Growing up in a Communist house in 1970s and 1980s China, I never encountered any children’s books. Fairy tales were not encouraged in China at that time. Instead we were fed heroic stories about Communist revolutionaries. A seven-year-old child would be taught at school to defend his country against the American imperialists.
I was already sixteen when I first read a children’s story – it was Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. At that time I was still living in southern China with my Communist parents. I was terribly affected by this beautiful story. I loved it intensely. My heart was broken when I read that the little mermaid had to cut off her tail in order to become a woman and gain the love of the prince. It presented me with a very different world – the one the Chinese government wasn’t interested in showing. It showed me that the human world is a seductive but cruel and painful place. Not only did the little mermaid have to dance for the prince on her bleeding feet, he also abandoned her and married another girl – a supposed princess. When I read the ending, in which the little mermaid dies and her body dissolves into foam, I was in tears. I remember walking alongside the fields of blooming rapeseed on my way from home to school. I was soaked in a deep sense of melancholy. Love and adulthood are brutal, I thought. No wonder my parents and my school kept telling us not to fall in love yet, certainly not when we were still young; if we did, our future would be totally ruined.
Obviously I was under the influence of Communist ideology then: personal love was not a great thing to pursue when there was a greater love – the love for your country and for your people.
Years passed. I left my small Chinese village for Beijing to study art. Then I left China for the West. After I left steamy southern China, I lived in many countries, working on novels and making films. Still, I didn’t have any interest in children’s books – I thought that I had long passed that age and it belonged to a past that never was. Then all of sudden, I found myself turning forty, an age that presages great changes for a woman. I realised that I was no longer that young Communist punk. And then, not long after I was forty, I gave birth, in London, to my first child. How incredible! I thought to myself: I’ve been a militant feminist for so many years and now I have become the mother of a girl! As I carried the little child in my sling, I entered a bookshop and bought a few picture books, including a copy of Heidi, which I had never read before. This event was followed by another coincidence. A day after I bought the beautifully illustrated Heidi, I received a letter from the Literature House in Zurich, inviting me to be their writer in residence for six months.
I was happy to accept this invitation. I looked at the brand-new copy of the book about Heidi I had just bought and I thought: this is perfect. Now I would be able to learn what Heidi’s world was like – Switzerland and the Alps, childhood and motherhood! I would start to learn new things, like a little baby; like my own daughter, Moon.
So I left London for Zurich with my little one and my partner, and with Heidi in my suitcase. We were stunned by the peace and beauty of the city. Our house was very close to Zuriberg, a hill covered in pine forest – a very un-urban environment compared to Beijing or London. In the evening, in our apartment on Hegibachstrasse, I began to read Heidi to my child:
‘The little old town of Mayenfeld is charmingly situated. From it a footpath leads through green, well-wooded stretches to the foot of the heights which look down imposingly upon the valley…’
Chinese people, when we think about Switzerland, think of something opposite to Chinese society. Switzerland is apolitical, democratic and multilingual, with pristine mountains and clean rivers, and the highest standard of living. China is everything but these things. After we arrived here, we travelled around the country, from the German part to the French part. And it seemed to me obvious that, besides its wealth, Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth. Here money hasn’t ruined nature. On the contrary, money has protected nature – something China is not able to achieve at the moment. I also found the system of four languages-in-one-country fascinating, given that I have come from a monolingual culture. Yes, the grass on the other side is always greener.
So far, I hadn’t encountered much of the negative side of Swiss culture, which the cliché says is inward, conservative and sometimes dull. But even if there were some truth in those clichés, I asked myself, what mountain people in this world would be fast and modern? People living on the Himalayas or the Andes? The Swiss I have met (playwrights, scientists, psychologists and architects) are bright and self-critical people. They seem to be very aware of their blessed living conditions. Perhaps that’s why they are a bit apologetic when they are with foreigners. I didn’t meet a banker in Switzerland; perhaps most of the bankers had gone to London or New York to do business? During my residency, we visited Bern, Basel, Luzern, Lausanne and Geneva. In one of those hotel rooms in the mountains, I contemplated the grand vista of nature around me and wondered about the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. I thought that their philosophical life must have been shaped and influenced by those snowcapped mountains and fast-flowing rivers; as the Chinese would say: ‘kind men love mountains and wise men prefer water’. Men search for their own type of harmony.
After I finished reading Heidi to my child, I watched two film versions of the book. I imagined myself as an orphan growing up in the Alps. But I couldn’t picture myself being happy on those mountains – I would be afraid of the bad-tempered grandfather, and I would surely feel very lonely without people around. But maybe that’s because I was never a Swiss girl. Perhaps a Swiss girl doesn’t see peacefulness as loneliness, because she doesn’t grow up in a populated, busy and ever-changing urban world. Then I thought about my adopted country – Britain. Britain is a country with working-class kids fighting on its mean streets, which are stained by rain and littered by rubbish. Being an English orphan is surely very different from being a Swiss one. Oliver Twist in urban, industrial England had to work as a child labourer and young thief to fill his stomach. There were no flowers or cute animals in that grey and polluted factoryland. There were only beggars, capitalists and policemen.
In Zurich, almost every day, we walked down to the lake and swam there. I was never inclined to sports. But perhaps because I knew that we would never be able to live in this expensive city if we were not invited by the Literature House, I decided to appreciate the place. On one of our walking tours, led by locals, I learned that Vladimir Lenin had been exiled in Zurich during WWI before he undertook the October Revolution. As I walked around the narrow, cobbled streets in the old town of Zurich, I imagined the famous Russian revolutionary writing his April Thesis, his future plan for the Bolshevik Party and a new government. I pictured him working in one of these brightly lit cafés, quiet, elegant, devoid of political atmosphere – an environment opposite to Russia then. And here I was, in a softly lit café in central Zurich. I was writing my memoir – a book about my poverty-ridden childhood in rural China under the yoke of Communist dogma.
We are no longer in Heidi’s time. The modern-day Heidi would be sent to a school downtown (probably studying Chinese as her second language). It’s incredible to think that only 150 years ago most people were still living in rural areas and undertaking real travel with their own feet or carts. Since the invention of commercial air travel in the US in 1914, the world has changed radically. Now we are on a totally different planet: fast, urbanised, technical and global.
The day before we left Switzerland, I climbed the Alps with my Swiss friends. At one point, I found myself breathing heavily, standing in the deep snow on a 3,000-metre-high mountaintop. We were on Titlis, near Engelberg, with a panoramic, yet empty view beneath us. The scenery was almost too spiritual for a Chinese woman like me, who had grown up in hot, muddy rice paddies swamped by mosquitoes and human activity. I gazed down at the unspoiled slope under some cliffs, wondering if I could survive on a Swiss mountain – cutting off all connections to the culture I grew up in. Then I heard a string of clicking camera sounds. I turned around in the thin air, discovering that I was surrounded by armies of Chinese tourists. But none of them had climbed the mountain with their own feet. They had taken the ski lift. Some of them even wore flip-flops! They stood on the top for about eight to ten minutes, just enough time to take some photos. Then they collectively disappeared down the hill via the ski lift again. I presumed that their Chinese lunch was ready in the local Chinese restaurant in Engelberg – named ‘Moon Rise’ – which I had also visited. Seeing my fellow Chinese natives leave the mountain for their spicy pork noodle lunch, I lost my intention to have a spiritual conversation with solemn nature and silent snow. I was keen to get back to Earth. On the way down to the village, the sentences from Heidi began to ring in my ears:
‘They started merrily up the Alp. A cloudless, deep-blue sky looked down on them, for the wind had driven away every little cloud in the night. The fresh green mountainside was bathed in brilliant sunlight, and many blue and yellow flowers had opened. Heidi was wild with joy…’
As we descended, I wondered: do we spend enough time looking at what lies around us on our planet? Don’t we owe a big debt to nature? It seemed to me that our modern life has driven us further and further away from the source of everything. We consumers only consume nature, and nature doesn’t want us and doesn’t really need us. There will be no more Heidis in this world, there to appreciate the contours of nature with wild joy.
By Xiaolu Guo
Xiaolu Guo was born in south China. She studied film at the Beijing Film Academy and published six books in China before she moved to London in 2002. She has lived and worked all over Europe, including Switzerland, where she also teaches. In 2013 she was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Xiaolu has also directed several award-winning films.