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A Pop Idol Writer For China's New Generation

As the People's Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 60th birthday, what is the state of the world's most populous nation? We posed the question to three bestselling Chinese authors from different generations and look at their country through their works.

Young, rich and flamboyant, Guo Jingming is a different kind of Chinese author.

At 25, he is 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. In addition to his novels, he penned the theme song for an American Idol-style talent show called Happy Boy and recorded himself singing a love ballad.

His work has been attacked for commercialism and narcissism, the very criticism often directed at China's generation of only children under the one-child policy. But his popularity is unmistakable: He reportedly has earned $3.5 million in the past two years as the nation's top-selling author.

The Voice Of China's 'Me' Generation?

When asked about his runaway appeal, Guo portrays himself as the voice of a generation.

"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," he says.

At just over 5 feet tall, Guo is an androgynous sprite. He sits 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 describes the lives and loves of four female university students. It is part The Devil Wears Prada and part Sex and the City, without much sex. The narrative is smattered with mentions of Louis Vuitton, Dior and Gucci.

Money is unashamedly king in Guo's world. And 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 — the first part is titled Tiny Times 1.0 — 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 of pro-democracy demonstrators by soldiers in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when he was just 5 years old. "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," he says.

Guo grew up in the southwestern city of Chongqing. Attending university in Shanghai, he realized he was poorer than the other students. It was a formative experience, he says.

"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," he says.

Embracing Commercialism, With Little Regard For The Past

With his disregard for politics and his headlong embrace of commercialism, he is 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 a biweekly magazine, circulation 500,000, called Top Novel, where he is serializing the sequel to Tiny Times.

Guo serves as a judge for a talent contest for young writers, run with the Penguin publishing house. Penguin's general manager in Beijing, Jo Lusby, says his preoccupations are typical of young authors.

"It's very self-focused. It's about me, my girlfriend, my boyfriend, my school, my parents, where am I heading. It's very personal," Lusby says of Guo and his generation of writers. "They're not sitting down, tackling China. And to be honest, if they did, they probably wouldn't be successful, since they don't have the perspective, they don't have the maturity as human beings."

Guo's is the first generation in Chinese history to have the luxury of selfishness. Guo is capitalizing on the luxury in every sense of the word with self-promotion. On his blog, he has posted poetry and pictures of himself — sometimes bare-chested, sometimes snuggled up in bed, always looking soulful.

But he is cutting back on blogging to build brand value and profits for his magazine.

"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," he says.

He has also branched out into films, writing the screenplay for Chen Kaige's film The Promise, which bombed. His prolific output has led to rumors of ghostwriters, which he denies.

In 2004, a court found that Guo's novel Never Flowers in Never Land shared 12 major plot elements and 57 similarities with a book by another author. He paid out $24,000 in damages but would not apologize. He refuses to talk about the case.

He is determined to stick to the positive, a trait echoed in his work and his view of his country.

"I really like my country, and I am 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," he says.

Critics say he epitomizes the blind narcissism of China's youth. He doesn't shy away from this, admitting that all of his characters are inspired by traits of his own personality.

The search for the ultimate validation — love — runs through Tiny Times. Guo smiles when asked about his own love life.

"I don't have time for that," he says. "My priority is my career."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.