Nine Continents

Written By: Xiaolu Guo

Published By: Grove Press

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


                I’ve always been fascinated with the Chinese culture and have tried to learn more about it.  We touched upon it very briefly in school, but really not enough to quench my curiosity.  As an avid history buff, I want to know more about the people and what better way to learn than by reading memoirs.  Thus, I am very grateful to for allowing me the opportunity to read Nine Continents, a memoir by Xiaolu Guo.

                Touted as one of the most acclaimed Chinese-born writers of her generation, Xiaolu Guo begins her memoir with the birth of her daughter in a maternity ward in London.  She is surprised by the urgent desire to speak with her mother…to tell a woman whom she has very little in common with about the birth of her granddaughter.  As her mother admonishes her and begs her to come home, Xiaolu thinks back to her start in life and all of the obstacles she has surpassed to get where she is today.

                We begin with her childhood living with her grandmother and grandfather in a shack located in a fishing village on the East China Sea.  Her grandfather was a former fisherman with a penchant for drinking and an abusive nature.  Her grandmother is an illiterate woman who loves her granddaughter immensely, but is powerless to provide her with a better life.  Xiaolu is actually quite lucky to be with her grandparents – after all, she was given away to a farming family at birth.  When the family realized they couldn’t care for her, she was returned to her grandparents, her parents long gone from the village.

                As Xaiolu gets older, she has more and more questions about her parents and the ways in which the world works.  Coming upon some students painting scenes in the village, she is taken with the arts, marveling at the students’ interpretations of things she has taken for granted.  It is then that the inspiration for her love of art is born.  We soon learn that art is in her blood.

                As the story moves forward, we discover that Xiaolu’s father was an artist who found himself on the wrong side of things once Mao came to power.  He had become a prisoner and he met her mother through the daily shaming he was forced to undergo under her watch.  They fell in love, much to everyone’s chagrin and married, despite what others might think.  Xiaolu’s parents eventually return to the village to take her to their home, but it’s not exactly a happy home.  Though her father seems overjoyed to have his daughter home, her mother is none too pleased, doting on her brother and casting her wrath on Xiaolu.

                Eventually, Xiaolu follows in the path of her father, though she decides to use words as her chosen form of art rather than paint.  Her progress is spurred on by a father who believes in her and a desire to see the world outside of China.  She eventually goes on to write screenplays and novels, but something about the birth of her child draws her home. 

                Nine Continents is a fascinating journey through the culture of China as seen through the eyes of a once abandoned child who would develop into an artistic phenom.   Through Xiaolu’s eyes, we see the reality of peasant life.  Those living in the village where she grew up were often illiterate and Xiaolu would have been destined to follow in her beaten and downtrodden grandmother’s footsteps had her father not returned for her.  A precocious little girl, always yearning for knowledge, it probably would have been torture for Xiaolu if she had to endure an arranged marriage and a life filled with abuse and poverty.

It is easy to see how Xiaolu would want to leave China and see the rest of the world, particularly because of the suppression of artists in her recent history, beginning with her father and eventually flowing down to her.  All artists yearn for freedom of expression and Xiaolu knew she would never find this true freedom if she remained in the country.  Having no real tangible ties, except for her bond with her father, she was free to explore and express her own ideas through the written word, something her father would have loved to do if given the opportunity.

Through Xiaolu we learn about the culture of small, poor towns in China, their people’s beliefs and practices.  We also learn of the growth of movie media throughout the years in China and the restrictions placed upon art by the government, depending on the regime in charge.  Most importantly, we travel through it with a young woman strong enough to rise above adversity and make her mark on the world.  Nine Continents is definitely worth reading!


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