Ready, Get Self, Go!

China’s younger generation discovers the identity crisis.

Also in Slate, Andrew Nathan reviews The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry, Minxin Pei reviews Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, and Nicholas Day takes on Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China.

“My youth began when I was twenty-one. At least, that’s when I decided it began. That was when I started to think that all those shiny things in life—some of them might possibly be for me.” These opening sentences of Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, a semiautobiographical novel by one of China’s young expatriate stars, 35-year-old filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Guo, have the sound of a generational mantra. Ask pianist Lang Lang, the 26-year-old virtuoso who will be performing at the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday and who has produced a ghost-written memoir (two, actually: a young-adult version and another for grown-ups) timed for the occasion. He, too, has lately been making up for a lost childhood. Chief among the youthful indulgences he and Guo’s narrator, Fenfang, tardily seize on is one that an older Chinese generation doesn’t begin to grasp: the thrilling pursuit of self-discovery.

It is, of course, one of the West’s favorite sports, and Xiaolu Guo and Lang Lang have rightly gauged the Olympic season to be an ideal moment to showcase the struggles of Chinese neophytes in this nationally unfamiliar endeavor. The coming-of-age marathon, you could call it. Life coaches might draw a common lesson from the experiences described in these very different books: The belatedly liberated self, primed by years of precociously mature discipline, just might leave the rest of us in the dust. Westerners, watch out!

“We don’t have much the individuality concept in China.” So explains Z, the narrator of Guo’s previous novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers(2007), who is learning English as she writes—and who shares Fenfang’s predicament: They are both young peasant women determined, in a global era, to escape the grinding confines of communal village life. Their goal in the big city is to explore that disorienting individuality concept. For Z, sent to London to learn English to help her parents’ burgeoning shoemaking business back home, the most challenging lesson of all is figuring out what she and the British man she quickly moves in with each mean when they “use the word ‘self,’ ” a novelty for her. In Twenty Fragments (which Guo wrote a decade ago in Chinese and recently decided to recast in English), Fenfang has escaped the sweet-potato fields to seek her fortune in Beijing’s TV-and-film industry. She veers wildly in her quest to define a more distinctive role for herself than Extra No. 6787, the identity stamped on her form by the employment office.

Lang Lang’s situation is a variation—in a very different key—on the same theme. Almost as soon as the 2-year-old boy sat down at the piano his musician parents bought for their apartment in the northeastern outpost of Shenyang, he began hearing a relentless refrain from his father, Lang Guoren: You will be “Number One.” Younger than Guo’s narrators, who were reared to serve family needs, Lang Lang was a “little emperor” of the one-child-policy era—hovered over by parents ready to sacrifice all to fulfill his illustrious trajectory. But that hardly spelled empowerment. Lang Guoren, his own musical career thwarted by the Cultural Revolution, directed his son’s every moment toward a single mission. Where Fenfang flees on her own to “cruel Beijing” to figure out what she might “care for in life,” Lang Lang at 9 was dragged there (and away from his beloved mother) by a fanatical paternal taskmaster intent on taking China’s grueling competition system by a storm. It was only after a teenage Lang Lang arrived in the United States, armed with a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, that the driven son and prize-obsessed performer found the freedom, and the need, to explore the possible meanings of that alien word self.

In many ways, of course, Lang Lang’s is a classic prodigy story. Yet he also casts it as a timely Chinese tale of blinkered discipline capped by Western-abetted creative self-expression (never mind entrepreneurial ambition: You wouldn’t know from his memoir what a spectacular self-promotional enterprise he has lately spearheaded). Guo, too, sees herself and her narrators in an emblematic light. “We’re the first generation to leave what we know out of choice, not for economic reasons, but to think about following our dreams,” Guo explained in an interview. The new venture can be almost as terrifying, in its way, as the coercive, collective uprooting endured by older generations in China. Z and Fenfang, setting out alone in gray cities, cleave so tightly to men that they must then claw their way free. For Lang Lang, the dream fueled by his father takes a nightmarish turn early on. When Lang Guoren’s intensity erupts into an insane attack on his son one day, the traumatized 9-year-old refuses to touch the piano for months and sinks into a depression.

Yet, if a lonely emptiness haunts the dislocated women and the motherless boy, so does a restless ambition and spirit of resilience. Guo’s narrators have a striking tenacity, hardly the navel-focused and commitment-averse style typically associated with Western self-seeking. Z gets frustrated with her British boyfriend, 20 years older than she and worn down by a defiant independence that has brought him scant happiness. He retreats from real intimacy and undermines his own talents, merely dabbling in sculpture and driving an old delivery van. For her, as for Fenfang, individualism and self-expression are mysteries that demand mastery, and they’re impatient, as Fenfang puts it, “to forge my self-centered individualist life into some kind of healthy activity,” whatever it takes. They’ve been raised to work hard, and, like their author—who has already written four novels and made five films—they don’t waste time, buffeted though they feel by urban chaos and private confusion. They’re determined to see for themselves, better late than never, whether ” ‘self’ is the original creativity for everything,” as Z exclaims in a giddy moment.

And where another boy might have been crushed by such a brutal father, and derailed as an artist by the urge to defy him, Lang Lang emerges a spiky-haired dynamo eager to put his own passionate mark on the music he plays—overeager, in fact, as critics began to say when the early raves for the prodigy faded. The teen version of his memoir (Playing With Flying Keys), packaged with a brief introduction by Daniel Barenboim about the deep pleasure that good practicing can bring, gives the odyssey a didactic spin: Lang Lang’s convalescence while an injured hand heals also helps cure a fragile and unexamined self. With the help of American friends and mentors, he has discovered a balanced soul within, he says, and has been liberated to explore other dimensions of life as well as the inner depths of music.

The adult version (Journey of a Thousand Miles), which is rawer and more direct—more youthful—from the start, betrays more of Lang Lang’s struggle to moderate an obsessive-compulsive dependence on the piano and temper a desperate need to win. Entering his 20s, his injury forces him finally to pause, and he discovers that he “didn’t have to practice ten hours a day to stay sane. … Was I ever really a normal teenager? Maybe not, but I also wasn’t crazy. The piano is a beautiful thing, but during that month I learned that it isn’t the only beautiful thing.” To a Western reader, though, the most amazing feat is his apparent ability to soar above his rage at a man who has heartlessly tyrannized him. Lang Lang discovers his inner child and finds he can be his own boss, and his father’s, too.

This unshackled young self takes charge with manic gumption, but also with grace. At his Carnegie Hall solo debut at 21 in 2003, he invites his father up on stage for one of his encores. It’s a duet for piano and erhu, the Chinese fiddle Lang Guoren plays expertly, and Lang Lang makes a point of noting that he has changed the original name of the piece, “Competing Horses” or “Horse Race,” to “Two Horses.” With that deft gesture, he conveys deference and at the same time claims his independence. Watch this video of the galloping pair, and it is obvious this son has no doubt now about who is leading the way.