Saturday, 19 January 2013

Guangdong - Girl Love in Guangzhou

I struggled to find a modern novel set in Guangdong.  As with Cantonese music and film, a lot of the best known works come from Hong Kong, rather than mainland China.  However, my research finally paid off and I came across a really interesting novel called February Flowers by Fan Wu.  Although she grew up in southern China, Fan Wu emigrated to the US, where she now works for Google, as well as being a writer!

A 'Who's who?' of Chinese literature

It's a real book-readers' book.  The main character, Ming Chen, is a serious student with a passion for literature and the novel contains a 'who's who?' of inspirational Chinese literature.  Ming and the other characters in the novel read Chinese classics such as, Dream of the Red Chamber and Laozi's, Tao Te Ching, but they also read modern Chinese writers, such as, Ba Jin, Lu Xun, Qian Zhongshu and Shen Congwen.  

At the beginning of the book, Ming is concerned with cleaning dust off the furniture and bookshelves, in her student dormitory.  Thoughts of 'being left on the shelf' come to mind, as Ming shows no interest in boys, or the world outside her precious books.  

Women in Love

Chrysanthemum by Juliana Coutinho
Ming's life is turned upside down when she meets an older female student, Miao Yan, who is wild and sensual, the complete opposite to Ming.  Throughout the novel, Miao is seen by Ming as a 'woman', whereas Ming is only seventeen and still a girl.  Ming falls in love with Miao or, at least, the idea of Miao and the allure of becoming a woman.  The novel is very much a coming-of-age story, set in Guangzhou during the 1990's, at a time when the city was experiencing an economic boom.   There's quite a beautiful paragraph in the book, when Ming describes the moment she first 'fell in love' with Miao.

'It was the early morning of a hot spring day.  The reddish morning light poured in through the half-opened door and there she was, whirling against it.  She looked so angelic, so delicate, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  I sat on the edge of my bed and watched her, my heart jumping, speechless.'

Extract from February Flowers by Fan Wu.  

Unnatural nature

Wu uses the imagery of flowers blooming in the concrete jungle, to represent Ming's coming-of-age.  The book opens with references to chrysanthemum and hibiscus, both very symbolic and sensual flowers.  Miao wears a flowery blouse that epitomises her 'womanliness'.  People in Guangdong hang flower-boxes outside their apartment windows, in an attempt to beautify an otherwise urban landscape.  Guangzhou itself is described as a forest of half-built commercial high-rises - a very unnatural version of nature!

North and South

Hibiscus by Marufish
It was interesting to see Guangdong through the eyes of characters from other parts of China.  There are very few Cantonese characters in the novel - those that are there, like Ming's room-mate Yishu, keep their distance from the non-Cantonese students.   For the other Chinese students, Guangdong is seen as a better place to live than northern or western China.  The standard of living is higher in Guangdong than in the provinces that the other students come from and many of the characters are desperate to find a job in Guangzhou or Shenzhen.  Some of students try to find Cantonese partners, so they can marry and not return to their home provinces.

The Mandarin/Cantonese divide is a strange one.  On one hand, Mandarin culture is the dominant one - the culture of the capital Beijing and the political establishment.  Whilst they look down their noses at the Cantonese and grumble about Cantonese people refusing to learn Mandarin, there is also a desire to stay in Guangdong and learn Cantonese, so they can find a long-term job in the province.  I get the impression that the Cantonese pretty much steer clear of mainstream China - doing their own thing, oblivious to what happens in Shanghai or Beijing.  The North might hold political power, but it's in the South that the real money can be made.

The lure of the Other

Tropical flower by Marufish
The book has also got a lot to say about race and, in typical Chinese fashion, people like Miao, who is from an ethnic minority, are represented as 'the exotic other'.  I explored this theme when I blogged about the 'fragrant concubine' of Xinjiang/Uyghuristan, so it's really interesting to see a similar depiction of an exotic other in Wu's novel.  Miao comes from the Miao (also known as Hmong) people of China's faraway provinces, such as Guizhou and Yunnan.  Whilst Ming is fascinated by her ethnicity, Miao seems embarrassed by it and, it's only towards the end of the novel, when Miao opens up and talks about her culture. 

Trying to understand Cantonese culture in such a short space of time has been a difficult task but, more than anything, I think Fan Wu's novel has brought me closer to an understanding of what life is like for people in Guangdong than anything else that I have read about China.  I'd definitely recommend it and I look forward to reading more Chinese literature for future blog posts. 

Image credits:

The image of the chrysanthemum was taken by flickr member, Juliana Coutinho who is from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.  You can see more of Juliana's work on her website.  Also, if you read Portuguese, there is a nice description of chrysanthemum on this photo's page

The photos of the hibiscus and the tropical flower are from flickr member, Marufish who is from Alor Setar in Malaysia.  You can see more of Marufish's photos on their photo stream

Thanks to Juliana and Marufish for sharing these wonderful images with us, using the Creative Commons License. 
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