DAVID GREENE, host:
This week, we're looking at communist China at 60 through the eyes of three generations of authors. We started with the oldest and end with the youngest. Today, we meet a 25-year-old who's been China's highest earning author for the past two years. In that time, he's made a staggering three-and-a-half million dollars. But his work has been attacked for being too commercial and narcissistic, the very criticism targeted at China's younger generation. NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Shanghai.
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LOUISA LIM: Guo Jingming is a different kind of writer. For a start, he's the man singing this love song, which he penned himself. This 25-year-old author is a celebrity, more of a pop idol than a writer. He poses for pinups, drives a Cadillac and sometimes takes bodyguards to book signings to protect him from the devotions of his young female fans. When asked about his runaway success, he paints himself as the voice of a generation.
Mr. GUO JINGMING (Author): (Through Translator) Before me, Chinese authors were pretty old. And today's young people don't understand life depicted by older authors. So they like my work because it's by a writer their age, about stuff very close to their lives.
LIM: In person, Guo is a 5'1" androgynous sprite, sitting on a white fur couch in his office, his dyed chestnut locks tucked into a black Gucci cap, his white jeans cinched with a Hermes belt.
His latest book - his seventh - "Tiny Times" is smattered with mentions of Louis Vuitton, Dior and Gucci. The book describes the lives and loves of four female university students - "The Devil Wears Prada" meets "Sex and the City," without much sex.
Guo says that going from the southwestern city of Chongqing to university in Shanghai and realizing he was poorer than the others was a formative experience.
Mr. JINGMING: (Through Translator) If you're the poorest out of all your friends, you don't have a sense of freedom. You think a lot about the pressures of life. China's young people nowadays are divided quite obviously into different classes. Some people are very rich, some are average.
Money is unashamedly king in Guo's world. Betrayal of love for money is a theme of "Tiny Times," which is subtitled "Dirty Secrets Make Friends." He says later novels in the five-part series will chart how materialism destroys idealism. But he admits that he doesn't write to educate or influence readers. And he couldn't care less about history, even recent history, like the killings in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when he was just 5 years old.
Mr. JINGMING: (Through Translator) I don't understand June the Fourth. I don't know too much about it. I don't like history or politics. I just want to have a good career and expand my company.
LIM: With his disregard for politics and his headlong embrace of commercialism, he's the new face of the establishment. At just 23, he made news as the youngest-ever member of China's Writers Association. He has a position at a state-run publishing house, and he runs his own biweekly magazine, Top Novel, where he's serializing the sequel to "Tiny Times."
Each magazine sells half a million copies. On top of that, he's a judge for a talent contest for young writers, run with Penguin publishing house. Penguin's general manager in Beijing, Jo Lusby, says his preoccupations are typical of young authors.
Ms. JO LUSBY (General Manager in Beijing, Penguin Publishing House): It's about me, my girlfriend, my boyfriend, my school, my parents, my life, where am I going, where am I heading. It's very personal. They're not sitting down, tackling China. And to be honest, I think if they did, they probably wouldn't be successful, because they don't have the perspective. They don't have the maturity as human beings.
LIM: Quite simply, his is the first generation in Chinese history to have the luxury of selfishness. It's a luxury Guo Jingming is capitalizing on in every sense of the word. He has no problem commodifying himself. In fact, he's determined to do just that. That is clear when he talks about his blog. He's posted poetry and pictures of himself — sometimes bare-chested, sometimes snuggled up in bed, always looking soulful. But he's cutting back on blogging to build brand value.
Mr. JINGMING: (Through Translator) I still publish my picture and writings in my magazine. That way, they translate into value. On my blog, they were free. In the magazines, they become product. I haven't stopped building my brand. I just don't want to give away product to consumers.
Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: He's also branched out into film. He wrote the screenplay for "The Promise," a big budget film which tanked the box office. His prolific output has led to rumors of ghostwriters, which he denies.
But he has been found guilty of plagiarism. In 2004, a court found Guo Jingming's novel "Never Flowers in Never Land" shared 12 major plot elements and 57 similarities with a book by author called Zhuang Yu. He paid out $24,000 in damages, but wouldn't apologize. Today, he refuses to talk about the case.
He's determined to stick to the positive, a trait echoed in his work and his view of his country.
Mr. JINGMING: (Through Translator) I really like my country, and I'm honored to be Chinese. I don't really criticize society. I want to display the beautiful and bright side of society. I may touch on the negative side, but that's not my focus. I want to express what people cherish about society.
LIM: Critics say he epitomizes the blind narcissism of China's youth. He doesn't shy away from this, admitting all of his characters are inspired by traits of his own personality.
The search for the ultimate validation - love - runs through "Tiny Times." But Guo Jingming smiles when asked about his own love life. I don't have time for that, he says. My priority is my career.
INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Louisa Lim introduce us to three generations of Chinese writers over the last three mornings.
And Louisa, I can't help but noticing, when you talked the other day with the older writer, he was the one - the guy who'd been involved in the early days of the revolution - he was the one that's a pro-democracy activist now, and here's the younger writer who seems to be out for himself and is very engaged with system. Is it fair to say that those two men really represent the way that different generations in China are going?
LIM: Well, there is a huge generation gap in China between older Chinese and younger Chinese. And one way of looking at it is seeing how idealistic they are. The older generation really were very idealistic indeed, were willing to sacrifice their lives for their ideals. And like the older author, if this involved spending time in prison in order to stick to his ideals, then he would do it.
INSKEEP: And if it means fighting for democracy now, he's still being an idealist.
LIM: Absolutely. But the younger generation is much more pragmatic. They're more concerned about having a comfortable life, about being happy, about making other people happier, and this really shines through their writing.
INSKEEP: Louisa, thanks very much.
LIM: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Louisa Lim has been talking with three generations of Chinese writers on the 60th anniversary of China's Communist Revolution, which comes this year. Next week, Louisa will be back to talk with us about another anniversary: the 20th anniversary of the student uprisings in Tiananmen Square. She'll ask what the leaders of those uprisings are doing now.
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INSKEEP: And you can hear more, or find more on Louisa Lim's series about China by going to npr.org.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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