A Lover’s Discourse

Xiaolu Guo

November 4, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Xiaolu Guo’s latest novel, A Lover’s Discourse, an exploration of romantic love told through fragments of conversations between the two lovers. Guo’s first novel written in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and, in 2013, she was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. A former fellow at the Columbia Institute of Ideas and Imagination in Paris, she teaches at Columbia University.

An Ordinary Tradesman’s Job

– It’s an ordinary tradesman’s job, why do you want to waste time recording this?
– Maybe it’s ordinary. But I find it interesting.
– No. It’s just placing one bit of paint on another.

The next day, after sleeping in my sweat without turning on the air conditioning, I woke up in a sticky and slimy bed. It was almost forty degrees, and it was not yet noon. The humid subtropical climate affected my body with a very different metabolism. I was longing for an iced Coke, but there was not even a fridge in my hotel room. Only a plastic kettle sat by my bedside, waiting for me to boil some water.

I took a cold shower. I’d almost forgotten the feeling of standing under a cold shower—something I had not done since I left China. Memories of childhood summers returned to me. I saw myself waking up from a siesta and eating a bowl of iced mint jelly, or killing mosquitoes with an electric fan in our backyard, or stealing watermelons from a field with the neighbourhood kids. Back then my father was healthy and happy. I could always turn to him if my mother was hassling me to do something I didn’t want to do. All this was gone now. People grew old, became ill and then died. And I had become a grown-up. Now I was a woman who lived in a cold northern country, trying to build my life with a white man, a WASP.

After the shower, I put on a light dress and opened the window. The heat outside seeped in and soon evaporated my melancholy. I went down to the street with my camera equipment. By the road, I ate a bowl of wonton soup with two steamed buns as the dust rolled past. Right next to me, painting workshops and art stores lined up. You could find a copy of any artist you liked displayed in the shop windows: Monet, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Pollock, Chagall, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse. There were also the classical Chinese ones too, the inky landscape scrolls from Tang Dynasty Wang Wei and Wu Daozi.

I entered one workshop, then another. After chatting with the workers, I checked a few more stores. It seemed to me that this artisan village was based on a traditional working household: the husband would be painting a Monet while his wife prepared a new canvas and the grandparents cooked in the back. At the same time their cousin or uncle would be making a picture frame in the yard, ready for the newly painted Monet. They spoke of simple things, and did not have much education. Almost all of them were migrants from poorer parts of China. They were easy to talk to, and almost oblivious to my camera.

‘It’s an ordinary tradesman’s job, why do you want to waste time recording me?’ The worker spoke in front of his painting, yawning, and carried on applying colour to his Monet.

‘Maybe it’s ordinary. But I find it interesting.’

‘No. It’s just placing one bit of paint on another.’

He opened his mouth wide, making another loud yawn, and took a break from his Water Lily Pond. He drank a mouthful of Coke, reaching out for a spiced chicken foot on a plate next to his paints.

All afternoon and into the evening, I wandered through a maze of workshops, filming the artisans working. It was always the same: their shopfront displayed the paintings they had copied, and the family would live in the back or upstairs. Every house was a self-contained factory, with adults labouring away, and kids studying or playing in the yard. This was not so different from where I came from. In my home town, one street would produce large quantities of shoes or clothes with all family members involved in the labour, while another street would specialise in hardware products or, say, herbal medicine. As we say: fei shui bu wai liu—肥水不外流: don’t spill your soup outside the house, and keep the best cuts for the family.


Klimt’s Kiss

Did you paint this Klimt?
– Yes. I was so bored copying that I changed the man into a pig for fun. Don’t take it too seriously!

Then I saw a large reproduction of Modigliani’s Nu Couché hanging at the front of a corner shop. The reclining red nude looked very striking in the shadowy alleyway where peasants and workers rushed back and forth with their goods bundled on their motorbikes. A static two-dimensional sprawling body in the flow of street life. As if under a spell, I walked towards the painting. It looked almost authentic, and beautiful: the elongated eyes, the black hair, the breasts and nipples, as well as the brown pubic hair. It was clear that even a copy of the original was attractive. I liked the copy, though I remembered the original in Tate Modern was much darker, not so red. This Chinese worker loved red too much. Perhaps he thought it would be more eye-catching? Perhaps Amedeo Modigliani would not have been too upset if he had discovered his most famous painting had ended up here, as a reproduction. At least he might be happy that his nude woman was not censored here, in a still Communist China.

All afternoon and into the evening, I wandered through a maze of workshops, filming the artisans working. It was always the same.

Behind the red nude, through the lit window, I saw a man cutting a watermelon for his two small children. An electric fan spun on the ceiling. Behind him, an unfinished Klimt’s Kiss. But when I looked carefully, I saw it was not exactly Klimt. The male figure who was kissing the female figure had been given a pig’s head. How incredible! Had the painter done this? It reminded me of the Nigerian American portrait painter Kehinde Wiley who had copied Caravaggio. This was like something Wiley might have done. I thought I should just walk in and film this man. With the watermelon and the pig-headed Klimt’s Kiss it would make a good scene.

‘Did you paint this Klimt?’ I asked the man, pointing at the pig head.

‘Yes. I was so bored copying that I changed the man into a pig for fun. Don’t take it too seriously!’ The worker-painter laughed, then looked at me with his wrinkled eyes. He put down the dripping watermelon, and lit a cigarette. Then I noticed another painting in the corner: The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. The central figure was not Venus but a standing goat! As I stood there in amazement, children ran around me screaming and fighting. Now one of them grabbed a smartphone and began to play a video game.

The worker-painter seemed a little uncomfortable with the attention I was giving to the goat Venus. He hurried to put away the Klimt and Botticelli mockeries, and placed the perfectly copied Modigliani piece in front of me.

‘Do you like this?’

‘Yes.’ I nodded. ‘How much are you selling this for?’

‘This is my display copy so I need to keep it. If you can wait a day or two, I can paint a new one for you for about 250 yuan.’

Did I really want this piece of reproduction? Just for academic interest? I asked myself. Perhaps not. Maybe I should ask him to paint something from Leonardo da Vinci that would be a good present for my professor in London. He had just emailed about my fieldwork. Would Prof Stanley like to have a large Virgin of the Rocks, or even Salvator Mundi above his office desk? I pondered.

The Virgin of the Rocks

– The rocks are easy to paint) but not the angel or that woman.
– The woman? You mean the Virgin Mary?

I decided not to buy the Modigliani reproduction. Instead, I would film Li Bing painting da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks. And I would take that to Britain. He asked about The Virgin of the Rocks. He had never painted it before and didn’t know it. He had done the Mona Lisa dozens of times for his customers, though he didn’t think it was beautiful as a painting. It usually took him two days for a Mona Lisa. ‘But after I finish the painting, it will take more days to dry. And my hairdryer is old and noisy.’

I showed Li Bing an iPhone image of The Virgin of the Rocks. He then found another picture on his phone. The version he found was the Virgin Mary in a blue robe, not a green one. This was the version hung in the National Gallery in London. He looked at the image for a few seconds, and frowned.

‘I will need at least three days to do it.’ He shook his head. ‘Too many people in it: two women and two babies. Plus those strange rocks! They are like our crazy mountains in Guangxi Province!’

Maybe I should ask him to paint something from Leonardo da Vinci that would be a good present for my professor in London. He had just emailed about my fieldwork.

I nodded in agreement. Yes, four figures in one picture. Not like the Mona Lisa, which Li Bing would have done in no time.

‘The rocks are easy to paint, but not the angel or that  woman,’ he remarked.

‘The woman?’ I enquired. ‘You mean the Virgin Mary?’

‘Oh, is she the Virgin Mary?’ Li Bing took a closer look at ‘the woman’. ‘But she has the exact same face as Mona Lisa! She has got the same hairstyle as Mona Lisa, and the same eyelids! Even the neck is the same: short and thick!’ Li Bing cried out.

I glanced at the tiny image on his iPhone. Well, Li Bing was not completely wrong. Virgin Mary or Mona Lisa, she was probably drawn from the same model da Vinci had used. Who knows?

‘Anyway, the angel is complicated to paint. Her wings are barely visible, and all that fabric!’

Angels. We had Feitian in our mythology—flying ladies in the sky playing musical instruments. Feitian would also be complicated to paint, with their floating figures and elaborate robes.

Li Bing promised me he would try to finish it as soon as he could, on the condition that he would need to drink with his friends and play card games every afternoon and evening. I said no problem. I would wait, if it was only three days.

Li Bing gave me a discounted price for this da Vinci piece: 380 yuan. That would be around fifty US dollars. I was happy with the deal as long as he let me film the whole process. Though I did wonder to myself—if he must play card games for half of the day, when would he have time to paint? Only in the early mornings?


Family Economy

Right) family economy. What about your children? Will they have the same job when they grow up?
– No way! They will have to get an MBA!

It was almost noon when I woke. I had a quick wash and went to the same roadside stall for breakfast. I ate two eggs: hard-boiled in green-tea broth. This was something I had always eaten in China, especially in the mornings. While I ate, stray dogs and hens wandered around me, looking for scraps of food. I threw half an egg to a hen, and watched the chicken eating a chicken egg. Doing so reminded me of the old conundrum. Which came first? The chicken or the egg? I stared at the chicken, momentarily mesmerised, and imagined that in devouring the egg it gave the answer.

It was already afternoon. I decided that I must check how Li Bing was getting on with da Vinci. But when I got to the studio, I saw Li Bing’s son playing outside. He was targeting a cola bottle with little stones. I asked where his father was, he informed me that he was still sleeping. I went inside anyway. In front of a large half-white canvas, I found Li Bing’s wife leaning forward, working on a painting.

There were four figures sketched onto the canvas. Their composition seemed to be set with pencil marks: the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, the infant John the Baptist and the angel. The rocks were not there yet. Nor any plants. Holding a small brush, the wife was colouring Mary’s blue dress. She left her face untouched. I stared at the faceless Mary, a bit perplexed.

The wife, in her mid-forties, seemed to know her job well. From time to time, she picked up her phone, and enlarged the image to check some details. She then applied the paint onto the canvas. When she saw me, she greeted me with a Sichuan accent:

‘Here you are! Li Bing drank so much last night, I thought I should speed things up!’

I was curious to see the way she painted.

I ate two eggs: hard-boiled in green-tea broth. This was something I had always eaten in China, especially in the mornings. While I ate, stray dogs and hens wandered around me, looking for scraps of food.

‘Where did you learn to paint?’ I asked, and at the same time took some photos with my phone.

‘Where? Right here!’ She pointed to the floor she stood on. ‘The first three years after I married him, I would just stand behind him while he painted, watching how he did it. Then a few years later, I thought: I can do that too. So I started to help. Since then we have four hands to earn a living, not just two!’ She laughed. And then added: ‘The government encouraged family economy, and we followed!’

‘Right, family economy. What about your children? Will they have the same job when they grow up?’

‘No way! They will have to get an MBA!’ She laughed again, loudly. I could hear the kids in the background playing video games.

I observed the way she painted Mary’s robe—the dark and complex folds, the soft drooped edge. Did she think about perspective? Or the direction of light? Then suddenly I noticed that she was using Chinese ink on her colour plate. She ground an inkstick in a mortar, and applied the natural ink onto Mary’s dark dress. I was astonished. The Chinese inkstick was used for traditional ink-wash painting. I didn’t expect to see it used for a Western oil painting.

‘So you prefer to use stone ink rather than black oil paint?’ I enquired.

‘Oh, I dislike black oil paint. It’s too thick, too dead. Chinese ink is better,’ she answered, her eyes not moving away from the canvas.

Too thick, too dead. Chinese ink is better. I brought out my notebook, writing down her words. Then I praised her skills, and began to do some filming. It was not until much later in the afternoon that her husband got up. Heavily hungover from the night before, his first words shouted out through the turpentine-filled air:

‘Wife! Cook some porridge. No alcohol today! Just porridge with pickles!’



– When are you going to paint the halos?
– What halos?

The next morning, the sky remained grey and dark, and the air was suffocating. A huge storm was building somewhere in the South China Sea. The weather report warned of a typhoon that would arrive in the afternoon. Strong winds swept every movable thing in the streets. The uncollected wooden frames and canvases were scattered about like dried leaves. Workers rushed out from their shops to rescue the tools of their trade. I could see a tall tree swinging violently at the far end of the street like a marionette on a string.

With his wife’s help, Li Bing had almost finished the four figures as well as part of the rocky landscape. By evening, he was working on the chubby body of baby Jesus—in fact I doubted if he knew the baby was Jesus. Would it change anything, though, if he learned who was who in this image? I didn’t want to interfere. Instead I just observed the way he painted Jesus’s arms. The two raised fingers of the left hand, a characteristic Leonardo gesture. Li Bing slowed his pace down, his brush hesitated and made a subtle movement here. The dusky light descended, bringing cool breezes into the stifling studio. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem keen to go out tonight.

The next morning, the sky remained grey and dark, and the air was suffocating. A huge storm was building somewhere in the South China Sea.

‘I drank too much last night. Puked twice.’ He burped.

I could smell garlic on his breath.

‘I can finish the background details tonight, then it can dry tomorrow.’

I nodded, and continued to film him working. But when I looked closer at the painting, I saw that neither Mary nor Jesus had a halo around their head. So I reminded Li Bing:

‘When are you going to paint the halos?’

‘What halos?’

‘The circle of golden light around their heads!’ I pointed to Mary and Jesus. ‘You know, the thing a saint would usually have.’

Staring at his work, Li Bing looked confused. Then he took his phone from the stand, and studied the image carefully.

‘Ah, halos!’ He was exasperated. ‘I didn’t see them until now. The picture is so small on my phone!’

He put down his phone and looked again at his work. Hesitantly, he said: ‘Do you really think we need to add the halos? I mean, everything is great on this painting, but halos? They make the picture look amateurish. No one has a halo! People would think that was naughty graffiti from my son!’

I didn’t object to his view on halos. Without them, I should pay less for the finished product, but I didn’t want to say so. He had let me film whatever I wanted—that was more important than adding two halos to the picture. In the middle of our conversation, rain had started spraying through the halfopened windows. A paper napkin blew onto my camera lens. Then all of sudden, a great mass of water came down from the sky. Li Bing and his wife got up and rushed to close all of their windows. His wife hurried out to buy candles.

‘There was a power cut twice last month—we’d better prepare!’ She ran into the street with the rain now pounding the ground with a wild din.

‘You’ll probably need to wait two more days for the paint to dry,’ Li Bing added. ‘With this weather, it will stay wet, unless you buy me a new hairdryer!’

Okay, a new hairdryer. I nodded, without a word.


Excerpted from A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo, with the permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2020 by Xiaolu Guo.

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