Daily life in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.
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"No Romance": A short story from Xiaolu Guo

You can check any Chinese dictionary, there's no word for romance.

You can check any Chinese dictionary, there's no word for romance.

We say "Lo Man", copying the English pronunciation. What the fuck use was a word like romance to me anyway? There wasn't much of it about in China, and Beijing was the least romantic place in the whole universe. "Eat first, talk later," as old people say. Anyway, there was zero romance between me and Xiaolin.

We met when I was in this TV series set in the imperial court of the Qing dynasty. The whole set was a reproduction of what life looked like 300 years ago. The peonies in the vases were all made from paper, and the lotus lilies in the pond were plastic. I was playing one of the Princess's many servant girls, a role that required me to wear a thick fake plait. It was so heavy it pulled my head backwards. The make-up assistant had given me a disdainful look and sniffed at the length of my hair, before grabbing a handful of it and attaching the chunky braid. My scenes involved walking solemnly into the palace, pouring tea for my Princess, or combing my Princess's hair. All without speaking, of course.

Xiaolin was Assistant to the Producer. His job was to chauffeur the Producer around, bark out orders on his behalf, and basically eat, drink and sleep for him. As well as this he was expected to nanny the whole crew. The first time Xiaolin and I spoke was during a lunch break.

Every day we would all queue for lunchboxes. Key cast members and important behind-the-scenes people - the TV show's upper class - were given a large lunchbox worth eight yuan. The extras, the assistants and the runners received a smaller five-yuan lunchbox. Water was free.

I had collected my five-yuan lunchbox - pickled cucumber, rice with not more than one centimetre of meat - and was sitting alone in a corner to eat, avoiding conversation. I didn't want to talk to anyone. Instead I watched the crew members out of the corner of my eye as they discussed the actress's large bra, the Director's new mistress, or the recent news, featured in that day's Beijing Evening, that a serial killer was on the loose. Then I saw a young man walking towards me. It was Xiaolin. He was tall, with a body like a solid pine tree. He stopped in front of me, holding out one of the large lunchboxes.

"You like fish?" he said. "There's one left."

I have to say, I didn't feel anything special towards Xiaolin at first. He was too male, with his big feet and big hands. To me, that wasn't beautiful, or "city" enough. He looked like any young man from my village with dust in their hair. Which was strange, since he was actually a Beijinger born and bred. Anyway, eat first, talk later.

I took the lunchbox and started to devour the juicy pieces of carp. There was no doubt about it, it was tastier than my five-yuan lunch. By the time I had finished the fish, I was feeling warmer towards Xiaolin. In all the time I'd been in Beijing, no one had ever offered me a lunch like that. It was something.

Between mouthfuls, I cast furtive glances at my lunch-giver. I noticed his rice was swimming in a sea of black soy sauce. At that time I didn't know Xiaolin loved to add heaps of soy sauce to his rice. And he had to have a particular brand - Eight Dragons Soy Sauce. He could eat a whole bowl of rice with Eight Dragons and not need anything else. Anyway, as he tucked into his rice, he told me how he hated the hierarchy on the set. He hated the pretentious actors he had to deal with. Xiaolin said the best people were the extras. Then he said to me, "You don't look like an actress. You're not snooty enough."

Not snooty enough? I felt offended. But maybe he was right, otherwise why did I still only get lousy roles like "Woman walking over the bridge in the background" or "Waitress wiping some stupid table"?

Then he asked my age, and I asked his. That's the tradition in China. If we know each other's ages we can understand each other's past. We Chinese have been collective for so long, personal histories are not worth mentioning. Therefore as soon as Xiaolin and I knew how old the other was, we knew exactly what big shit had happened in our lives. The introduction of the One Child Policy shortly before our births, for instance, and the fact that, in 1985, two pandas were sent to the USA as a national gift and we had to sing a tearful panda song at school. 1989 was the Tiananmen Square student demonstration, etc. Anyway, Xiaolin was one year younger than me, so I assumed we were from the same generation. But when he said he had never once left Beijing, I changed my mind. It was clear he wouldn't understand why I had left home. Perhaps we were from different generations after all.

If I had been thinking straight, I would have realised that Xiaolin wasn't for me. His animal sign was the rooster, and they say the monkey and the rooster don't mix. But I was young. I didn't think about the future seriously. I was just in search of those shiny things . . .

Soon after Xiaolin gave me the lunchbox, the crew had a day off. He wanted to take me swimming. He said he knew a reservoir on the outskirts of Beijing that used to be a part of some Yuan Emperor's garden. I immediately agreed, although I didn't know how to swim. Forget the swimming, let's just see the kind of place Emperors used to go, I thought.

I warned him that I didn't have a swimming costume and I was scared of water, but Xiaolin said he would sort it out. So we went to Xidan department store and he bought me an apple-green bathing suit. Then we caught a bus on Long Peace Street, and we passed the solemn Forbidden City and the grand Friendship Hotel, in the end we crossed the whole capital. That was the highlight of the day. Everything else was pretty disappointing.

For a start, the place was nothing like an Emperor's garden. Just some boring little hill with a murky little pond in the middle. The scorching sun was beating down on our heads and even the pond looked thirsty. It wasn't that the landscape was ugly exactly, it's just that you wouldn't take a photo of it. Xiaolin pulled off his T-shirt and jumped straight into the mossy water. I turned around and changed into my brand-new swimsuit. When I looked back, I saw Xiaolin swimming off to the other side of the pond. He didn't give a damn that I was scared of water. In that moment, I thought that I would never learn how to swim if I stayed with him. Sometimes you just know these things, even if you can't explain how. It's fate, if you believe in fate.

As soon as my foot touched it, the shapeless liquid wanted to swallow me. The rock I was standing on was slippery and sharp. I lost my balance, fell into the black water and started to scream. Xiaolin swam back and dragged me out.

So I ended up sitting on the bank, with water dripping from my body, and my legs covered in pondweed. I watched Xiaolin swimming, from left to right, from near to far. What did the Emperor do here? I wondered. Would he swim with his concubines? And how did his concubines learn how to swim? While I was thinking about all this, Xiaolin was floating in the water as effortlessly as a duck. He didn't have anything particular to say to me, as if, on a first date, swimming in circles while the girl watches from the bank was the most normal thing to do.

From that day on, Xiaolin and I were together. I lived with his family in the tiny one-bedroom flat that was their home. A collective of three generations: his parents, his father's mother, his two younger sisters and us, not forgetting two brown cats and a white dog - all sleeping and coughing in the one bedroom. A solid family life, no romance, and I knew there would never be any.

There were moments when I glimpsed a different Xiaolin. He would hold my hand in the cinema and, afterwards, buy me barbecued squid in the night street. Sometimes, when we were out for a walk, he stopped and kissed me on the head. And in bed, whether sound asleep or restless with frenzied dreams, Xiaolin always held me close, as though afraid of our naked bodies parting. If I slept with my back to him, he would curl his body around mine, his arm resting on my ribcage, his warm, hairy legs entangled with my legs. I, too, depended on him to sleep. I'd prop my toes on his ankles, and stroke his fingernails with my thumb. Sometimes, if I slept with my ear on his chest, I could hear his heart beat like a drum.

But most of the time Xiaolin was either angry or zombie-like. He was stuck in a rut. Get up, go to work, go to bed. Never any change. For every meal, the three animals and six humans in Xiaolin's family (seven, if you included me) huddled round the small, circular table in the small, square room. The food was the same, the whole time I lived there. Eight Dragons Soy Sauce with rice, Eight Dragons with noodles, Eight Dragons with dumplings. We lived so close to each other, every millimetre of the floor was used. The two cats would pee in a sandbox, but the dog always shat beside our bed. He also kept making neighbours' bitches pregnant.

After three years, the grandmother was even more decrepit, and the two little sisters were getting on my nerves. There was no oxygen left in the room, I was worn out. It was like being back with the rotten sweet potatoes. I wanted to run and run and run.

Xiaolu Guo was born in 1973 in a fishing village in China, moving to London in 2002. In 2013 she was made one of Granta Magazine's Best of Young British Novelists.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain