “昨天晚上我可能死了”, 2000

The name of the protagonist is not chosen by chance – in Guo’s book the singer name is Kublai Jian, a name he chose because of his Mongol origins. A name very close to Cui Jian – who is not Mongol but half-Korean. The similarity between the real Chinese rocker and the fictional punk-rocker does not stop here: they have the exact same face. Guo Xiaolu provides the cover of Kublai Jian’s album, “Yuan VS Dollar” (sic), and the man on the picture is no other than Cui Jian blindfolded by a “piece of red cloth” – 一块红布, a well-known song by the Chinese rock musician. Even the fictional hit-song by Kublai Jian, “Long March into the Night” is a reference to Cui Jian’s 1989 album “Rock and Roll on the New Long March” (新长征路上的摇滚).

The fictional punk album of Kublai Jian, “Yuan Vs Dollars”, is in fact a photo of Cui Jian

As Cui Jian, Kublai Jian experienced first-hand the 1989 democratic movement, but instead of listening to rock tapes, he was into the Sex Pistols (“on the night of that fateful day [June 4th 1989] I stayed in the empty dormitory listening to the Sex Pistols and thinking about music, my music”, p. 5). As we already know, punk was not introduced in China before the mid-1990s – according to his age, Kublai Jian should be a rocker like Cui Jian, not a punk. The Chinese punk community described by Guo is much closer to the 1980s-1990s rock community and the marginal artistic community she herself experienced in Beijing. As Kublai Jian explains in one of his letters:

Being Chinese punk is very different from your country’s [England] youth. You may think we are not decent boys, swearing and spitting, burning our guitars or taking out our genitals from our jeans on the stage. No, we are not like that at all. We are disciplined, well educated, and sing about politics and art. But it is not always easy to rage against government.

I Am China, p. 21

Anyone who once saw a Chinese punk concert, by Shochu Legion 烧酒军团, The Diders, or Top Floor Circus 顶楼的马戏团 for instance, or who witnessed the famous Wuhan punks streaking 裸奔 on the streets, knows that Guo is describing something else. Maybe her version of 1980s Chinese rock, but certainly not Chinese punk.

The Diders. Source: Pitchfork

In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guo Xiaolu recognizes that she did not encountered punk music in China when she was young, she was on the contrary heavily influenced by traditional Western rock’n’roll, and did not understand the meaning of punk because “it was not very musical”. A statement that is coherent with the intention of the book:

In China when I was a teenager. We were influenced by American rock ’n’ roll from the ’80s onward. Punk wasn’t introduced until late, until the ’90s, but we had quite a lot of rock ’n’ roll — Bob Dylan, The Doors, Jim Morrison. And also blues and jazz. I liked rock ’n’ roll much more than punk, because I didn’t understand what punk was supposed to do — it’s not very musical. And when you don’t understand the lyrics, it’s hard to figure out what to do with it. Even if you don’t understand Bob Dylan’s lyrics, you can still connect to him.

Los Angeles Review of Book

(For the record, I recommend the song “What’s Punk Rock” by SMZB, which tackles precisely this question:)

SMZB, “What’s Punk Rock”, Ten Years Rebellion, 2008.

If Guo Xiaolu is not talking about punk, why create a punk singer that looks like Cui Jian? Punk has the same function as love in the novel, it allows Guo to distinguish between a Western and Chinese point of view. When Kublai Jian meets Johnny Rotten, the singer of the Sex Pistols, in Beijing on the eve of the year 2000, he asks him if “there is any positive punk scene in the West? I mean, good punk that does practical good for society” (p. 119). Johnny Rotten responds “nah, there’s only negative punk, man” (ibid.). Guo tries to show that punk is an idealistic movement in China, because of the collective inclination of the Chinese people, whereas Westerners are more individualist, anarchic in a very narrow way. Something that she again explains in the LARB article:

I think I had a romantic idea about the punk movement in the West. When I came to London, I encountered a few punks, and I saw Johnny Rotten perform with the Sex Pistols. I wondered if his anarchical attitude arose from the bad weather and poverty, or from the non-collective, individualistic culture, or the working-class oppression. I wanted to have this crazy discussion between the Western punk who believes in absolute anarchy and engages in a kind of verbal diarrhea and the Chinese punk who is very idealistic and socially engaged.
The difference is that in certain Asian cultures people still try to find some positive way to be collective. And it’s nearly nihilistic in the Western cultures.

Los Angeles Review of Book

It doesn’t matter if that’s a very partial definition of punk-rock, a cultural definition of the ontological difference between China and “the West”, or that Johnny Rotten (or John Lyndon) does not represent anymore the punk-rock ethos of contemporary punk. What is interesting however is that this discussion actually happened in 2013, when Johnny Rotten came for the first time in China to perform with his post-punk band Public Image Limited on March 30. Beijing punk rockers were indeed extremely displeased with John Lyndon’s performance and discourse, since they fantasized a Sex Pistols version of Johnny Rotten that does not exist anymore. His message to China was simply to “be perverse” (which is in a way also very much political):

The novel is full of these kinds of historical inaccuracies – which is fine, we don’t ask a work of fiction to accurately represent reality, but there is a problem of punk representation in the novel and what it means – politically, ethically but also stylistically – to be a punk in contemporary China . Besides punk representation, some choices of translation are more than strange, as the tendency of the author to translate the interjection 天 (god! heaven!) by “old bastard sky”. Why, god, why? Or translating 愤青 (literally “angry youth”) by “disenchanted youth” (p. 173) to embody the spirit of “the Chinese punks”, while it is supposed to represent angry young Chinese nationalists of the late 2000s

“Old bastard sky!”

Other details are more interesting, like the way young people were able to find pirated CDs in the 1990s, which reminds me of a testimony printed in the book New Sound of Beijing 北京心声 (1999), dedicated to the “dakou 打口 generation” (even if the dakou generation is supposed to be younger than the one depicted in Guo’s book):

All day long, we race around our bikes cutting through the wind and searching desperately for copies of Western novels and records we’ve heard of in the hidden bars downtown. Foreign CDs are hard to find. But I have gathered a lot of them. Stuff is happening, I can feel it. Perhaps 1989 did force the door open wider, but at the cost of so much blood.

I Am China, p. 56

The way Chinese musical censorship works is also interestingly depicted in the novel, especially when we think about the recent disappearance of Cui Jian’s songs on the Chinese internet. Nevertheless, in the novel, Chinese censorship also works in Western countries. Iona, the translator, cannot find anything related to Kublai Jian on Google because “everything’s probably been cleaned away by Chinese cyber police” (p. 142).

Another interesting point raised by the author is the relation between punk (rock) musicians and the elites. At some point we understand that Kublai Jian is [SPOILER] the son of the Chinese prime-minister. This is a bit far-fetched but let us remember that many Beijing rock and punk musicians were sons and daughters of high raking military officers, like the writer Chun Shu for example – who made the cover of Time Magazine in 2004.

Chun Shu and “China’s youth finally dare to be different” on February 2004.

If Guo Xiaolu did not succeed in accurately representing the Chinese punk community, she nonetheless produced some very personal description. Her depiction of Chinese radical performances of relates to her own experience in Beijing, as mentioned by an article in the South China Morning Post:

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.

South China Morning Post

At one point in the novel, Mu is touring the US, giving poetry performances in various American universities. At Harvard, Chinese students harassed her on the internet by posting negative comments, accusing her of betraying her country. During her performance, “two big fat Chinese boys jumped onstage and grabbed (her). They grabbed (her) arms exactly like the Red Guards had done to protesters during the Cultural Revolution. The only difference was that these little Red Guards were educated at Harvard, not in the rice fields of home” (p. 195). A vivid description that is again related to her own history:

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.”

South China Morning Post

A novel that tells us more about Guo Xiaolu’s personal history than on Chinese punk/rock. Punk is in this novel a tool, not the subject. We thus still have to wait for the “true” novel on Chinese punk.


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