A River Without Boundaries

Gu Xiong recalls the beginning of his Red River project, and it's connection to his personal history.

When I returned to Chongqing, China in the summer of 2000, a friend of mine invited me to a karaoke party at his home, and the song “Red River Valley” caught up my attention. The Canadian folk song was very popular during 50’s and 60’s in China and was prohibited during the Cultural Revolution.

This was my first time hearing “Red River Valley” in over 25 years. Through the song, that period re-emerges, realistically evoking my life experience, passion and thought. Memories of my life in the countryside leapt out of the fading song: a turbulent frenzy, then empty loss. Confusion and mindless obedience intertwined to shape the fate of a whole generation.

The karaoke image with Chinese subtitles of the Red River Valley song was not the image from the Red River, but instead, the Rhine River. I was shocked by the twisted situation, the irony and humour related to our present time of globalization. My inspiration sparked and I wanted to see these three rivers.

First, I went to Qingxi River, a small river that merges into the Yangzi River, in the Daba Mountains of southwest Sichuan province, China. It is a rural area where I spent four years of my youth during the Cultural Revolution. It has persisted in my dreams.

In 1972, at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, I was 18 years old and sent with millions of youth from urban centres to isolated farming communities to be “re-educated” by peasants. There were no roads, no electricity, no radio and not enough food to eat. Life was difficult. Everyday we worked hard in the fields, from sunrise to sunset, without knowing when we would be able to leave.

When we were lonely, the most interesting thing to do was to sing songs. At the time, we were only allowed to sing revolutionary songs, but in the reality of the countryside, these songs could no longer awaken our passion. Instead, everyone liked to sing Western folk songs, “Red River Valley” being one of them. These songs were filled with our longing for home and spoke of uncertain futures.

“From the valley they say you are leaving,
I shall miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For you take with you all of the sunshine,
That has brightened my life for a while…”

Suddenly I felt past and present coming together, my youth and middle age overlapping: I had entered a place without time.

China is now one of the largest markets and people hunger for consumer goods, creating a powerful mutual attraction. Urban centres are expanding, while rural areas shrink both in size and wealth. A dramatic social and cultural transformation is being carried out by the economic powers.

Red River is a link to my youth in China; it is full of romantic dreams. When I traveled on the Red River, I felt its peacefulness, which would last until its flooding season, when it would carve new paths surrounding it. It is also a place of Métis, a hybrid space for a new culture. The history of the Red gives me double meanings that can link my Chinese and Canadian lives.

“Come and sit by my side if you love me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
But remember the Red River Valley,
And the cowboy who loved you so true…”

Finally, I went to the Rhine River, one of the most important waterways in Europe. It originates in Switzerland, runs down from the Rhine Full, crosses Lake Constance and continues its tumultuous course to Basel. It passes through Strasbourg and Mainz and then the massif of the Rhineland at Cologne. In Holland, it finally flows into the North Sea. The Rhine is important for shipping and transportation, bringing multiple countries (Holland, Germany, France and Switzerland) and languages together. It is a borderless river.

“I’ve been waiting a long time my darling,
For the sweet words you never say,
Now at last all my fond hopes have vanished,
For they say you are going away…”

As we move towards global uncertainty, these three rivers’ past and present represent various histories, geographies, economies and cultures transformed through cultural entwining, splicing, convolution, and idiosyncrasy. They merge and emerge together virtually. These rivers map out a process whereby cultural clues serve only as mutations, aberrations, and misquotations.

When the water comes together there will be a river. A virtual river is coming from inside of me that is not on the map. It is a metaphor of boundlessness and hybrid space. I flow with the river; I become a drop of water. Water knows no boundaries in this world.

“As you go to your home by the ocean
May you never forget those sweet hours
That we spent in the Red River Valley
And the love we exchanged mid the flowers…”

— Gu Xiong, 2008